In a hotel, we make ourselves at home without taking root. Our temporary tenancy collapses the distinction between the nomadic and the domestic. We are moving but also standing still, taking refuge in a place to which we don’t quite belong. Public and private worlds collide as intimate domestic spaces — bedrooms, bathrooms, wardrobes — become impersonal and foreign.
In Guest Relations, Robyn Stacey turns her attention to the metaphoric particularities of this spatial threshold. She populates hotel rooms and holiday rentals with discrete narrative vignettes or leaves them unoccupied and in a state of undress. Here, the collision between public and private space is assigned material presence. In each photograph, an inverted view of the world outside is projected onto the room’s interior.
These panoramic views are not digitally fabricated and superimposed during postproduction, they are created by a camera obscura. A proto-photographic optical device, the camera obscura produces colour images that accurately replicate scale and perspective. Light enters a darkened and enclosed space through a small aperture and projects a mirror image of an external view onto a wall or screen. By blacking out the hotel windows while leaving a tiny hole uncovered, Stacey allows urban and coastal landscapes to spill into her scenes.
The images produced by Stacey’s camera obscura are distorted by the uneven, angular surfaces of the hotel interiors. Buildings tilt at odd angles, highways bend off course and rooftops stretch. Slightly skewed and upside down, the city pulls away from the real and becomes pure spectacle.
Room 2015 Pullman Hyde Park, Brielle 2013type C photograph 100 x 128cm. Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney
This encounter between the city and the hotel interior is facilitated by two concomitant photographic procedures. Capturing and projecting an image through the refraction of light, the rooms have themselves become cameras. This photographic ‘event’ has then been recorded by Stacey on a digital Hasselblad. Between a hole in the wall and high-end digital equipment, these photographs reconcile opposing ends of photography’s history and map the dynastic lineage of photographic technology.
While digital photography offers increased control over image production, the camera obscura forced Stacey to relinquish some of that control. The projections are fragile, their legibility completely dependent on the position of the sun in relation to both the view and the window. Changes in weather or quality of light dramatically affect the mood of the interior. Over the course of each shoot, there were only a few hours during which the inverted vistas were visible. Even then, they required long exposures to be registered by the camera.
During such long exposures, Stacey’s subjects had to keep perfectly still. This stillness is inscribed in the tone of each photograph. A stagnant inertia hangs in the air. The figures slip into a lethargic reverie as time distends.
Imbued with sombre dramatic tension, these photographs edge towards the voyeuristic (peephole and all). We know nothing about the people in these rooms, where they have come from or what they are doing here. We can only speculate, interrogating the minutiae of their personal lives that have infiltrated the neutral space of the hotel. One man meditates, another stares out at the city with a pair of binoculars, a woman studies a collection of black and white architectural photographs, dreaming of other spaces.
Invoking projective backstories through peripheral narrative details, Stacey’s photographs emit a cinematic sensibility. It is possible to tease out this connection further. These images speak to cinema and the cinematic in the way they anticipate action, but also in the way they depict immersive image spaces. In the cinema, we give ourselves over to a virtual environment that is not bound by the constraints of physical geography. We project ourselves into the space of the image, travelling into and within the landscape of the film while never leaving our seats.
Film scholar Giuliana Bruno pursues this idea, defining cinema spectatorship as a form of ‘travelling-dwelling’1 and describing the cinema as a ‘travel space’ that turns viewer into ‘voyageur.’2 To clarify this point, Bruno draws a parallel between the spectatorial conditions of the cinema and the function of panoramic wallpaper within domestic settings. Popular during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, panoramic wallpaper unsettled the division between interior and exterior space. Enveloping interior walls in images of landscapes or scenes of travel and adventure, panoramic wallpaper ‘enabled one to venture outside by staying inside, to be in one’s own room and yet, at the same time, in an imaginative elsewhere.’3 According to Bruno, these wallpapered rooms anticipated the “travel space” of the cinema. Unlike other forms of landscape imagery that filter into the domestic environment (like frescoes or tapestries), the segmented panels of panoramic wallpaper (pre-emptively) echo the fragmentation of filmic montage.4 The inhabitant of the wallpapered room is like the cinema spectator. Both are induced into a state of travel-dwelling.
The same can be said of Stacey’s figures. Surrounded by images of the outside world, they experience the same peripatetic stasis as the cinema spectator. But there is added complexity here. The metaphoric and the actual coalesce, for Stacey’s subjects are not simply virtual travellers — voyagers navigating a projective image space — they are also literal travellers. Like the projections that dance across the walls, they are untethered. Eventually they will move on and someone else will call this place home.
A hotel room is an architectonic binary, a privately public space bound by the logic of both movement and stasis. Guest Relations accommodates this duality. Stacey’s series of travel-dwelling tableaux metaphorically explicates the networked dialogues between outside and in, action and inertia, the enclosed and the panoramic.
But these are not the only dialogues that unfold in Stacey’s photographs. As the illuminated city views pierce the pitch-black hotel interiors, the nocturnal space of the hotel is contaminated with light. This dialogue is inherently photographic. In analogue photography, where images are mediated by the film negative, light and shadow cross paths. An exchange takes place as the film negative inverts the image. Working across the tension between light and shadow, Stacey metaphorically re-enacts the photographic process and produces a tacit study of photographic ontology. That this should spill out of a camera obscura, an antiquated proto-photographic device, seems quite fitting really.
1 Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press p. 27
2 Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso p. 16
3 Ibid p. 169
4 Ibid p. 166
Commissioned to accompany the exhibition Guest Relations
Stills Gallery, Sydney 9th October – 9th November 2013