Art lovers enchanted by tank girl's sleeping beauty entrances art lovers

Marianne Macdonald gauges reaction to an artistic lie-in by Tilda Swinton by the actress Tilda Swinton at a London gallery

The small boy was finding it hard to grasp what was going on. "Is she asleep, mummy?" he demanded. He peered up against the glass. "Is she Snow White? Is there a spell on her?"

"No, darling," whispered his mother. "It's an art work. She's lying there so we can look at her." The boy stuck his hands into his shorts and stared again at the unmoving form. "No," he said finally. "I don't think so. I think she's in a forest and she's waiting for a prince."

His confusion was not untypical of the 200 or so people who came into the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park yesterday to watch Tilda Swinton, star of Orlando and Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein, sleeping in a glass tank in full view of the public. She was dressed simply for the occasion, just a cotton shirt, blue corduroys and a pair of canvas deck shoes. In front of her on the white mattress lay a pair of glasses, neatly folded, and behind her on the pillow streamed her red, unwashed hair.

She will lie in the tank from 10am until 6pm every day until Sunday, and yesterday, on day one, she showed no sign of nerves. In fact, she shows no signs at all. Her most notable movement came at 12.20pm, when she gave a deep sigh, lifted her left foot and turned dreamily on her back. Most of the time, she lay on her left side, her arms wrapped around herself, her chin buried in the pillow and her eyes firmly closed. There were no embarrassing side-effects of sleep, such as dribbling or snoring.

"Do you think she can hear us?" a man with a goatee beard asked his friend. "I don't know, knock on the glass," his friend replied. They mooched over to the two security guards. "Does she move?" one asked. "Only occasionally," said the guard. "From one side to the other."Throughout the morning, the gallery-goers came and went in a reverential hush so as not to wake the actress. One man with a ponytail broke the silence by snorting loudly and walking out. He turned out to be a builder from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. "Call me a cynic, but I don't see the point," he said.

But mostly the reception verged on rapturous. "It made my heart beat faster, I thought it was absolutely incredible," said Wolfgang, 31, a musician.

There was a sudden murmur. Tilda Swinton was moving. She stretched out her arms, turned her head, and sighed softly. Around her, the crowd stretched their necks and whispered eagerly to each other.

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