Hotels – their lobbies, bars and rooms – have always provided fertile territory for storytelling. There’s the 1932 classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grand Hotel, which gave us Greta Garbo’s immortal, melancholy plea, “I vant to be alone”, for example. Or my personal favourite – Sofia Coppola’s early 2000s Lost in Translation – that so beautifully evokes the loneliness and ennui of being a stranger in a strange land, as well as the heady excitement and delicious thrill of the brief encounter abroad.
Given that her practice often centres around notions of “social alienation and isolation, the relationships, or lack thereof, between people, and the potential narratives that occur in the everyday …”, it’s no surprise that Singapore artist Sarah Choo Jing would be inspired to create a series of works set in hotel rooms, which she has titled Accelerated Intimacy.
Debuting in 2018 in an eponymous solo exhibition at Yeo Workshop, Accelerated Intimacy comprised an immersive installation that transformed the entire gallery space into a hotel (including a working “lobby bar” serving whiskey and cocktails (!), a hotel corridor and room), a 5-channel video projected onto the walls and furniture in the “hotel room”, photographic prints, as well as selected objects from the video.
The series presents 5 different characters, each a solitary figure occupying a generic, cookie-cutter room in one of several hotels in Singapore. In the video, the characters enact elusive narratives, speaking lines from classic movies in film history, which the artist then mixes and splices together to create a textual collage of found dialogue. By constructing uncanny coincidences between the characters and their frames, the artist enables the hotel guests to be in apparent conversation with each other. Yet at the same time, they remain strangers, separated in time and space from one another.
The work lends itself to a multiplicity of readings, revealing little about the histories of the characters and leaving ends deliberately loose, the narratives unresolved. By its very open-endedness, it invites the viewer to enter into the work and to give free rein to our imaginations, weaving our own biases, hopes, expectations and personal histories into the spaces between the stories that these strangers share.
At an artist talk organised by the gallery during the exhibition in 2018, Choo explained that she has always been fascinated with hotel rooms and the transient nature of the encounters that guests have, both with the space they occupy, as well as with each other. Having travelled widely and stayed in various hotels in different cities, Choo’s curiosity was sparked by snippets of conversation among the occupants of adjoining rooms that she would sometimes overhear, as the sounds seeped through the hotels’ thin walls.
She started to reach out to these strangers in hotels, writing them little notes that she would slip under their doors. As you can imagine, some of her neighbours were creeped out and complained to the hotel management – but others responded, writing her notes back. Some even wrote poetry or sent her doodles. These sometimes led to face-to-face conversations with fellow guests, often over drinks and lasting several hours. Choo describes these transient encounters as moments of “accelerated intimacy”, where genuine, albeit brief, connections were forged.
“That experience with a stranger. It’s so real, but the same time in the morning, everybody checks out, and it’s gone. You don’t see them again.”
Revisiting Accelerated Intimacy in 2020, at a time when the scourge that is the COVID-19 pandemic has forcibly wrenched us apart from one another, into physical isolation and perhaps, emotional alienation, the work feels uncannily prescient and deeply resonant. While the notion of solitude is, at first glance, the common thread that runs through the series, the underlying truth that it speaks to more deeply is the longing and desire for connection and intimacy that characterises us, as human beings.
Feature image: Sarah Choo Jing, Accelerated Intimacy (Joshua), 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Yeo Workshop.