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
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.