Lewis Bush, Welcome to the Hotel Santa Maria

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Softcover (21×29 cm), 36 pages, with 17 black and white photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. In an open edition. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lewis Bush, a British artist, curator, and educator, works across media and platforms, often bringing together his work in photography, video, text, data visualization, videos, and apps. He explores the “ways to visualize powerful agents, practices and technologies, and the links that connect them.” In the past few years, Bush has published a number of photobooks, including Metropole (reviewed here), in which he considers the destructive impact of the construction boom in London, and Shadows of the State, where he explores the practices and technologies of espionage.

Occasionally he also releases zines, touching a range of topics, and during the lockdown, Bush published a series of pandemic inspired zines. These small publications are based on projects made directly or indirectly in response to the ongoing events. One titled Latent Labour is based on images produced at the height of lockdown, where Bush documented fingerprints on various products in an attempt to detect traces of possible COVID contamination. 

Welcome to the Hotel Santa Maria, the first in the series, gathers together photographs Bush took while he was travelling in Cuba in March, just as pandemic started to force people to stay inside. As Bush was driving to the north coast of the island, buses with tourists were leaving in a rush in the opposite direction. For most of the trip, he was staying with locals, but the spread of the virus left him with no other option but to stay in a hotel. The zine depicts his night in an abandoned Cuban beach resort.

The publication is a medium-sized zine printed on recycled paper, with its title placed on the cover atop a blurry photograph of palm leaves, and the welcoming words stand in contrast to the dark visual flow that follows. Shot with a XA-2 compact rangefinder, the grainy, high-contrast photographs are printed full bleed, creating a continuous dark atmosphere. The opening text by Bush sets the dramatic mood for the narrative that follows. “I awoke from unsettling dreams to find myself in the midst of pandemic. <…> At the resort we were among only a handful of guests, our tally diminishing by the hour.” 

Bush’s rough photographs turn the luxury beach resort into a surreal, almost nightmarish experience. He documents abandoned scenes, stripped of life and movement, that are often quiet and disturbing. One of the first spreads depicts a small wooden bridge leading to the water, and while on a normal day it probably has a pleasant view, shot at night, it points into uninviting darkness. Another spread captures rows of white chairs and tables – flash lit and reduced to their repeating shapes, they look messy and dramatic, just like the unfolding pandemic. 

Almost every photograph alerts us that something is off. There are shots of cracked pavement, empty dishes left under a palm tree, an abandoned performance stage, these finds occasionally interrupted by claustrophobic close ups of palm trees. A few spreads later, Bush offers neatly arranged rows of empty white wooden chairs – a place that is normally packed with people has turned into a ghost scene. The last image in the zine is a blurry shot of the beach at night – we can hardly guess where the line between sand and water belongs, and there is no clear way out. Bush describes the experience of staying at an empty resort as a cross between The Shining (the horror film by Stanley Kubrick, based on Stephen King’s novel) and J.G Ballard’s Vermillion Sands (a series of bizarre science-fiction short stories set in an imaginary vacation resort). 

Welcome to the Hotel Santa Maria turns a dream-like resort in Cuba into a surreal and creepy scene, forcing us to reconsider the most banal and familiar of things. Bush has quickly become one of the leading proponents of the zine form – it’s an excellent vehicle of casual personal self-expression, and relatively easy to produce and share – and this zine finds him exploring how a simple change of perspective (day to night) can turn a project in an unexpectedly unnerving direction.

Collector’s POV: Lewis Bush does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    Very cool book and review. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Cuba I can definitely identify with these photos.

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