Standard Room


No. 12, from Standard Room, Wang Wei, 2008

There is perhaps an unintended irony in Wang Wei’s choice of the title Standard Room. Despite the uniformity implied by the moniker Standard Room each of Wang’s photographic portraits of hotel attendants within the rooms that they are responsible for are highly individual, attesting to the broad interpretation of ‘standard’.  Existing on the periphery of China’s economic success, Wang’s women work in the State regulated ‘standard rooms’ offered by the local hotels in service of China’s twenty-first century gold rush.

The year of Wang’s birth, 1976, saw the end of the Cultural Revolution, the death of the Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four, led by Jiang Qing.  Having been brought up in the post Mao years of economic and social liberation one might assume that this young artist would have been drawn to the more glittering and eccentric aspects of contemporary Chinese society, such as the cos players depicted in the photographs of Cao Fei.  Instead, she has chosen to focus upon the ordinary and the overlooked: identifying each portrait and location only by numbers, this series of large scale portraits taken within local hotels forces us to confront our assumptions about Chinese society obtained through the medium of Chinese contemporary art.  These photographs focus upon the unknown and ubiquitous aspects of Chinese society that appear to be obscured by manifestations of post-Cultural Revolution angst, indictments of cultural iconoclasm and conspicuous consumption that currently vie for attention in the apparent radicalism of Chinese contemporary art.  Wang’s work suggests a turning away from these preoccupations through an absence of affectation, theatricality and rhetoric.  However, this turning away is of itself an act of radicalism; Wang’s focus on the ubiquitous hotel attendant categorizes people once more as workers, a restitution of the socialist ordering of Chinese society, and not as a nation of aspiring conspicuous consumers, yet Wang avoids monumentalizing her subjects as heroines of socialism, revealing them in all their fragility, frustration and stoicism.  The women of theStandard Room series draw attention to the impact of economic change upon the lives of the subsistence workers of Chinese society, from the frustration and hopes of the young to the endurance and resignation of the old, all of whom are excluded from the sphere of conspicuous consumption by their low salaries. 

Choosing to depict her subjects within their working environment Wang presents us with the ambiguous, physical space of the hotel room, one of Michel Foucault’s heterotopic spaces, [1]indeterminate locations which are seemingly accessible to all, but are in fact restricted and closed.  The rooms are not merely places of temporary accommodation but are also the locations for the forms of human activity and interaction that traditionally do not or cannot take place within the home such as the wedding night, the tryst, the business meeting or the holiday, exceptional events are outside the normal run of daily life.  Wang’s hotel attendants minister to these exceptional events, yet their own association with these public yet private places are ambivalent.  Each room has been cleaned and arranged by each attendant and differs significantly in terms of quality, style and layout, from the sleek, contemporary interior of No. 2 to the extravagance of materials that appear within the dour interior of No. 15.   The only element that appears to be out of place within the photograph is the awkward presence of the hotel attendant.  Wang’s sitters appear to be ill-at-ease, not only with presence of the camera lens but also with their surroundings despite their familiarity with every detail within in the room, the quantity, position and arrangement of every glass, towel and bed cover.  Neither a paying guest nor a property owner, these women have no place within the room itself, a fact giving rise to the palpable tension present within these portraits.  In No. 12 Wang’s attendant poses uncertainly in her scarlet hotel uniform, an elaborate pastiche of Chinese traditional dress, her gaze averted.  Whilst her presence is central to the image, we are drawn to the objects in the room around her, which, together with the uniform, have been carefully selected to convey an impression of elegance.  However the intended harmony is disrupted by the commonplace laminate panelling, doors and doorframes and the chipped, tiled floor. The objects in the room appear flattened, their shadows neutralized by the cold, even light.  By contrast, the interior depicted within No. 10makes no pretence at luxury or elegance.  Within this photograph the hotel attendant appears to be overwhelmed by the room itself.  Once again, the young woman’s gaze avoids the camera, her face expressionless, but her body betrays her unease, her hands folded unnaturally, appearing ready to break her pose at any moment.  The foreground is dominated by a simply made bed, covered with a plain white sheet whilst the hotel attendant perches uncomfortably on the edge of a second bed, dressed as fashionably as her resources allow.  A grey light filters through the window behind her, a treeless, featureless urban landscape barely visible beyond the window’s wire mesh.  In No. 14, prematurely aged by the severity of her attire, Wang’s attendant stands with her hands hidden behind her back.  Her sombre clothing and solemn demeanor lie in stark contrast to the incongruous extravagance and opulence of the reds and pinks of the furnishings within the room.  The woman possesses the same air of unease displayed by fellow attendants, aware of the impropriety of her presence in the room outside her function as a cleaner.

Financially constrained from participating freely in the market economy maturing around them, Wang’s individuals are tied to their standard rooms.  Her photographs uncover the complex associations and relationships present within the public/private heterotopic space of the hotel room and the ambivalent relationships between the attendants and their rooms.  Unsentimental and anti-heroic, these portraits draw upon an aspect of contemporary Chinese culture that is neither controversial nor sensational yet is nevertheless engaging.

Davina Lee

© Davina Lee 2008 

[1] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Diacritics, 16:1 (1986: Spring), 22-27.