The “Sleeping Beauty” exhibition by Canadian Ukrainian artist Taras Polataiko made it to the local and international headlines over the past few weeks. He offers the visitor (anyone over 18) to come in and give a kiss to a (young and pretty) girl who is laying down in the middle of one of the galleries of the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv. Her eyes are closed. Yet she may be sleeping, she may be awake. Were she to open her eyes, the Beauty and the Prince would have to get married, as it is stipulated in a contract they both signed beforehand. A fairytale coming to life. Is it compatible with our modern societies? What does it imply to hold such an exhibition in patriarchal Ukraine? I met with the artist.
Below is the full transcript of an interview conducted with Taras Polataiko, on Wenesday 29/08/2012.
Nouvelles de l’Est: Why did you set up this exhibition ?
Taras Polataiko: To make art.
NdE: What did you want to demonstrate through this exhibition ?
TP: With any art, you don’t want to demonstrate anything specific. The viewer completes the work. I make the work. Then it’s a kind of an art critics who makes sense of it. I have certain intentions. It’s in your head that it completes.
NdE: And what kind of intentions did you have ?
TP: You know the fairytale “The Sleeping Beauty”: I wanted to make it real for people. I am part of it and I am enjoying living in it. Actually I can tell you how it happened. When the museum invited me to perform here, I started thinking what I would like to do because it’s a specific place and a specific context. Then I came up with this idea of patience, this sort of theme. People are very patient in this country for a long time, for hundreds of years, because of a difficult history. Given what is happening now, you would think there would be some kind of outcry, of social reaction. But there isn’t. So it’s a sort of dormancy, of apathy in the society. Hence my idea of patience, this sort of enduring patience. And “Sleeping Beauty” represents that. She is waiting for that sort of fatal, magical moment. That’s what’s happening in this performance.
NdE: It also represents a beautiful woman who does not dare to think but is being picked up by a random guy. It does not have a sole political dimension as you said. Don’t you think it reflects on many cliches pertaining to women in this country?
TP: Have you talked to them? It’s actually quite insulting to say something like that. I interviewed the girls, I had a casting process and I didn’t base the casting on any specific requirement, nothing like these stupid sizes or heights. Basically it started very modestly, because I had no idea I would get such a media attention but for one art review that nobody would read. So we posted it on the museum website, stating clear rules for the would-be beauties and princes and girls started coming for the casting. I was inviting everybody, not making any selection. When they phoned the museum and they were told that it was real, that the agreement they would be entering had legal force, 80% fell off, from about one hundred to something like twenty. In the beginning I wanted to have only one Beauty. Then I started talking to these girls, they turned out to be really sensitive. Basically the project is kind of magical, it’s a fairytale so it attracted people who believed in magics, kind of refined type.
I was actually asking two simple questions: “Can you introduce yourself? And what is your motivation for taking part in this project, what do you expect?” Most of them told me that they believed in true love. One of them told me she wanted to participate because she loved kissing so she would just kiss away for three days. But it’s not for me to answer for them, you have to ask them what makes them taking part in something like this. I am basically providing a chance for both Beauties and Princes to take part. And the rest of it is between consenting adults. Everybody is over 18 and they decide what they want to do with their life.
Back to this question of moral policing that you have asked me, I have an answer: why don’t you ask Charles Perrault? It’s actually not a question to him, it’s a question to the society that created that fairytale and loves it and keeps their children generation after generation. So, why, when I make that fairytale real, all of a sudden it becomes outrageous?
NdE: Because he wrote down that fairytale 400 years ago, whereas the exhibition is happening now. We kind of assume that the vision of women has changed…?
TP: Are you suggesting we are not supposed to be reading it then?
NdE: What we teach to children and how we do it is another question. But what we are talking about is consenting adults and the vision we have of women in our modern society. I understand that one of your criteria to select the beauties was their motivation and their sensitivity. But the viewer coming into the room can not get to learn about the Beauty’s sensitivity. He sees her, kisses her and then they get married, if she wakes up.
TP: So it’s up to her. You see, I did make one important change to the narrative, to the text of the original fairytale: I opened up the role of the prince to everyone over 18, unmarried. So it includes men and women. It’s not only men who can kiss. Here is the adaptation to today. Because in Perrault, it’s only a man who can kiss. So here you go.
NdE: How do you make sure the Beauty is asleep?
TP: I don’t know if she is sleeping. She might as well be awake. If you see a person laying down with eyes closed, how do you that he or she is sleeping? She is not taking any pills, and she is free to do as she chooses. So do the visitors.
We have incredible little dramas here every day. Today, there was a guy who came from a city 500 kilometers away. He said he had seen her on TV, fell in love, took an overnight train and he was here waiting from 7.30 in the morning, standing there near the tree with this huge rose. He kissed her and waited, waited, waited. Nothing happened, so he left the rose on the bed, sort of bowed to her and then left. It was beautiful.
