March 26th, 2013 · Grant Klarich Johnson

An Ode to Tilda Swinton's The Maybe

An Ode to Tilda Swinton's The Maybe

By Grant Klarich Johnson

Likely, you have already heard about Tilda Swinton’s The Maybe at the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. Reported by several media outlets by early Saturday, the work has proved a sensationalist stroke of brilliance on MoMA’s part, buzzing across social media channels both in the art world and otherwise. 

The piece, originally performed in collaboration with the sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker in 1995 at London’s Serpentine Gallery, then later at the Museo Barracco in Rome, features Swinton feigning sleep atop a thin white mattress in a raised glass-and-metal vitrine. Her costume of rolled denim, sneakers, and oversized work-shirts echo the hipster ease distilled in the thick square frames of her glasses, which punctuate the bed. Recalling the coy geometry of Damian Hirst, the minimalist set frames and compliments Swinton’s own sparse, androgynous form, literally lifting her from the realm of the everyday and into a consecrated box, a readymade sign of the aesthetic. 

As the piece will continue to reappear unannounced at the museum, its invasion of pre-existing museum installations will draw both an exceptional crowd and comment to these unsuspecting spaces. Mindful of this promising Situationist-esque intervention, MoMA curators likely already have plans to rhyme The Maybe with Joseph Beuys’s vitrines (with which and whom it bears both a striking formal and performative similarity) currently on view on the fourth floor, as well as many other insightful pairings, from Monet’s Nympheas to the dreamy and threatening surrealist objects down the hall, already caged in their own sterilizing vitrines. When I caught it, The Maybe stood in the shadows of Douglas Gordon’s towering video work Play Dead; Real Time (2003), itself a recording of a trained elephant playing at its own extinction, and thus a delightful backdrop and interlocutor to Swinton’s striking performance. 


Joseph Beuys, Untitled V (1949-82).* 

Perhaps a passive-aggressive form of institutional critique, The Maybe threatens MoMA’s prowess without even getting out of bed. Indeed, to sleep (perchance to dream?) upon some of the most valued real estate in the art world, to close one’s eyes to supposed masterworks suggests an extremely literal critique—boredom of the institution and all it contains. And yet, ultimately, The Maybe presents no real threat. It—possibly all too—flawlessly continues MoMA’s popular performance programming and gives a sense of history and community to Marina Abramovic’s call for long-durational work. In the end, it may not challenge, but reinforces all that for which MoMA stands. 

Free of a formal press release, website, or even an extended interpretive label, The Maybe suggests an art event as free of discourse as possible. And yet, like Swinton’s convincing slumber, punctuated by transcendent passages of elegant tossing and turning—this is all largely an act. The variable presence of the piece seems tailor-made both to the museum’s interest in luring visitors away from other, less fleeting urban attractions, as well as to engaging the attention deficit world-brain that is Twitter. The Maybe makes MoMA itself an event, trending, tempting, tough-to-beat. 

The presence of a celebrity actress like Swinton means the import of the full discursive field she, and her public, carry with them into the museum—a field arguably much vaster than that of any living artist. Navigating the aura of supposed evanescence while also highlighting a performer and work whose potency is largely contingent on the aura of celebrity, the fetishistic notion of the author drives The Maybe and makes it a strong argument for MoMA, the kingmaker incarnate, to stage. This is not just anyone in a box. This is a highly accomplished, highly skilled, luxury-goods-endorsing, sometime fashion model performing an idealized form of slumber. The Maybe has more in common with the precise, confident beauty of Maderno’s Saint Cecilia (1600) than the prosaic performance of the sleeping homeless that likewise present themselves unannounced on the exterior architecture of one’s local church.


That said, just as I go weak before Cecilia, I must admit my pure delight at the prospect of The Maybe, as well as its promise of Swinton in the role of Sleeping Beauty. An unselfconscious fan of Swinton’s various apparitions—from the utterly unassailable visual banquet I Am Love to a certain spread in W magazine where she (not uncommonly) looked more alien than human—as soon as I heard about The Maybe, I reserved the right to drop everything and rush to the museum to bear witness to Swinton in all her startling perfection. 

Grant Johnson is a Performa Magazine writer in residence. 


*Images (from top):
1. Joseph Beuys, Untitled V (1949-82), MoMA.
Courtesy of
2. Stefano Maderno, Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, 1600. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome. 
Courtesy of


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