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Silent hotel opens its doors to art

The spirit of the Schweizerhof as expressed by the artist.

(Chantal Michel)

Swiss artist Chantal Michel is breathing new life into an empty five-star hotel in the capital, Bern, with her evocative photographic and video exhibition.

The venerable Schweizerhof closed its doors at the beginning of this year but, after being inspired in a dream, Michel decided it was the perfect place for her to work.

The exhibition, which runs this weekend, October 22-23, is the culmination of several months work. Michel is fascinated by hotels as a backdrop for art and has become a regular fixture in the Schweizerhof day and night.

The artist took swissinfo on a tour of her work on the fourth and fifth floors of the hotel which overlooks the square in front of the main railway station. There is an eerie sense of time standing still in the building with little trace of the activity that once filled the place.

Michel finds the atmosphere quite melancholy. "It's very quiet and it's hard to react to that silence. I don't feel ill at ease here but it's so sad because it's so quiet."

When she has a new environment to work in, 37-year-old Michel looks for ways to react to the space and create a dialogue with it using her body. Then she captures that expression in a photograph or on video.

"It's always me in the image because I have to live and react with the moment. I have to experience that myself."

Anonymous figure

In the Schweizerhof images, Michel's face is normally obscured by her body position or one of the many wigs she wears. The figure is not necessarily recognisable as the artist and she thinks of the figure in the third person.

"There is a lot of my personality in these images but it is another person - I speak about her. I don't see myself at all there. I also have to learn what the image tells me."

The photos reflect the atmosphere of the hotel - empty and without emotion in an artificial environment. The prints are placed in the room or corner where the picture was taken, creating a double-take effect.

What Michel likes is that her videos and photographs prompt many questions but do not provide the answers. There is a mystery within each one.

The inspiration for the Schweizerhof project came indirectly from a dream. "I had a dream in the spring. I dreamed an exhibition in every detail. The exhibition was perfect, I just had to do it."

Michel looked for venues for a while knowing she needed an abandoned house to carry out her work. Then she heard about the Schweizerhof closing down and decided to come and visit.

"The first day I came here I fell in love with the place. I thought I absolutely have to work here. I wrote the manager a letter asking him to let me be the little spirit of the house. The next day I had the keys."

It was not the exhibition from the dream that Michel went on to create, because that would have required radical changes to the building. But in the Schweizerhof, she has produced some of her most simple, pared down work.

House guest

During her time working in the empty hotel, Michel has become friendly with the manager of Jack's Brasserie, a restaurant in the same building. Orlando Grisoni accepted Michel's proposition to work in the hotel without any hesitation.

"Madame Michel explained herself very well and showed lots of enthusiasm. We felt it was important for us to leave a trace of what the Schweizerhof was and to think about the hotel again in a positive context," Grisoni explained over coffee in his brasserie.

"We in the restaurant enjoyed having our house guest and we've become attached to her. We will also enjoy people coming to see the exhibition, whether it is out of fondness for the hotel or interest in art."

Grisoni spoke of the plans for the very large site that the hotel occupies.

"The hotel, with its 90 rooms and suites, will be turned into office space and we also hope to create a new conference centre because the location is ideal, just next to the train station."

Michel has certainly left her mark on the forgotten rooms of the Schweizerhof. "For me there is a lot of heart in this exhibition because I worked here for so long. I hope that comes out."

As part of her mission to reinvigorate the hotel, Michel spent last Saturday on the roof in a statue-like pose. This is a performance element of her work that expresses her sense of separateness.

"I like the sense of being cut off from the world, I don't want to be always reachable. For me the performance on the roof is another way to bring back life to the hotel and I feel I owe the place that."

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea

Key facts

Chantal Michel's exhibition is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, October 22-23, at the Schweizerhof in Bern.
The video and photographic work will be displayed on the fourth and fifth floors.
Some photos come from an earlier exhibition in the Hôtel Scribe in Paris but most of the art on display was created for and in the Schweizerhof.
The five-star hotel closed its doors in February 2005 after 147 years in business.

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