April 3, 2013

KOH: Lying Next to Spectacles

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Maybe tomorrow, if you stop by New York’s Museum of Modern Art around closing time, you’ll see Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass case. Or, better yet, you’ll see James Franco watching Tilda Swinton sleep in a glass case. As you’ve already heard too many times, on about five more unspecified days this year, Swinton will be taking a nap at unspecified locations in MoMA. As The Huffington Post has noted, it’s not the kind of performance that’s going to win Swinton an Academy Award. It’s not going to win her the Turner Prize either, but then again, that’s not the point. The artistic merits of Swinton’s performance piece have already been savaged by mostly bemused critics, some of whom have neither too kindly nor fairly cast Swinton as a fame hungry B-list actress.

Call her eccentric, maybe, but the Scottish actress is arguably more interesting than the average celebrity. While the impeccably dressed Swinton won an Oscar for playing a vindictive lawyer in 2007’s Michael Clayton (if you really want some kind of proof of her giftedness), she is perhaps better known for championing androgyny and resembling David Bowie. To further fuel charges of bizarreness, Swinton gave an expectedly peculiar speech in Bowie’s stead at the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition of over 300 Bowie artifacts. Reflecting on recent weeks, Swinton surmised that, “the alien is the best company after all for so many more than the few.” All of this, of course, qualifies Swinton as a worthy art object. By art critic Willoughby Sharp’s definition, at least, Swinton’s work does count as body art, where the body is “the subject and object of the work.”

Slyly entitled The Maybe, Swinton’s piece is decidedly self-aware. The identification card matter-of-factly reads: “living artist, glass, steel, mattress, pillows, linen, water, spectacles.” First staged by Swinton and the artist Cornelia Parker at the Serpentine Gallery in 1995, The Maybe was brought to MoMA by Chief Curator at Large Klaus Biesenbach, who thought the work historic. But for someone as, well, inventive and unusual as Swinton, The Maybe seems rather tame. No one is getting nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle (Chris Burden in Trans-fixed) or letting strangers cut away her clothing as she kneels without protest on stage (Yoko Ono in Cut Piece).  It might not be easy to look comfortable while pretending to sleep in a glass box for hours, but Marina Abramovic indisputably surpasses Swinton. At Abramovic’s 2010 MoMA retrospective, she not only sat still for hours (736.5 hours, to be precise), but gazed at visitors one-on-one so intensely that many of them cried.

The Maybe is audaciously unspectacular. It is not explicitly violent, though some lines are crossed. The glass case invites you to stare hard at Swinton and, in doing so, compels some kind of uneasy introspection: What are you looking at, and why are you looking at it?  Unlike in Abramovic’s 2010 performance, however, the artist’s gaze is not reflected back at the viewer. The artist is present, but not quite. Still, you just want to see what all the fuss is about, just like the camera-wielding tourists who peer studiously the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. As a kind of idealized sleeping beauty, Swinton weaves several romances together — particularly those of fairytales and celebrity. It might be more interesting if Swinton wore, say, an ivory Lanvin gown or a soft blue Haider Ackermann suit. But she doesn’t choose to do that. Maybe the point is that there isn’t much out of the ordinary to be seen, or that the ordinary is worthy of being seen. Maybe we are the show; we create the spectacle as we clamor around the art.

None of the above is groundbreaking in the least. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in some way, magical. In MoMA’s case, it all makes perfect sense. “Reticence is the new excess,” wrote art historian Terry Smith, as he discussed MoMA’s architecture in his page-turning meditation on that perpetual question: What is contemporary art? Built in the aftermath of the unignorable, lavish curves of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, MoMA’s new building is almost invisible. In an attempt to make “massive consumption inconspicuous,” Yoshio Taniguchi implored MoMA’s trustees to, “Give me your millions, and I will make you an outstanding museum. Give me more, and I will make it disappear.” Give me your $25, and I will give you Tilda Swinton. Maybe.

Original Author: Daveen Koh