At 12:02 Friday morning, an oddball crowd gathered in Room 3a of the posh Lowell Hotel, on New York’s Upper East Side. There were Asian hipsters in black hoodies, elegant young women in high French fashion, and helmet-haired ladies who looked like art collectors. (Which they were.) The room’s visitors didn’t know each other, and didn’t want to: they milled about in silence, engrossed in reading note cards set beside strange objects peppering the suite. In the bedroom, a red wedding dress was laid out in state, with a card telling a sad tale of bad marriage. The kitchenette featured a rubber banana poised beside two testicular scoops of fake ice cream, reproducing a rude dessert once presented to a young woman, according to its card. The living room featured an old perambulator pushed up by the window, a wedding cake on the coffee table, and a taxidermied cat on the sofa.
And in an armchair in a corner sat the one “exhibit,” without note card, that no one seemed to notice much: our host, the eminent French artist Sophie Calle, who had assembled objects from her past as the contents of her latest project, appropriately titled Room and on display without a break until Sunday at midnight. “It’s just a little something,” she explains, “I didn’t spend three years on it.” Some of the installation’s details, she explains, were only dreamed up the previous afternoon, soon after her arrival from Paris. She’d come to participate in the Crossing the Line festival organized by the French Institute and Alliance Francaise. “It’s a light little idea—although we did have to find the hotel,” Calle says. “I had to find a performance—which I don’t usually do—for the festival.”
Calle will be inhabiting the room at unannounced times over the weekend. A note on its door invites visitors to put out the Do No Disturb sign after they enter, if they feel a desire to commune more privately with Calle. (For a maximum of 10 minutes, however.) “I couldn’t just be there, so people could watch me wash my hair. It needed to have a poetic or artistic reason,” she explains, speaking in a fast and fluid bourgeois French.
Calle is 58, still very attractive but clearly once a real beauty. Her black hair is in a fashionable bob and she sports 1960s kitten glasses above a retro dress in a bright safari print. With excellent legs sheathed in pointy black pumps, she looks more like a stylish Parisian matron than the famous avant-gardist she really is.
Calle has built her reputation on pieces such as the photos of strangers’ messes that she snapped while working undercover as a hotel chambermaid. For another piece, she invited a host of friends and acquaintances to sleep in her bed—a project that is presented in exhibitions as a grid of photographs of people abed. At the 2007 Venice Biennale, Calle made a splash with a wickedly funny project in which she took a brutal Dear Jane letter she’d received from a lover and subjected it to the scrutiny of women from every walk of life. (A video showed a champion markswoman shooting the note full of holes—literally; a wall text from an etiquette maven laid out just how rude the jilter had been.)
Room is even more confessional than Calle’s earlier projects, but it is also curiously quiet, less angry than sweetly melancholic and nostalgic. The hotel room’s “guests” are strangely quiet, too, and wildly polite as they traipse through. It’s as though they’re in one of those house-museums filled with mementoes of a great artist or thinker, where hushed reverence is in order. Calle, such a presence in her other pieces, here could almost be a ghost attending her own wake. (One of the objects on display is the deed to her funeral plot.) Calle laughs nervously—very—when that reading’s put to her: “I’m not ready to occupy that plot—not at all, at all.” She advances a reading she prefers, in which visitors are like detectives, tracking down the story of her life. “For me it’s more about the scene of a crime—it’s not a hotel room, because there aren’t usually 20 people in a hotel room.” In fact, there are more like 12 guests present when she says this, although the steady flow looks set to continue into the wee hours. (In 2003, when Calle set up a bedroom on top of the Eiffel Tower, she’d expected maybe 100 visitors to come to her bedside; something like 16,000 showed up. She’s not promising anything, Calle says, but she imagines maybe spending Friday or Saturday night in bed at the Lowell, as a kind of Sleeping Beauty exhibit.)
On Friday at 12:23 a.m., one visitor, an elegant senior who chose not to be named, says that she had “dragged three people here who thought I was nuts. It’s fantastic. I’m a fan of hers. She pulled this off, as she couldn’t in a gallery.” A 55-year-old man who gives his name as Willie says that he went to art school himself, and—“as a substitute for not making art”—he still attends many shows. He praises this one’s peculiarity: “It’s midnight, and this is a real place. It’s not been made up.”
Sheila Gaillard, a 33-year-old New Yorker who’s a stylist for photo and video shoots, says she first came across Calle’s work by accident, in a gallery in Montreal, and has been seeking it out ever since. “It’s raw. People don’t make work about this. No guy ever goes that deep.” And she doesn’t mind the late-night viewing. “Of course you have to come at midnight—it’s a midnight rendezvous with Sophie Calle!”
At a few minutes past one, the jet-lagged artist decides to head out for the night, confessing that it’s strange to leave others behind in “her” room. “Good night everyone,” she calls out as she leaves. “Sleep well.”