Consider the hotel a portrait of its occupants: not trapped in the limitations of a frame but enclosed into a representation of an ideal that edges the real. Très Henry James. Like an elusive scent that envelops its wearer in senses of transience and ineffability, ambiguity, and promiscuousness, spritzing to mind Dominique Ropion’s Portrait of a Lady, the hotel sets adrift images of otherness that blend and distort (over) time. Meaning is made malleable in the hotel-goer’s fluid mind. The space takes over as a centre of consciousness. Inside the hotel one sees their character develop in the vagaries, or vagueness, of social experience. Hotels frame the desire to dwell in the deliciousness of leaving home, or leaving behind ideas of home, and so certain versions of ourselves, in order to momentarily curb the platitudes of being, feel out one’s foreignness, and experience the pleasure of being alone in a crowd: the peak alterity of all manners of space that refuse to settle into any specific signification. The deep interiority of the home is cast aside to make space for flirtation, disposable assignations, restless ideas. Set against the psychopathology of the streets, hotels offer the shimmer of psychic respite. Though the potential for alienation is high, these lobbies, reiterated rooms, and dimly-lit bars provide splendid vistas for, if not experiencing, then observing—or lingering within an ideal of—life. Vista here is the commanding word: more than denoting the mere panoramic in its Italianate sense, the hotel opens a mental view to a succession of events, memories and anticipations, possible escapes, alternatives: “the infinite vista of a multiplied life,” as James would have it. He goes on to describe such swindling existential vistas as dimly-lit dead-ends, as a realist quand même, yet for present purposes we might consider hotel vision on par with perfume’s catoptric notes and impressions: absolute, reflective, drunk on its own scents. In hotels we ask nothing of life but linger in its felt diffusions.

Now let us check into the Normandy Hôtel.

Imagine its perfume as constructed in the synaesthesia of rosewood-coloured carpets, diaphanous curtains, and peeling wallpapers, and the surrounding city’s late-autumn petrichor, cigarette smoke, dust, and decomposing leaves. Cloying roses steal the air from small suites, within which beds are clad in floral voile; the balustrades leading to them are waxed lyrical: a shining. Doused in this twilit atmosphere is the second iteration of the Salon de Normandy at the eponymous hotel on rue de l’Échelle, organised by The Community, an independent and collective-run institution devoted to the espousal of emerging artists. Neither directly public nor private, the hotel’s digressive hallways became the locus of The Community’s fair format from a desire to infuse the act of viewing art with an ambiance of intimacy. Basking in the hotel’s historical imaginary, its instabilities, drifts and digressions, and eerie ability to make social boundaries dissolve, the Salon sought to provide a platform for art within the contained comforts of a place where certainty could safely fall apart. Such idealised expressions are necessarily luxuriant but at least provide a pale flame to hold against the cold mien of a contemporary world where certainty has indeed fallen apart. The city has dulled to a halt. Yet as the atmosphere outside hangs heavy with precariousness, chaos, and continued seclusion, the hotel remains fixed in its convictions, or, to paraphrase Chandler Burr’s perfect line: ‘implacably refuses to surrender its smell.’

The Salon is ultimately an experiment in proximity, depth and diffusion, slightly stunted due to the global crisis. The format has inevitably changed in response to the ongoing pandemic. But central to the organisers’ logic, even—or especially—with limited numbers, distance, and curfews in mind, is the characterisation of a space capable of blurring categorical distinctions: self and stranger, seclusion and togetherness, assurances and equivocations, as well as those between various cultural sectors. Projects range from community building efforts, like exchanges and swaps, screenings, a tattoo studio, t-shirts, and reconstitutions of the suites, to more classical interventions, exhibitions, interactive sculptures, mixtapes, experimental music, live sets, and displays of archives and ephemera. Private encounters and soft exchanges, basically, laid out in the afterglow of a long year. The art fair’s exhaustion complexions are revived by giving the rigid format a rest.

Text by Sabrina Tarasoff