Sunday 10 April 2011


Hotel Palenque is Elsewhere: on Jonathan Monk’s Hotel Palenque Sign
by Pablo León de la Barra

“The existence of most of these ruins was entirely unknown to the residents of the capital; - but few had ever been visited by white inhabitants; - they were desolate, and overgrown with trees. For a brief space the stillness that reigned around them was broken, and they were again left to solitude and silence.” (1)

“This is also in front of the new part of the motel structure—it’s both a motel and a hotel I guess, it’s hard to tell the difference between a motel and a hotel when you come to a structure like this. They seem to intertwine with each other, and lose each other and cancel each other out, so that there is no possibility of knowing where you are.”(2)

In 1969, Robert Smithson traveled to the Yucatan, accompanied by his wife, Nancy Holt, and gallerist Virginia Dwan. During the trip, he made the work Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, whose title was inspired in Incidents of Travel in Yucatan(3), an illustrated publication about the voyage undertaken by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (1841–1842), who were the first to document the Maya ruins of the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. Incidents of Mirror-Travel… is a land-art piece in which Smithson placed twelve 30 x 30 cm mirrors at nine different sites in the Yucatan’s landscape and documented them in photographs. The piece exists as documentation, including a text, photographic record and map indicating the sites of the “dislocations.” Indeed, the piece only exists in reflected space—in the space created between site, mirror, camera and reflection. “If you visit the sites (a doubtful probability) you find nothing but memory-traces, for the mirror displacements were dismantled right after they were photographed. The mirrors are somewhere in New York. The reflected light has been erased. Remembrances are but numbers on a map, vacant memories constellating the intangible terrains in deleted vicinities. It is the dimension of absence that remains to be found. The expunged color that remains to be seen. The fictive voices of the totems have exhausted their arguments. Yucatan is elsewhere.”(4)

On the same trip, Smithson and Holt visited the ruins and town of Palenque in Chiapas. There they stayed at the now mythical (thanks to Smithson) Hotel Palenque, where Smithson made a series of photographs. The building intrigued him more than the Maya ruins reconstructed for tourists that they had originally planned to visit. In 1972 at a conference at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Utah, in Salt Lake where he had made his large-scale Spiral Jetty, Smithson showed students the Hotel Palenque pictures. The conference was taped and turned out to be a mixture of academic talk, ironic show of travel pictures, and performance. Smithson used the hotel’s state, half-construction and half-ruin, to introduce and explore a series of concepts that interested him: entropy, “de-architecturization,” de-differentiation, ruins in reverse, the “broken look,” Maya baroque, building without plans, the lack of a center, the absence of direction, intertwinings and superimpositions. The hotel defies western rationalism given that “…it just grew up sort of like a tropical growth, a sort of Mexican geologic, man-made wonder.”(5) Smithson also made sometimes ironic analogies between what he found at the hotel and the work of various artists: “I feel that these tiles are much more interesting than most of the paintings being done in New York City right now, showing far more imagination.”(6) Some half-destroyed floors reminded him of Piranesi’s drawings, the texture of a door reminded him of Jasper Johns, and a set of half-open doors, of Marcel Duchamp. Moreover, the pictures and the conference contained unmentioned analogies to the work of artists from his generation: Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Gordon Matta Clark, among others. As if all the art made in New York City already existed anonymously at Hotel Palenque, which, once its features had been pointed out by Smithson, had become the Palenque Museum!

Smithson died in a plane crash on July 20, 1973, while surveying the construction of his Amarillo Ramp in Texas. It remains unclear whether Smithson thought that his conference in Utah should be presented as artwork, or what its ultimate fate should be, since many of Smithson’s works exist as photographic records or texts in publications, but did not exist in the space of a museum or gallery. The piece was not shown, as we know it today, until 1993, when it was featured in the James Lingwood-curated show The Epic and the Everyday at London’s Hayward Gallery. It is from then on that it began to acquire cult status. In 1999, Hotel Palenque, a projection of thirty-one 35 mm slides with sound from Smithson’s taped conference, was purchased by the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Jonathan Monk’s(7) piece Color Reversal Nonsite with Ensuite Bathroom, built in Mexico in 2009 (forty years after Smithson’s trip to Palenque) is a stainless-steel sign (240 x 250 x 130 cm) in which the letters of “Hotel Palenque” appear upside-down, as if they were an inverted reflection of the original sign in Smithson’s photograph. In Monk’s piece, the sign is actually upside-down and backwards, following the same logic needed for a slide to be properly viewed when projected onto a wall, whereby it has to be inserted upside-down and backwards in the projector. Monk’s chrome-plated sign reflects its surroundings just like the mirrors in Smithson’s Yucatan trip. The sign can also be moved and installed at different sites or buildings. For Monk, who never visited the hotel or town of Palenque, this hotel is a non-place and exists only in one’s imagination, in the space constructed between the slide, its projection and the audio of Smithson’s voice describing the hotel.

