Reviewed: The Maybe by Tilda Swinton

A fabulous send-up of our obsession with celebrity

Tilda Swinton first performed The Maybe in 1995 in collaboration with artist Cornelia Parker. For seven consecutive days, the actress slept on a white mattress inside a raised glass box at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Visitors were forced into a situation of involuntary voyeurism, as the artists issued no press release and the gallery withheld information about the installation. Unsuspecting members of the public happened upon the slumbering actress purely by chance. It was a startling installation that garnered a mixed reaction, but its impact remained firmly within the parameters of the art world.

Almost thirteen years later, Swinton has decided to revive it. The actress set-up in the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Saturday 23rd March, forcing unsuspecting visitors to enact a kind of voyeurism as she lay there seemingly unaware of their presence. But unlike 1995, this wave of surprised visitors had Twitter. After a barrage of photos and messages were posted onto the site, blogger website The Gothamist quickly published a post on the sleeping actress, in turn sparking a wave of both national and international press coverage.

In a statement given to the Guardian, the MoMA explains that Swinton will be “popping up” in the museum at random times throughout the year. “An integral part of The Maybe's incarnation at MoMA in 2013 is that there is 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 skeptic in me applauds Swinton’s sense of timing. On 20th March, the actress gave a speech at the ferociously popular opening of the V&A’s David Bowie exhibition, and now she’s starring in an installation at a world-renowned gallery. It can only serve to benefit her reputation as an eccentric actress-come-artist. Meanwhile, The Maybe became a trending topic on Twitter, initiated a surge in visitors to the gallery and a huge amount of press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic – the MoMA must be pleased.

However, move beyond initial skepticism and Swinton’s installation reveals a deeper resonance. The Maybe dissects our obsession with celebrity. It constructs a scenario that encourages the public to gawk, to gossip, to scrutinise a famous actress as she sleeps.

One of the major components of the piece is that no one knows when or where it will be shown. When the installation was originally performed in 1995, all reactions were published posthumously. But thirteen years on, Twitter has facilitated a kind of real-time man-hunt. Buzzfeed, the famous social-network amalgamator, is live-tweeting from the museum. And every art blog and website has posted a Swinton-related story, eager to show how up-to-date they are.

The Maybe’s genius lies in its timing. Staging a revival of the installation after the advent of Twitter reveals the extent of our obsession with celebrity, as the social-network has undoubtedly contributed to global conversations, allowing and encouraging debate on art and celebrity. In this case, it has offered a steady stream of opportunities for people across the world to catch a glimpse of a real-life sleeping beauty.

When asleep, the body is at its most relaxed. We are at our most vulnerable. Under any other circumstances, it would be socially unacceptable to stare and discuss a sleeping woman. But in constructing the scenario inside a gallery, The Maybe not only allows, but encourages the public to enact that desire; only this time you must do it openly, collectively.

Photos of the installation show Swinton surrounded by people willing her to open her eyes. Standing in front of the glass, smartphone in hand, they document her slumber as if she were a rare species of bird. Like a specimen displayed in an anatomical exhibition, Swinton offers herself up for scrutiny. And we took the bait and ran with it.

Initiating voyeurism is at the heart of The Maybe. Its entire construct relies on Swinton as a recognisable face, but its resonance moves beyond this initial reaction, to one of obsession, of fascination and curiosity. She does nothing but sleep. She gives away nothing of herself, other than her physical appearance. But we're lapping it up. Search Twitter and you’ll find comments on anything from her hair to the position of her body. If it had been another, non-famous, woman lying in the MoMa it wouldn’t have caused such a furor. But The Maybe is all about creating a reaction – the installation is merely the initiator, the instigator, of a wider chain of events that ultimately reveal the vacuity of our obsession with celebrity.

Tilda Swinton sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition called 'The Maybe' at the Serpentine Gallery 04 September 1995 in London. Photo: Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images
©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times