“Every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? … Hotels are superstitious places. No thirteenth floor or room thirteen, no mirrors on the back of the door you come in through. Stuff like that.” – Stephen King, The Shining, 1974
There is something about the peculiar nature of hotel spaces that allows them to generate temporal palimpsests. Something about their fleeting transience, their simultaneous intimacy and foreignness, and their uncanny shifting between utter banality and sublime unknown. This is even more so when one inscribes the hubris of modernist/colonial/dictatorial ambition upon a space like a luxury hotel. When they crumble, they generate a time loop caught between petrified history and entropic decay. This is a condition dealt with in different ways through recent artworks by James Webb, Liza Grobler, and Guy Tillim.In the essay Historicism in The Shining, American literary critic and Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson speculates on the nature of the evil that pervades the Overlook Hotel and consumes Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining1Jameson is not a fan of the source text and refers to King’s book as ‘mediocre’.. For Jameson, this force is one of History:
“The Jack Nicholson of The Shining is possessed neither by evil as such, nor by the ‘devil’ or some analogous occult force, but rather simply by History, by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and dismembered suites of this monumental rabbit warren.”
Jameson suggests that this past that occupies the Overlook Hotel manifests itself through the American ‘roaring twenties’. He describes this period as “The last moment in which an American ruling class projected a class-conscious and unapologetic image of itself and enjoyed its privileges without guilt … in full view of the other classes.” It is of course the period immediately preceding the collapses of the Great Depression.
Jameson suggests that this accounts for the consistency2This reading doesn’t work with the original novel, where the ghosts are rooted in their own disparate time periods. This seems to be part of why Jameson doesn’t like the book, accusing it of lacking a coherent ideological message. of the various spectres which haunt the Overlook. All who succumb to the lure of the forces at work within the hotel return as entities reflecting that particular era. Examples in the film include the murderous previous caretaker Delbert Grady (who Jack encounters as a waiter) and then Jack’s own tuxedoed appearance in the ‘Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball, 1921’ photograph in the film’s cryptic final shot. Jameson’s argument is that these patriarchal figures are driven into familicidal insanity by a nostalgic desire to return to a time when the prevailing narratives rendered them vital rather than spent.
James Webb’s video installation Three Dreams Of The Sinking World is ripe with overt and subtle allusions to Kubrick’s film, transposing its setting to the Carlton Hotel in downtown Johannesburg. Rather than the American roaring twenties, the ghosts which haunt the corridors and leisure rooms of the Carlton Hotel are tied to another moment of unabashed class consciousness: the height of apartheid’s decadence and global ambition during the 1970s.
Constructed to sell the idea of apartheid Johannesburg as “the African city of modernity par excellence” – to quote art and social historian Fiona Siegenthaler – the entrenched connotations to capital and luxury made it a recurring symbolic location for key moments in the transition to post-apartheid. Most notable of these perhaps, is the ANC’s victory celebrations in the 1994 election, when Nelson Mandela delivered his famous Free at Last speech. Athi Mongezeleli Joja’s commentary – one of three commissioned by Webb to accompany the video installation3Webb commissioned these responses for an exhibition at POOL in 2019. The other two were penned by Khanya Mashabela and Mika Conradie. Lindiwe Matshikiza expertly read all three as recorded audio commentaries that played in the gallery space.– makes the case that this succumbing to the seductive appeal of the opulence that the Carlton historically represented marked a decisive point where “the distance between ‘the people’ and the leaders all of a sudden became so palpable”.
Webb appears to astutely convey this shift away from actualised post-apartheid transformation in the second of the three video vignettes. Here the viewer is slowly, agonisingly pulled backwards into shadowy recesses, as the glowing Exit shrinks further and further away into the distance. There’s certainly a strong element of The Shining’s anthropomorphising of the Overlook here: those haunting red elevator dials that appear to be watching the viewer throughout the film are channelled in Webb’s work through the smoke alarms on the Carlton’s ceiling. The coup de grâce is the arcing spatter stain on the right-hand wall moments before shadows envelope the viewer from behind.
While the overtly class-based phantasms are not necessarily blatant in the tacky peeling walls and patterned carpeting of the 26th floor, they vehemently assert themselves in the first vignette which depicts the dying palms and empty hot tubs of the rooftop pool and entertainment area. A sense of uncanny persists here, but it is far more of a Smithsonian horror than a Kubrickian one, recalling choice moments from Robert Smithson’s infamous Hotel Palenque lecture. In particular, the point where Smithson muses (tongue firmly in cheek) over an empty swimming pool, suggesting that its exposed sharp stones “call up fears of human sacrifice and mass slaughter”.
