I have been mostly sceptical of the endless links to online exhibitions I’ve been receiving since the beginning of the pandemic. As someone who temporarily freezes when encountering a shock or a crisis, and then slowly regains the ability to respond, the last thing I wanted to do was click through images of artworks online. I believe it’s important to move beyond our initial reaction to a crisis—since those reactions are often too raw, unsettled, primal, and driven by fear—as well as the urge to avoid uncertainty or helplessness. I find it rare that those responses (especially to a situation that is unprecedented) are the most productive. I really struggled with the ease in which exhibitions were moved online through installation shots and hefty curatorial texts. I was frustrated and more so, disappointed. Why opt for convenience and transfer the experience of art into the one remaining shared space of the internet? Isn’t this an easy way out? I personally needed time to contemplate how this shift online could open up and demand new methodologies for reflecting on art. And so, I did not see any online exhibitions until I saw ‘Hotel Happiness’.
Curated by Paul Chapellier, Beverley Gadsden and Miriam Naeh, ‘Hotel Happiness’ brings together works by Paul Chapellier, Bronte Dow, Saskia Fischer, Beverley Gadsden, Payne Crencil, Gabriella Hirst, Tamar Katz, Daniel V. Keller, Tomasz Kobialka, Yushi Li, Yen Chun Lin, Kineret Lourie, Ross Ludlam, Hamish Morrow, Miriam Naeh, Ariel Narunsky, Eleni Odysseos, Jenna Rothstein, Sasha Tamarin, Sonja Teszler, Sofia Albina Novikoff Unger, Camille Yvert and Rafal Zajko. The show started off as a means to gather together a community of artists, mostly from Goldsmiths MFA programme, spread around the world and stuck at home. The interactive exhibition, created on Artsteps, is accompanied by a website that mimics the language and the experience of browsing through hotel websites. It assembles various concepts and themes from different hotels, giving the audience the opportunity to be a visitor in this fantasyland.
Trying to navigate through the exhibition, I felt disoriented and had some technical issues which, though annoying at the time, felt intrinsic to the platform. I did not know where to start or where to go; my attention was divided between the artworks and the details of the virtual space I was occupying (the granite walls in one of the rooms, the signs on the floor telling me where to stand, the blue sky). Overwhelmed and confused, I decided to take the tour. The uncanny feeling of the tour, in total contrast to the premise of the exhibition name, stresses the impossibility of existing in this space and the absurdity of it all, enriching the experience of the artworks in each room. For instance, at Hotel Happiness, Gabriella Hirst’s melodramatic singing performance invokes a feeling of abandonment and solitude rather than the anticipatory dynamism of a reception lobby. I found it easier to engage with the video works, rooted in a long habit of watching things online, and wish I had been able to take a closer look at Zajko’s wall sculptures or Odysseos’ and Crencil’s paintings.
We are going through a time when our movement is limited and the notion of hospitality has a very different meaning; our bodies are playing host to a virus, while we are unable to host or be hosted in domestic spaces. Experiencing a virtual hotel that hosts artworks and artists as its guests does something powerful. I realise I haven’t thought about these temporary homes in a long time. And ‘Hotel Happiness’ provides this hospitable space—despite the limitations of the digital sphere. Daniel V. Keller’s ‘Towel Series’ (2018), with industrial logos and affirmative statements, is a playful touch on a symbol of hospitality and an apt portrayal of this hospitable, yet uncanny experience.
Having started in May and living through different stages of the pandemic while working on the project, Naeh says, they also witnessed how the internet was suddenly abandoned when people started going out to see physical shows. I have been feeling the same way about the internet lately: a half-abandoned space which we occupy with who knows who else.
We need to rethink the digital space. We need to work with its potentialities and limitations. However, I also think there has to be a reason or a drive for using the digital space in the specific way that we do, not simply because it can’t be done in another way. Perceiving the digital sphere as an authentic space is important. ‘Hotel Happiness’ does that in abundance. The works are site-specific, produced for the digital environment.
“I’m a very physical artist, even when I make videos,” Naeh says. As a member of the audience, I felt the physicality of the works because the exhibition paid heed to the agency of the digital space. And this gives me hope that the future of the digital doesn’t have to be so dull.