Monday, March 25, 2013

i don't know what to think about this

The Gothamist recently reported about a new performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), "The Maybe," featuring actress Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box. Not so much a glass coffin a la Snow White (although the comparisons are inevitable), than a glass vitrine or display case.

From The Gothamist

I'm not sure what to think about this. I am no stranger to performance art. Or putting a live person on display as art. I dabbled in performance while a student at Parsons School of Design in the eighties. I was a Fine Arts panting major, and the dean told me that he wouldn't "grade" performance (he didn't know how), so my portfolio senior year consisted mainly of performance-related drawings. It's many years later and people still don't know how to react to performance art. I have to admit that I even have some hesitations about this piece, because:

  • Tilda Swinton is a celebrity. It is undeniable that there is a gawk factor — the opportunity to see a famous person doing something in public — that is a huge component of this piece. But does that make it theater or art? 
  • Sleeping in a box presents Swinton more as object than person. So is it performance, which might engage the audience, or is it a more passive object-related art?
Tilda Swinton, "The Maybe," Serpentine Gallery, 1995

"The Maybe" sounded like a stronger piece when Swinton did it in 1995 at the Serpentine Gallery in London. There she was part of a larger show, on exhibit with other objects that had connections to famous folks, from Winston Churchill's cigar to The Duchess of Windsor's ice skates to a pen owned by Charles Dickens. The Independent published some interesting viewer observations:
"It's very funny and very moving, with a very strong feminist subtext. People have said Tilda Swinton is exploiting her celebrity to show off in a glass case — she is indeed using it, but this is definitely not hype. Every object in the show is the property of a celebrity, but they're dead and she's living: the whole idea is the potentiality contained in the objects and the potentiality contained in the living body of Tilda Swinton. This show is part of a continuing trend exploring the very nature of museums and displays; I find that very interesting. — Robert Hewison, Sunday Times critic"
At MoMa "The Maybe" sounds watered down. MoMA has stated:
"Tilda Swinton will be doing unannounced, random performance art pieces sleeping in a glass box in the museum ... the box may be in different locations at other performances. ... There is no published schedule for its appearance, no artist's statement released, no no museum statement beyond this brief context, no public profile or image issued. Those who find it chance upon it for themselves, live and in real—shared—time: now we see it, now we don't."
The fact that Swinton is not part of a larger exhibition at MoMA undercuts the potential power of this piece. Swinton's appearing at the museum is less art and more of a happening. People shouldn't be scolded for asking, "But is it art?" In this incarnation, that seems to be a very valid question indeed.
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