Eighteen years after sleeping in a box among jumbled artifacts of British culture in an exhibit by Cornelia Parker, Tilda Swinton, minor celebrity, is reprising her tumblrbait act, The Maybe, first performed in 1995, at the Museum of Modern Art. At unscripted times throughout this year you might find her outside the atrium.
The odd thing about the exercise is its total lack of ambition or humor or irony. The event (it is vaguely in the genre of performance art) doesn’t register its own banality. The most excitement the museum scraped from the exhibit was that it wouldn’t always be there. MoMA said in a public statement,
No published schedule for its appearance, no artist’s statement released, 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 art world is either thrilled that their beloved Swinton is on display, or just dutifully descriptive of the emperor’s latest stunt. Jerry Saltz is laboriously non-committal. No-one, hardly even the museum, appears to be interested in the exhibit as a work of art. There are at least as many posts reporting the reaction of twitter to the event as reporting the event itself.
The one humane bit of insight among the effusive detritus was from the New Republic. Jason Farago points out that Swinton earned her notoriety by being the subject of that original 1995 piece, the design of which wasn’t even hers, but one Cornelia Parker’s. In it she slept alongside Napoleon’s rosary, Turner’s watercolour box, Charles Dickens’s last pen, Robert Maxwell’s shoe lasts, one of Churchill’s half-smoked cigars, the manuscript of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, Charles Babbage’s brain, and with Faraday’s Magneto Spark apparatus, among other things. Says Farago,
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.
(A wikipedia contributor back in 2007 specifically disputed that Parker was the author of the original show, asserting that she merely helped Swinton prepare it. That assertion has since stood on Swinton’s wiki page, but the only reporting I have been able to find is from a piece by the Independent in 1995, which supports Farago.)
Secondly, Farago points out, the exhibition is curated by Klaus Biesenbach, a notorious populist in the tradition of Andy Warhol. The MoMA under Biesenbach has displayed its fair share of impassioned interactive depravity. But the tiredness of the sleeping Swinton suggests that those other peculiar exhibits were utterly banal as well, the humdrum titillation of being brushed by nude bodies as you walked through the exhibit, for instance, hardly worth mentioning.
Still, at least Swinton looks like David Bowie.