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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era