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Tilda Swinton under glass: Just another postmodern art cliché?

Celebrity gossip sites and magazines took an unusual interest in conceptual installation art this week, with a number of breathless reports about the actress Tilda Swinton, who is participating in an art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She was seen last week, sleeping or pretending to sleep, in a glass box for eight hours as visitors stared. The gallery has announced her intention to return and perform the action again at an unspecified time. This is an installation called The Maybe, and it is a reprise of a collaboration with another artist dating from 1995. But more on that in a moment.

For now, the media are not interested in the origin or transmutation of this piece. They are reporting it simply as a bizarre celebrity sighting, perhaps as publicity for a future movie.

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Admittedly, the piece as it has been presented does invite snickering. Conceptual art has been around long enough that even non-experts will now recognize certain tropes or motifs. Sitting in a glass box in an art gallery is one of them. Box-sitting is to performance art as the landscape and the still life are to painting; it is a standard form.

Where does the glass-box routine come from? You might pin its origins somewhere around 1965, when Joseph Beuys sat behind glass in a locked gallery with a dead hare in his hands. After that there was a craze for performances that involved static endurance, and a library's worth of artists' statements about the interface between private and public space (expressed much better, of course, with a slash: "public/private space" – or, better yet, "the interrogation of expectations of public/private spatialities"). I vaguely remember a grad student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the 1970s sitting inside a little fort made of telephone books and reading a telephone book out loud all day. I can't tell you if he got a good mark or not.

My favourite lying-in-a-box performance is probably Vito Acconci's 1971 Seedbed, in which he lay under a sort of ramp while gallery-goers walked overhead. He talked dirty about the visitors and masturbated under there.

Perhaps because so many early gallery performances involved the sexual or the taboo – thanks to artists like Carolee Schneeman, who was almost always naked in everything she did – we have come to associate box-sitting with a voyeuristic thrill or repulsion, and perhaps this is why there is a sense of something vaguely titillating about Tilda Swinton in a box. Perhaps the box-sitting aesthetic owes something to the much older tradition of the tableau vivant, a form of theatre in which motionless models recreated mythological scenes, and that too was risqué: It was often an excuse to display live nude bodies.

Illusionists and escape artists also enact performances involving enclosure in glass cases; the best known of these is David Blaine, who had himself suspended from a crane for 44 days in London in 2003. The physical endurance that Blaine has displayed in all his stunts puts even the most radical of gallery artists to shame.

And then there's the short video from a recent Marina Abramovic performance, the one where she's sitting still in a gallery and asking people to sit and stare at her, and then her ex-boyfriend comes along and she cries. You saw it because it was circulated on every social medium in the galaxy for two weeks and it made everybody cry because it was so romantic. Except the part you watched was only three minutes long; the whole performance lasted 736 hours, and that was the most interesting part.

The most interesting part of Tilda Swinton's piece is the one that is missing from the current media reports: it's the origins of the piece as a critique of the strangeness of celebrity. When Cornelia Parker and Swinton first exhibited an installation called The Maybe in 1995 it included a number of objects displayed around a gallery. All those objects had had some connection to a famous person: There was Charles Dickens's quill pen, Queen Victoria's stocking and Sigmund Freud's blanket. Having an actual celebrity displayed as an object like any other seemed to be a kind of joke on the imaginary magic that such objects acquire. This ironic context seems to be missing from Swinton's performance at MoMA.

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What we are left with is a very jaded iteration of the box-sitting motif: We have an actress playing a familiar role, that of glass-box-sitting artist, a role as standardized as pirate or cat burglar or Richard III, without any particular personal inflection.

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