Where the vignettes that comprise Webb’s work foster a sinister sense of being watched, there is a distinctly different sense of haunting calm in Guy Tillim’s photographs of the hotel in Mobutu Sese Seko’s palace at Gbadolite; included in the recently published photobook Hotel Universo.
Invariably, any discussion of Historical ghosts haunting the architecture of the DRC is going to center on the three figures of Leopold II, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Patrice Lumumba. Tillim has extensively documented the ways in which architecture speaks to the collapse of these regimes elsewhere. The 2004 exhibition ‘Leopold and Mobutu’ – a body of work from which the new images of Gbadolite are presumably derived – examined how the complex interrelation of the former two is embedded in the Congolese sociopolitical landscape. ‘Avenue Patrice Lumumba’ from 2008 looked at the spiritual pervasiveness of the latter throughout a number of postcolonial African cities.
Hotel Universo has different goals. It is about capturing a sense of the experience of being immersed in the depicted environments. Tillim’s decision to print the images in black and white sets them apart and bestows them with an uncanny impression of existing outside of time. The black and white shifts the images’ focus to the interplay of light and shadow, emphasising textures and the sensorial in a way that colour is simply unable to.
Consequently, Tillim’s photographs of the Red Room nightclub and bar, connected to Mobutu’s private five star Bamboo Palace hotel, are imbued with a sense of liminal otherworldliness that transcends mere ruin lust. In contrast to other images in the book of statues in the overgrown palace gardens, the mural-decked walls, couches and modern art of the Red Room still feel intact– at least at the time that they were photographed in 2003 – and ready for an impending evening’s entertainment. It is the sense of an empty space that still feels populated which gives the room its haunting qualities. 4It’s possible that some of this has to do with the fact that unlike the Carlton and the Deelfontein Yeomenry, areas of Mobutu’s palace are still inhabited, informally housing soldiers and families of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As with the Overlook’s infamous Gold Room, the sedimented traces of the past in Mobutu’s Red Room encapsulate the unapologetic enjoyment of (dictatorial) class privileges and leisure. After Jameson, our suggestion has been that hotel ghost stories are created by a palimpsest between the tensions of History and Entropy. As is wont throughout Tillim’s photographic work, the Red Room photographs strive for a truth that perpetually sits just outside of its contradictions.Of the three artists under discussion here, Liza Grobler has the distinction of being the only one to work with a former hotel space actually believed to house a ghost. The apparition in question, one Joseph Adamstein, is said to wander what little remains of the Yeomanry Hotel in the tiny Karoo village of Deelfontein, lamenting the lack of hotel guests by playing his violin. The village was the site of a British field hospital built during the Anglo-Boer War, resulting in a cemetery with 134 graves. The hotel was intended to accommodate soldiers’ relatives visiting to pay their respects, but the foot traffic was greatly overestimated and it fell to ruin; as is the recurring theme with the hotels in this piece.
In both video artwork and immersive installation form, Grobler’s Voices from a Divided Fountain furthers the artist’s fascination with the ways in which materiality can channel the intersecting facts, fictions, and worlds inscribed upon a site. Grobler uses music and rhythm as a means of reflecting the march of time and the disparate narratives of History. Ticking metronomes recur throughout the video, their pulsing clicks often set to different tempos, creating an unnerving series of discordant polyrhythms. Pegged to fences, oversized sheets of Afrikaans folk music tussle with the wind, attempting to resist being lost to the landscape forever.
These could be read as ruminations on the tensions between cultural heritage and cultural complicity in the wake of History, but there’s also something poetic about considering them as offerings to console the ghostly Mr Adamstein. The phrase ‘playing a song on the world’s smallest violin’ comes to mind here, and in fact perfectly encapsulates the forlorn woe which perpetuates the psychogeography of all of these entropic monuments to hubris.
For her part, Grobler adopts an empathetic tone, bookending her video work with shots of burning sage as a means of sedating the restless spirits tied to steadily disintegrating ruins in an indifferent Karoo landscape. Tillim and Webb follow Kubrick’s lead and opt to leave things indefinite and ambiguous. Stephen King ends his book by burning the Overlook down.