Likewise, for many other people, Hotel Palenque only exists in their imagination. The piece was not shown in Mexico until November 2006, at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS Although I didn’t see it there I’m really curious about the public’s reaction after seeing and listening to Smithson’s piece. Jennifer Teets, the SAPS’s then-curator, tells me I should take a look at the exhibition’s comment book to gage the audience’s opinion. I can kind of guess that, in a country in a constant state of tension between a desired modernity and a present that is crumbling on a daily basis, a building like the one Smithson shows would seem quite ordinary.

I first found out about the Hotel Palenque’s existence in 1997; when I was studying in London, I found a magazine at the university library, with an article by Philip Urpsung(8) talking about Smithson’s hotel. Soon afterwards, I found the Parkett issue that features a transcription of Smithson’s conference and a text by Neville Wakefield about the Hotel Palenque piece.(9) For a long time, I tried to see the piece. In 2002, I went to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds where the piece was part of the exhibition The Object Sculpture, curated by Tobias Rehberger, Joëlle Tuerlinckx and Keith Wilson. But the piece was not there. There was only a title card on the wall, with a text that said that the piece was part of the show, but had not been lent by the Guggenheim. I was finally able to see it in the summer of 2003, in The Structure of Survival, curated by Carlos Basualdo as part of the 50th Venice Biennale. Unfortunately, the piece was a video instead of a slideshow, and the audio was faulty. I finally saw the actual work in 2005 at the Open Systems exhibition at the Tate Modern. I was very disappointed when I saw it, though I was familiar with the images and practically knew the text by heart. Listening to Smithson, with his mocking tone (the text itself is ironic, but it’s not the same as listening to him), he seemed like the cliché of a gringo, condescending and paternalistic.(10)

When I visited the Hotel Palenque in 1999, it had changed—it was more modern, the concrete block façade that appears in Smithson’s photographs had been covered and painted with yellow stripes. It had another floor. The interiors were still pretty much the same; the floor of the hallways and some of the furniture was identical; there were still live turtles in the fountain at the entrance, and the pool was finished. Just like when Smithson had visited the hotel, it was still under construction, and also still decaying. As Smithson had done, it was still possible to make analogies between the hotel and the work of contemporary artists, this time from the 1990s (Gabriel Orozco, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger, etc.). Thus the real hotel kept functioning as a living, entropic museum in continual transformation. I climbed up to the roof, and saw the hotel had a new sign, inspired in the original one. The latter, documented in Smithson’s photographs, was laying there, abandoned on the roof. I thought about stealing it, but it was really big… to this day I still regret not having taken it.

1. John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Vol I, Harper & Collins, New York, 1843, p. iii.
2. Robert Smithson, “Hotel Palenque” in Parkett #43, March 1995, p. 121.
3. Artforum, September 1969, pp. 28–33, reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, pp. 119–133.
4. Smithson, Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, 133.
5. Smithson, Hotel Palenque, 119.
6. Ibid., 121.
7. Jonathan Monk was born in Leicester, UK, in 1969 and lives in Berlin. In 2005, during his residency at the British School in Rome, he exhibited two original photographs of artist Alighiero Boetti’s mythical One Hotel on Share Nau (Chicken Street) in Kabul, Afghanistan, along with a film. Since he could not go to Afghanistan himself, Monk sent an 8 mm film camera to Mustafa Sahibzada so he could film the lakes of Bandi a Mir, where Boetti had asked his ashes to be scattered. In 2007, Monk opened Lira Hotel at the Sonia Rosso Gallery in Turin, borrowing one of the names Boetti had considered for One Hotel (other names Boetti had contemplated were Es Hotel, Ghilim Hotel, Letohotel, and El Mansour Hotel). Lira Hotel consisted of a sign with the name of the hotel on the gallery’s façade, and a room inside the gallery where anyone could stay by purchasing a limited-edition piece by Monk for 70 euros—the price of one night’s stay at an average hotel in Turin. Smithson’s Hotel Palenque (1969) is from approximately the same period as Boetti’s One Hotel, which was open from 1971 to around 1978; however, Smithson’s piece is about the fortuitous encounter of an artist-tourist, who finds a synthesis—a kind of reflection-mirage—of his aesthetic concepts in a hotel. In turn, Boetti’s One Hotel was a business, a home, a studio, a workshop for his embroidered maps and, above all, a place to escape to.
8. Philip Ursprung, “Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque,” Daidalos #62, December1996, 148–153.
9. Neville Wakefield, “Yucatan is Elsewhere, on Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque,” Parkett, #43, March 1995, 133–135.
10. A pirate video document of Hotel Palenque made by Alex Hubbard can be seen at

Jonathan Monk, 'Color Reversal Nonsite with Ensuite Bathroom', 2009
donated in 2010 by Jonathan Monk and Casey Kaplan Gallery to the Museo Tamayo, Mexico

See the photos I did on Google Maps of Hotel Palenque here!


  1. are so good on the way you looking at all this
    special places, sites, lugares y zonas!!
    lets prepare text and slide show for eme3!

  2. "I thought about stealing it, but it was really big… to this day I still regret not having taken it."

    Brilliant! X