Two days ago, there was a woman, between 35 and 40. She danced her way into the space. It was something else that dance, a sort of shamanistic dance. She was winging her hands and she danced around for five minutes and she was enchanting her. She danced, got closer and kissed her gently. She posed for a second, the Beauty did not open her eyes and then she danced her way out of the room. It brought tears to my eyes because it was another cry of somebody’s soul. And I think it was like a heroic thing to do in this society. You know it’s quite homophobic still. And so for her to do something like that was quite heroic, because she has to live here.
And then we had a gentleman from Amsterdam who came and started talking to her. He left an I-Pad on her bed and he didn’t even kiss her. It turned out quite dramatic because I am not sure he had understood the rules correctly: you can only kiss one time, on the face, and then you have to leave. Either he didn’t understand or he was nervous, but he didn’t kiss her but touched her softly on the wrist. I kicked in right away and gently pushed him away. He was mad at me and he left. But I think he had pretty serious intentions. The Beauty told me later that there was enough money in the I-Pad for her ticket to Amsterdam and his e-mail address. The I-Pad is hers now, she decides what to do with it.
The idea is that the Beauty sleep anonymously. It’s more complicated than the superficiality you evoked. For the kisser, he just has to accept the surface. But it’s all going by the old archetype. Every fairytale is not just like a little funny story. It’s like a Greek myth, like a classical mythology: a narrative that has been crystallized over a thousand or more years. Charles Perrault wrote it down in 1697 but it existed way before. To answer to the kind of moralizing, censoring you stressed, I can say that kind of archetypal behavior between people existed for so long and maybe in the last 20 years the society started changing. Does it mean we have to start censoring these thousand years? If you extend it further, then we should take it out of the libraries, we should not do the Tchaikovsky “Sleeping Beauty”, we should say no to the Disney “Sleeping Beauty” because it’s a perpetuation of this archetypal behavior. And then we should also censor three quarters of Greek mythology, because it’s not cozy, it doesn’t quite fit into this kind of way of seeing this relationship between people in like last 20 years.
NdE: But when it comes to reading these pieces, fairytale, Greek myths or even the Bible, we understand that they have been written in specific historical contexts, which are no longer relevant to our modern societies, since values and mentalities have changed. Yet your exhibition gives a contemporary credit to such an archetypal behavior. And it has very concrete implications. The girl does not have time to see and learn about the person she might get married to.
TP: That’s what is interesting to me. Not just in this work, I have been doing pieces like that before. I am interested in either creating the narrative or taking some existing narrative and making the fiction real. I am interested in this sort of a gray zone as an artist, where it’s not quite fiction anymore because it’s actually happening, but it’s too strange to be real. I don’t have much time for politically correct art because it’s so correct that it does not make you think. The good art is not comfortable. For me, the good art is an art that makes you really feel and think. And it has to test some boundaries. People are used to cozy things, to banal, normal things. It doesn’t happen very often that something makes you think. It’s that gray area I am interested in. It brings up ethical questions, esthetic questions: it’s actually a human being as an art object. What is beauty?
NdE: We are now in a country where dozens of agencies specialized in hooking up plenty of girls with men in Western Europe and North America. These men see the girls’ pictures, barely exchange a few e-mails – and most of the time not with the right girl – come over to Ukraine, meet the girl and decide to marry her. This is a widespread cliche that women in Ukraine are asked to be beautiful yet not brainy. And in this particular environment, your exhibition opens.
TP: How is this worse than what is going on?
NdE: It’s not about your exhibition being worse or better. It’s about the connection between this society and the exhibition. Some people I talked to about the exhibition reacted this way: “Of course, it has to happen here in Ukraine!” It kind of strengthens a stereotype.
TP: You make that connection, I didn’t make that connection. It’s one of the possible interpretations of my work. From my point of view as an artist, within this society, it turns quite a lot of things inside out. It quite conservative, it’s quite traditional and it’s usually considered to be patriarchal. My position is actually clear: I am a feminist. I have a daughter, beautiful, smart, she is going to the university. And before I decided to start this exhibition, I asked her what she thought about it. Her answer was: “You know, I actually do think that every girl has this secret desire for somebody beautiful to kiss them”. So there you go.
The rest of it is a kind of moral censorship. It’s art. What makes art different from some ugly business like in trading people? Surrealists had an idea that human nature is not always possible because of wars and violence and strange things people do to each other. And it’s bad. Art is that territory where everything is possible, because it doesn’t hurt anyone. And for me, there has to be an important distinction for art to be completely free. Because the more free we are to express ourselves in this harmless area, this art bubble, the less violence we need to do in real life. It’s like this neutralization of those negative things. There has to be complete freedom for creativity somewhere. And I think art is this area. A lot of people would disagree with me, but then I am worried about what happens to the idea of freedom in Western society. It’s so comfortable. It’s another sort of patience, when it gets so controlled by moral policing, then somebody is going to explode because it’s not freedom. You will start getting some strange of terrorism, such as what happened in Norway or swings to the right-wing. Because of a kind of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, a move from natural desires. And these natural desires are all in the Greek mythology. This mythology is actually beautiful because it’s pre-Christian and it has all kinds of love inside: male-male, female-female, human-God, human-animal. In my own personal opinion, they were like completely free. I am envious of the ancient Greeks for their freedom. And I am really annoyed when the contemporary society gets so moralistic, almost as a Middle-Age Inquisition.
