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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism