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The Real Story Behind Tilda Swinton's Performance at MoMA

Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images

There she lies: a woman stretched out on a white mattress, encoffined in glass like Vladimir Lenin. Yet despite the deathly pallor of her skin Tilda Swinton is only asleep, or pretending to be. She’s fully dressed, in a plaid button-down shirt and jeans, with grimy sneakers on her feet. And all around her are spectators with smartphones, posting images of the movie star online or else alerting their friends: forget Starry Night, forget Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Tilda is here today!

Welcome to the Museum of Modern Art, circa March 2013—which after years of struggling with contemporary artists has now ceded the terrain to someone who isn’t really an artist at all. The Scottish actor’s very tame performance piece, which bears the faux-ponderous and ungrammatical title The Maybe, is being presented at irregular intervals and various locations throughout the museum this month, and while it’s of no special artistic interest on its own, it’s certainly worth seeing if you care about the future of the museum. Contemporary art is exploding in ways that older, larger institutions like MoMA are struggling to handle—and while they flail, a counterfeit avant-garde is rushing in to fill the gap.

First things first: Tilda Swinton, as if you needed me to tell you this, is not an innovative artist. Not only are images of sleepers nothing new in art, from Vermeer and Watteau to Courbet and Warhol, but sleeping in a gallery holds no special novelty. It’s been over four decades since Chris Burden, the fearless and confrontational California performance artist, presented his Bed Piece (1972), in which he stripped off, lay on a mattress, and snuggled up.1 Unlike Swinton, who comes to the museum on random days and only remains on view for a couple of hours, Burden had the tenacity to stay in the bed for the entire length of his exhibition—for 22 straight days. “I had a strange power around me, sort of like a bubble or a repulsive magnet,” Burden explained in a 1974 film that documents the work. “Most people wouldn’t come close to me. In fact, most people seemed frightened.”

Burden understood that performing an act as anodyne as sleeping can be elevated to terrifying extremes: quite the opposite of Swinton’s game. And other artists who have slept in galleries, from Marina Abramović to Chajana denHarder, have done so in order to discomfort viewers; Swinton, on the other hand, seems to ask only for quiet contemplation. But if quiet contemplation is your thing, then there are paintings upstairs that’ll be much more rewarding.

Swinton’s MoMA performance is not, in fact, even an original. It’s a remake of an earlier version of The Maybe; the wall text at the museum gives the date of the work as “1995/2013.” Here’s the back story, since you won’t get it at the museum. For a 1995 retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Cornelia Parker, one of the original Young British Artists who’s probably best known for her 1991 sculpture Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, filled the galleries with vitrines containing relics and ephemera from noted figures of history. Visitors to the museum saw the brain of the early computer scientist Charles Babbage, a quill once used by Charles Dickens, a bank check signed by Virginia Woolf, the pillow from Dr. Freud’s couch, Wallis Simpson’s ice skates, Turner’s watercolor palette, and on and on. During preparations for the exhibition Swinton approached Parker—not the other way around—and asked to collaborate. Originally she planned to dress up as Snow White (really, she did), but eventually the two agreed that Swinton would appear in modern dress. She slept in the gallery for one week, eight hours a day.2 And the museum was packed.

Swinton, then 35, had already starred in Sally Potter’s Orlando and in several films by Derek Jarman, the pioneering gay director for whom Swinton was a kind of muse. But her modest celebrity, in that 1995 performance, was a functional component of the work—she became an artifact, as curious and charged as Napoleon’s rosary in the next gallery. The fact that sleeping in a gallery was by no means innovative, that Burden had done the same more than two decades previously, was less of an issue. The live celebrity was as visible, but also as inaccessible and arbitrary, as the dead men’s things.

None of that matters at MoMA in 2013, it seems; none of that has even been discussed by the museum or art publications, to say nothing of TMZ (their headline: “Breaking Snooze”). It was Parker’s work that made Swinton’s more than just a performance cliché, and without that context it’s hard to see the new The Maybe as anything other than an empty gesture by a movie star with an incomplete command of art history. (The 2013 edition is unquestionably Swinton’s own work; indeed, MoMA’s wall text for The Maybe credits only Swinton, not Parker.) But who needs more than that? Swinton, now 52 and with an Oscar to her name, has won more press coverage for MoMA in the last week than even Munch’s The Scream was able to manage, and with its perfectly Instagrammable scale it will be on every social media feed of yours for a long time.3

If you’ve been following the trials of New York’s troubled modern art museum for the last few years, you won’t be at all surprised to discover that the Swinton performance has been masterminded by Klaus Biesenbach, the museum’s showman of a “chief curator at large” and director of MoMA’s hipper kid sister, PS1. MoMA still clings to an outdated organizational structure, siloing curators into departments of painting and sculpture, photography, architecture, and so forth. And as contemporary art often fails to conform to those divisions, the free-floating Biesenbach has got his hands on more and more territory.4 His popular but artistically disastrous Marina Abramović retrospective—which restaged the Serbian artist’s groundbreaking early work with new performers, reducing her art into some kind of hipster karaoke night—must have struck a chord with the museum’s highers-up, because since then he’s turned to performances that no one would qualify as art at all. He invited Kraftwerk, the Dusseldorf electronica outfit, to perform in the museum for a week. (“These aren’t concerts,” Biesenbach told the New Yorker. “It’s a retrospective; it’s curated.”) He even “curated” a performance of the band Antony and the Johnsons at Radio City Music Hall, during which MoMA’s Twitter feed spat out news of celebrity arrivals, including one … Tilda Swinton.

Biesenbach is something of a party animal, and he has a noted taste for celebrity: here with Kylie Minogue, there with Hedi Slimane, and everywhere with James Franco. But bringing Swinton to MoMA, and as an artist and not an actor, might mark the apogee—or nadir—of the museum’s Biesenbach era: avant-garde in appearance but void of substance, and privileging celebrity and buzz over anything more enduring. It’s a scary new phase to which Tilda Swinton’s wheeze testifies, one wherein the creation of a scene matters much more than the creation of a work of art. But at least some people are not fooled. The best review might have come from Gaby Shorr, 24, from Brooklyn, who was interviewed at MoMA by the New York Post: “I think because I know more about art, I’m not that interested.”

  1. And this was a tame one. Burden’s other noted performances from the 1970s include Shoot, for which a friend shot him with a .22 rifle, and Trans-Fixed, which saw him crucified on the trunk of a Volkswagen.

  2. Not everyone was impressed. Brian Sewell, the archconservative critic of the Evening Standard, called The Maybe “a feeble and utterly self-indulgent performance by two inadequately educated women,” even going on to wonder, “Are women capable of coherent thought?”

  3. There’s also the matter of MoMA’s programming style: They’re refusing to announce when Swinton will perform, so if you want to see the movie star, you’d better come every day. According to the Wall Street Journal, that opacity is Swinton’s decision, but I can’t imagine MoMA is displeased; maybe you should consider a membership!

  4. When Biesenbach walks away from the spotlight, he isn’t an untalented curator. At PS1 he presented an eye-opening exhibition on Mexican art in 2002, and his astounding 2005 exhibition Zur Vorstellung des Terrors, at the Kunst-Werke in Berlin, was a landmark in debates about the aesthetics of terrorism. He also curated MoMA’s strong exhibition of the video artist Pipilotti Rist, and in the months since Hurricane Sandy he has spearheaded an impressive effort to get New York’s creative industries to help rebuild devastated neighborhoods in Queens (though not before enlisting Madonna and Lady Gaga to sign his open letter to the mayor).