The Art of Public Sleeping



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The Art of Public Sleeping

 The actress Tilda Swinton has recently been in the news for sleeping in public.  Periodically this year, Swinton has reprised her 1995 performance piece The Maybe, a collaboration with Cornelia Parker, by sleeping inside a glass box in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Since 2006, the French artist Virgile Novarina (whose profile appears on the Sleep Cultures website) has staged a series of performances entitled En Somme, during which he sleeps in public venues such as art galleries or shop windows; Virgile Sleeps, Jean Seban’s fascinating cluster of short films, both chronicles and interprets a week (January 21st through 26th, 2013) in the life of the sleeping artist.

One might expect all artists to sleep in the same way.  On the basis of photographic and video evidence (I haven’t witnessed either of these performances in the slumbering flesh), The Maybe and En Somme are remarkably different.  Certainly there are continuities: both develop the traditional association of sleep with death and raise basic questions about mimesis and performance (Is she asleep or just “acting”?  [What range!]  “Is it a real one or a fake?,” asks one woman of Novarina’s sleeping body).  In significant ways, however, these are radically different works.  In the case of The Maybe, it is impossible to separate Swinton’s sleep from her celebrity.  As an April 17th article in the Huffington Post puts it, “Drop everything you’re doing and hitch a ride to Midtown, because Tilda Swinton is laying her snow-white head down for a nap in New York’s Museum of Modern Art today.”  This is partly tongue-in-cheek – hurry, you have the chance to watch someone sleep! – but the irony is secondary to celebrity worship.  Moreover, the long lines of museumgoers waiting to approach the slumbering star evoke paparazzi tracking Swinton's every waking (and sleeping) movement.  At the same time, The Maybe pushes back against celebrity culture.  Swinton exposes herself to the desires of a viewing public in a way that leads one to reflect upon the nature of our obsession with star-gazing.  See Tilda like you’ve never seen her before, up close and (im)personal!  

Swinton sleeps in street clothes, on top of the sheets on an unadorned bed; she appears as a specimen of celebrity sleeper carefully preserved in a glass case.  And yet, she is presumably not sleeping as she would in her bedroom; this natural act is as artificial as it gets.  In Virgile Sleeps (and En Somme)Novarina turned a gallery window into a bedroom-cum-exhibition space.  He lies under a red blanket, wears a sleep mask and ear plugs, and has books scattered around his head.  In Seban’s films, Novarina is both removed from the world – he sleeps during President Obama’s second inauguration, which is broadcast on a café t.v. across the street – and embedded within it.  Seban repeatedly moves away from the gallery to provide us glimpses of the Parisian street life into which Novarina’s performance is fascinatingly integrated.  We witness a range of interactions with that performance: a young woman poses for a photo with the unwitting sleeper; a boy raps on the gallery window, then hurries away; two young men speak animatedly to one another about En Somme, until one finally yanks the other down the street; numerous others go about their daily lives, paying varying degrees of attention to the sleeper in the window.  The cultural curiosity of the artist-as-sleeper is juxtaposed (at first startlingly, and then, upon a moment’s reflection, inevitably) with Alexandre, a homeless man sleeping rough.  One sleeper draws our attention, while the other makes us look away.  A potential interpretation of both En Somme and Virgile Sleeps is offered by a young woman who observes, “I would say, all in all: Isn’t sleep life itself?”  (That she laughs after making this observation captures the sense of whimsy that differentiates the work of both Seban and Novarina from that of Swinton and Parker.)

In Seban’s films (see especially “Wednesday”), the artist does more than sleep.  Novarina is fascinated by sleep’s generative capacities, and he regularly half-emerges from his slumbers to produce writing that, when he is fully awake, he re-renders in a more legible hand.  As translated, his sentences are wonderfully loopy: “I received no news from any of such beautiful parentheses”; “[Person A:] For a downloaded woman, you are benevolent. [Person B:] Silence!”  While sleep is inscrutable in both En Somme and The Maybe, the nature of its opacity is different.  For Swinton and Parker, sleep’s unknowability, like the movie star’s, is that of the impenetrable surface; with Novarina, sleep teases us with its depths, eliciting our admiration even as we suspect its having fun at our expense: beautiful parentheses, indeed.

By Garrett Sullivan Jr

Penn State University

Sleep Cultures, 9/29/2013