Time and Tilda elevate celebrity jumble into art

Tim Minogue on a collection of ordinary items and live exhibit Swinton (right) that make up the strangest art event of 1995
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The Independent Online
TOMORROW, the public has the opportunity, after weeks of intense media interest, to make up its own mind about one of the strangest modern art events of the year.

Minutes before the doors of London's Serpentine Gallery open at 10am, the actress and "performance artist" Tilda Swinton will climb into a glass case, snuggle down on a mattress, and attempt to go to sleep for eight hours as the central exhibit of Cornelia Parker's new "conceptual art installation", The Maybe.

While speculation (what if she can't sleep? what about going to the loo? what if an admirer tries to join her?) has focused on Swinton's Sleeping Beauty act, commentators have tended to ignore the other 35 exhibits - a bizarre collection of jumble or "cultural icons" including one of Winston Churchill's cigar stubs, Mrs Wallis Simpson's ice skates, Arthur Askey's overcoat, the cushion from Sigmund Freud's couch, the canned food which would have been Scott of the Antarctic's next meal and JMW Turner's paintbox.

Also on show are some of the defaced book covers from Islington libraries for which the then unknown playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for six months in 1962.

Orton and Halliwell were caught at the end of a three-year mission to epater la bourgeoisie - or the book borrowers of Islington, anyway - by altering text and illustrations in surreal and sometimes obscene ways before replacing them on the shelves.

If Orton, who went on to enjoy success as the author of black comedies such as Loot and What The Butler Saw, before being murdered by Halliwell in 1967, were able to look down on London's Serpentine Gallery tomorrow, he might well blow a huge raspberry, for the gallery-going bourgeoisie will be out in force.

The artist, Cornelia Parker, relishes the irony. "In art, as in life," she says, "you often only understand things in retrospect. Making art is like climbing a mountain. You don't know what the view from the top is like until you get there and look back to see the route you've taken. In Orton's case, yesterday's vandalism has become today's art."

Orton's "contribution" includes the cover of a book about John Betjeman on which the Metroland poet has been replaced by an elderly gent covered from top to toe with tattoos, and the cover of a history book on which kings and queens of England appear with the faces of apes.

"Tilda is just one of many objects," says Parker. "She is the star of the show in a way because she's the only living object. The others all relate to peple who are now dead. Time has conferred on them a relevance that may not have been originally apparent. They are just ordinary things, but they become profoundly interesting when you realise who they belonged to.

"It's as if some alchemistic change has happened. You get this tiny trigger or catalyst to a whole narrative. They are known quantities but there is room for imagining. Then there's Tilda, who's just going to be herself, lying asleep. She's contemporary, the unfinished business as it were."

Parker couldn't get all the objects she wanted, because some museums and collectors wouldn't play ball. So visitors will not be able to gaze upon Nietzche's moustache or Guy Fawkes's lantern.

But, at the end of it all, isn't Churchill's cigar butt just a cigar butt, elevated not to art but to kitsch?

"Kitsch implies bad taste," objects Parker. "Churchill's cigar is an everyday thing that has become a potent symbol. His secretary, who kept it, was obviously already thinking of it as a souvenir for future years. Churchill must have smoked thousands of cigars, but only this one remains. Hundreds of books have been written about Churchill, but this cigar stub is a much more interesting catalyst because it allows your imagination to run freely all round the man, the painter, the politician, the decisions. What was he thinking of when he smoked that cigar?

"Take Turner's paintbox. You look at it and think of all those unpainted sunsets. The idea of the souvenir is so interesting to me. Everything is solid until the moment it dies and gets scattered. The Berlin Wall is a fantastic example. What was a wall, a barrier, has become a scattered, porous thing in people's homes that everyone can have a piece of. That's what I love about collecting fragments."

Tilda Swinton, star of the film Orlando, fresh from filming a movie called Female Perversions in Hollywood, has been "rehearsing" for the past two weeks by leading a night-time existence and sleeping during the day to alter her "body clock" in the hope of making her task of sleeping in a glass case while being gawped at by hundreds of strangers a bit easier.

"It will be a triumph if she can," says Parker. "I think this is the most difficult performance she has done. She's representing Everywoman, if you like. It's amusing that people think she is just doing nothing. It will be a considerable achievement if she can be relaxed and confident enough at the same time to be able to sleep."

Any unpublished attention-seeking playwrights, by the way, will have a thin time of it. With so many valuable curiosities on show, Ms Swinton not excepted, a strong team of security guards will be on hand to ensure that no one "does an Orton" on the exhibits.

The Maybe, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2; 4-10 September, 10am-6pm. No admission charge.