“The hotel lobby accommodates all who go there to meet no one.”
Writing in the early 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer identified the hotel lobby as a site of singular emptiness. Guests came here to escape the rigidness of everyday life, and to dispense with the various costumes of the professional and social sphere. But instead of arriving at authentic communal experience, they found themselves drifting in mutual purposelessness. In the hotel, their estrangement from one another was more palpable than ever; their performance of leisure was patently absurd. The very decor — from the dreary red carpet to the smooth, reflective countertop — seemed tailored to encompass these superficial interactions. Yet, as Kracauer insisted, this realization was not necessarily a dispiriting one. Temporarily detached from practical life, one could gain awareness of its precarious foundation. The critical observer might be able to restore to it “a sort of language.”
In her book of writing and photography, Wenxin Zhang takes the hotel lobby as her entry point. Beast By the Waterfall Guesthouse begins with a trio of vacant, muted scenes from the interior of an old hotel. In certain respects, these are spaces of accommodation: twin beds are made neatly with white blankets, awaiting potential guests. But such arrangements throw into relief the eerie emptiness of these rooms. In the absence of human figures, the residue of previous tenants rises to the surface. Barren white walls reveal a faint discoloration; a pink rolodex is partially used. The rooms are saturated with the same debased activity that Kracauer described in his century-old writings. Zhang, in her own writing, considers how previous guests might have passed time in these spaces: “they further tainted the space with puffs of smoke, then proceeded to produce a complete set of milky white mahjong tiles from their suitcases; or, they dialed some mysterious number to summon an unknown woman of average looks, then spend a wet night together.” The tally has an almost comical bleakness, but the effect is not entirely disheartening. From this vantage point, she takes the opportunity to reframe, to disfigure, and to make strange.
By distorting traditional images of leisure and tourism, Zhang upsets the value system that we typically attribute to travel. Returning to the image of the hotel, we see the dark brown, shadowy door of our designated hotel room. It appears tight enough to detain a prisoner. Beside the doorway is a photograph depicting an iconic site: the twin towers on Jingting Mountain. Yet the image is so wrinkled and overlit that its content is barely legible. This kind of distortion is analogous to Zhang’s practice. As the subject of her work, she takes sites that may ordinarily possess some kind of tourist currency— from cosmopolitan cities to natural landmarks. In these images, however, the perspective is situated so remotely that the effect is one of disorientation rather than voyeuristic pleasure. Watching from afar, a city is reduced to a luminous cluster. We feel it is familiar, but we are given a strange and vulnerable position from which to view. Our immediate surroundings are dark and uncanny.
If we return to the scene of the hotel lobby, we find that the porter is missing. Perhaps he is around the corner, or outside smoking a cigarette. With no one to attend the front desk, we feel that the security is at risk: Who will turn away strangers, undesirables, and miscreants? Who will distinguish guests from trespassers? In a sense, Zhang prefers to send the porter home early, leaving the spaces open to any sort of intervention. When figures do appear in the series, their identities are held in suspension: bodies are curled in a protective posture; faces are concealed. We see limbs without the face of the proprietor. An erect male member is held under water, and small, delicate hands feel about in the manner of inspection. The figures are also literally in suspension: they are floating in the still water of a bathtub or submerged in shallow end of a pool. Light extremities— hands and hair— rise to the surface, but there is rarely a face to examine or a gaze to return.
One image, however, is distinguished by its relative directness. From pink, fleshy lids a dark blue eye emerges in the center of this image. But the gaze does not belong to a human. We are confronted with the frosty face of a horse, whose matted fur brings him to the foreground of a barren, snowy landscape. An affinity with beasts is an underlying current in this series, where concepts of communication and reciprocity are made uncertain. In the hotel interior, there was a poverty of exchange in which guests merely produced and received empty glances. With the capacity for interaction battered, Zhang takes this opportunity to present the viewer with a perhaps troubling alternative. A classic philosophical distinction between man and beast is in the capacity to return the gaze. Animals, in this human-centered system, are relegated to tame or wild— they can only respond to commands or perceive threats. But to think beyond this system is to realize one’s inner primal interiority. An affinity with beasts is what truly shatters the notions of organized, regimented society.
Once again we return to the hotel lobby. Behind the desk is a quaint analog clock. It’s minute hand is blurred, caught in the moment just before striking 12. Time serves a limited range of functions in the hotel: at the base level, it dictates who is a guest and who is a trespasser. Money of course plays a secondary role here, but it is time that serves a dominant, binary function, one that keeps the hotel running smoothly. Such a strict conception of time brings one to a contemplative state. In the images that follow, there are alternative conceptions of time which, as Zhang writes, “wage war against speed and order.” Time as a river that relentlessly flows— this old analogy is extended in her images: Time is also depicted as a waterfall, made visible only by its violent conflict with the guiding stone; time is frozen into an upturned icicle; it is made viscous in a slow drop; it is impregnated with eggs; it is isolated in an otherwise empty snowscape, an oval of stagnant green against endless white space.
Beast By the Waterfall Guesthouse ends with a brief collection of stories, adding an ambiguous autobiographical element to the series. Like the preceding photographs, they occupy a slippery space between the documentary or hypothetical. The narrator recounts what are perhaps memories from a simpler youth. Upon first impression, she seems to yearn for a pure perspective, one that might act as an antidote to the present emptiness. On the contrary, the mere suggestion of returning to one’s origin is exactly what produces the most profound disorientation. Nostalgic stories come to invest the images with an uncanny effect. In the proper Freudian sense: the images mix the familiar and the strange. Freud began his classic study by examining the unheimlich, a term which, after years of linguistic change, had come to collide with its opposite meaning. As the multiple meanings suggest, the strangest sensation is not necessarily the least familiar one. In fact, what feels or appears strange might paradoxically bear traces of the familiar. In certain respects, Beast Behind the Waterfall Guesthouse is a story of returning to one’s origin— a comforting state lost to the pressures of the everyday. But Zhang is highly ambivalent about this search, as she demonstrates (obscurely) in certain images: a moist and sticky spider web suggests the trap of origin; an upturned tree has its roots exposed, where human hands emerge and grope around. These images are powerfully affecting yet vaguely satirical. They continue in the uncanny theme that permeates the entire series.
“I can no longer remember the last time I came upon a completely strange place.” The Freudian uncanny brings the viewer back repeatedly to the familiar place, though each time it appears more severely distorted than the last. The narrator refers again and again to the ideal 90s, to the thrill of travel and the excitement of new experience. At the same time, this narrator also describes with cool detachment the behavior of the adults around her, and the debased nature of social life. It is worth noting that the central site of nostalgia here is the hotel itself— the quintessential site of transience and constant flux.
 Kracauer, Siegfried, and Thomas Y. Levin. "The Hotel Lobby." The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, p.173, (1995). Print.