Every morning an army of women mobilises. Through the arterial corridors they disperse, pushing their trolleys, carrying their buckets. A chorus of polite knocks and doors are pushed open – the guests are at breakfast or perhaps already checked-out. It is during this in-between time the women get to work; straightening the bed-clothes, replacing the toiletries. Like hitting ‘refresh’, the rooms return to their pristine default. All this goes unnoticed by the guests, who have become so accustomed to this service, they receive this continual renewal as if it occurred automatically, or by magic.

In her new series Caroline Walker breaks this spell and confronts the viewer with the hidden side of the hotel industry. This is a departure from her previous works which dealt with the (imagined) glamourous home of LA wives; now the artist shows us the work and the women that lie behind the perfect appearance of these luxurious spaces.

Caroline Walker, The World's Your Oyster, Palazzo Capris, Turin,2018

That such women were invisible in her previous images, whilst the results of their labour were always present, should be noted. Domestic space is multivalent – one woman’s home is another’s place of work – and in this series Walker makes a concerted effort to expand her depiction of the relationships between the home (or home-like) and the female. Her choice of the hotel as an area to explore this duality is interesting. Hotel rooms are quasi-domestic, mimicking the function of a house whilst being as unobtrusive and unindividual as possible to cater for the widest clientele: they are in effect a home to nobody, not least the transient population that frequents them. In this unnoticed space the staff are rendered doubly invisible: whilst in the past one knew one’s personal maids, the traveller has no relationship with the faceless hands that maintain their temporary home.

Caroline Walker’s paintings are a direct attempt to make us notice these overlooked people and visualise the invisible relationship between the physical place of this female labour and the underlying structures that govern the workers’ positions. Walker combines acuity with an eye for the poetic: her brushstrokes are bald but beautiful, giving just enough information to make plain the reality of what she has seen whilst leaving enough for the viewer’s imagination. Her own act of witnessing, shadowing these women as they went about their daily tasks, is translated to the viewer as directly as though she opened a window into her memories. One joins her in this consented-to voyeurism: peering round doors, standing just behind or outside to allow the women to work undisturbed, so as to record their experience faithfully.

In her endeavour, Caroline Walker follows in the footsteps of the Berwick Street Collective and their radical documentary Nightcleaners Part 1 about the campaign to unionise the women who cleaned office blocks at night. Walker’s documentary methodology and self-reflexivity in implicating both herself and the viewer in the processes of precarious and invisible labour put her work within the collective’s aims. However, it is also possible to read Walker’s paintings through more recent representations of such labour on film. Her behind-the-scenes aesthetic will be familiar to viewers of television reality documentaries such as BBC’s ‘Inside Claridge’s’ which have gained popularity in recent years. Light and frothy, these programmes offer up the luxury hotel as an escape, but in the form of an unfolding secret: the pleasure for the viewer is seeing how the façade is created. Walker’s paintings utilise this aesthetic to lull her viewers into a false sense of security before presenting the much less rosy reality. The creeping voyeurism and sense of unease one feels looking at her works – feeling as though one is seeing something one shouldn’t see – challenges our complicity with the conditions of these women’s labour and the way their work has been erased from our consciousness. Caroline Walker’s paintings are gentle and bold; beautiful but unapologetic in their depiction of work, leaving the viewer in no doubt that their experience has been aesthetic and political.

Artworks in this exhibition