There’s more to “The Maybe” than simply Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box.
It’s a curious experience to visit Tilda Swinton’s art installation “The Maybe” in its current incarnation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Previously exhibited in 1995 at The Serpentine Gallery in London, Swinton – an Academy Award winning actress for the George Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton (2007), and one of the world’s most recognisable cross-over faces between the arthouse and mainstream worlds – has probably risked cynical jabs of “pretentious!” and “boring!” to present “The Maybe”, a piece that sees the blonde-quiffed actress lay more or less motionless in a glass box that shifts from room to room depending on the day. When I saw it on 19 April she was sleeping in her glass cage in a space at the top of the stairs on the third floor, a thoroughfare for museum patrons. Before that she was found in an inauspicious corner of level two, and before that I think I saw images of the box appearing in the general lobby. You just never know.
Image one source //
(Note: these official images were taken on the actual day I was there, 19 April 2013)
I stayed and watched Ms Swinton in her glass box for around 20 minutes and definitely think there is more to it than simply Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box. In fact, I think the fact that it’s Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box is entirely beyond the point. She could have been juggling in a Perspex tub or performing yoga in a hollowed out refrigerator and the effect would have been the same. The seemingly ridiculous concept of Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box is the catalyst for the art itself, which I think is actually all in the receiver’s mind. The art isn’t Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box – even if the museum plaque calls it “The Maybe – Living artist, glass, steel, mattress, pillow, linen, water, and spectacles” (thank you MoMA for using the Oxford Comma!) – but what our minds can concoct when presented with the thought of it. The concept is right there in the name: “The Maybe”. She decides when she will show up or not and, thus, forces people to contemplate art. Not only what it could mean, but right down to the very notion of “what is art”. It’s a reading that works long after the viewer as left the museum. It’s been weeks since I saw Ms Swinton in her glass box and I’m still thinking, stirring, and contemplating it. The abstract nature of “The Maybe” begins before we see it and continues long after. And I suspect the very idea of people debating the nature of art, whether they believe “The Maybe” is art or not, is at least partially what Swinton intended.
Of course, depending on how long one stands and looks as Tilda’s exhibit a whole extra dimension begins to form. There is very little to the physical presence of “The Maybe”. Looking at any motionless body for any extended period of time isn’t particularly thrilling, and so Swinton is forcing her audience to focus on the things around her. Whether its noting the white splotch of paint on her dark-hued corduroy pants, the scuffed blue and green sneakers, the tailoring of her crisp white blouse, or the pattern of oxygen bubbles in her triangular jug. What is art? Are all these elements art or is art very deliberate in its intentions?
Furthermore, my eyes drifted around the room and began to notice the other people viewing the exhibit. There are some like myself that spent more than a passing glance in the room, while others walked in – perhaps even my accident on their way to another exhibit – looked at the central installation and then moved on within the span of a minute. I noticed the people who were taking “The Maybe” very seriously and those that were treating it as a joke. I was noticing the way some viewers were worried for her well-being, while others were… not. It became a curious act of people watching – Tilda and everyone else. Again, finding art in Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box isn’t so much the core of “The Maybe”, but the way we react and assess and discuss. She was, after all, doing little else but sleeping. Apart from doing so in a glass box in the middle of the day in a very public setting, what about it is entirely strange? Viewers thrusting their own interpretations, much like I have here, is I think where the true intentions of Swinton’s work lies.