NdE: How do you ensure that the Beauty and the Prince get effectively marry?
TP: We have a lawyer. He didn’t want to get paid, he just e-mailed me and said that he loved the idea but that, legally, it would have to be written down in a legal document. His office is the RULG Group, he told me that they were working on European direction. I think the whole office had fun coming up with that document. He made it clear that it was his only chance in life to legalize a fairytale.
NdE: Let’s say that I kiss the Beauty, she opens her eyes, but the day after I fly away to France. Would you try to catch me there?
TP: I wouldn’t, but I am sure the lawyer would.
NdE: Do the Beauty and the Prince have a trial period? How much time do they have to get married?
TP: It’s entirely up to them, I am not going to police them. If they would come to a mutual agreement not to get married, it would be just fine. But the important thing about the contract was to make it difficult for the prince. Otherwise you could imagine the queue of people waiting for a free kiss, if the Princes would think that this is not serious. That would be a kind of abusive situation. And I am really thankful to the lawyer for coming into the project. Actually, he had a TV interview upon the opening and he took on the role of the thorns. You know, the prince, in order to get to this enchanted castle where the Beauty sleeps, has to go through this very thorny forest with prickles and all. So he sees himself as a protection of the Beauty.
There is no money in my project, no one is getting paid. Especially not the girls, that would be completely wrong and vulgar. It’s a matter of principle that in my projects there is no money-changing hands because money spoils the fairytale. For me it’s like a beautiful innocent show. The dresses come from the designer. They also did it for free because they like the project. I had to pay for a nice podium and reception and invitations. But it was done on my own money, and it’s a very minimal budget. People were very enthusiastic because they liked the idea of living in a fairytale. No one gets paid. One has to pay for the entrance to the museum, 20 UAH, which makes another obstacle for the prince.
People ask me “is there any scenario”? Of course not. What makes the performance art different from the theater is that there is a scenario in the theater, you can read about it, you know what is going to happen. Here, I don’t know, the girl doesn’t know, nobody knows. It’s a tension of this possibility of this life-changing moment, happening in one instant.
Back to this sort of power relationship between the participants: yes, he can see her and she cannot see him or her. But here I am going according to the fairytale. In the fairytale, we do know that she is beautiful. But it doesn’t tell us how he looks. It tells us that he felt this true love for her that won’t corrupt. So that’s why it’s important for me to make it difficult for them and to really convince the Beauty of their feelings. In the end, it’s her decision. In a way, it’s a kind of a traditional active male role. But in the end she decides.
NdE: But while making this decision, she is blind.
TP: Yes, she is. But it’s her decision.
NdE: Why not have a male Prince?
Actually this is my next project. But this will be a different fairytale.
NdE: You have heard of the raging debates over so-called gay propaganda in Ukraine. Do you think you could hold such an exhibition here?
TP: Yes, I have heard, it’s a big shame. I am not sure I could hold my next exhibition because they actually tried to shut down this one. And this is pretty acceptable for the society here. But for some reasons they tried to shut it down one day before the opening. Luckily at that time we were already covered by medias, including Reuters. One day before the opening, everything is here, the girls, the dresses, everything. This awful, bureaucratic type calls me into his office and talks to me in this smooth, weird, secretive voice and says “I had a very unpleasant conversation in the morning with the ministry of culture. I am very sorry to inform you that it looks like it’s going to be impossible to go ahead with this exhibition”. I am cutting it short and asking on which basis they are censoring my exhibition “ No, no censorship”, he says. But no explanation. What else should I call it, when the power structure of the ministry starts interfering in the creative process of the museum, what else is it than censorship? I don’t know what he was hoping for, but I just pull out the phone and ask whether I should phone Reuters right now. By the afternoon, whatever problem they had was solved. So I was just lucky that media got interested in this, otherwise there would be no show. With a man in the role of Beauty, more likely it would be shut down.
But actually I couldn’t say what exactly happened. It’s a different cultural context. If you think that in terms of a kind of Western gender equality concern, here you don’t know why. It could have been an infighting within the ministry of culture, it could have been that somebody wanted a bribe. It could have been something as provincially stupid as, which I think it actually was, the perception of modern art. It’s cool now. Oligarchs fly out to Venice. Pinchuk center is cool now. But when something new and real like this starts, which people are talking about, it’s real art. Real art is not easy. It makes people talk. When something like that happens, it makes them scared. Basically they are provincial cowards. When Marcel Duchamps presented the urinal, “The Fountain” in Paris, it was not easy, it created a discussion. As an artist, you come up with something and you have no idea. It’s just another show. But sometimes you hit something that you did not intend and it makes people talk and it changes art. When there is some debate, art is never the same. How can one do that? Well, why not. It’s a free society.
The exhibition runs until 9th September. 5 Beauties get each a three-day time slot. If a Beauty comes to open her eyes, her sleeping is over and images of her waking up are screened until a new Beauty starts sleeping.