In Taras Polataiko’s Sleeping Beauty, a tableau vivant performance piece at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, the pretty, reclining young woman in question is under contractual agreement to marry whoever awakens her with a kiss. Her suitors have signed contracts, too, and they have also been vetted: proven to be single, tested for oral herpes and offered mints to freshen their breath. And, though same-sex marriages are not legal in Ukraine, the kissing suitors can be women or men.
This is a very modern turn of affairs, quite unlike anything Charles Perrault, who published the ancient story in 1697 as “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” or the Brothers Grimm, who revised the fairy tale in 1812 as “Little Briar Rose,” could have imagined. Yet the old, archetypal stories, fraught with the truths of human passions, frailties and intrigues, are what interest Polataiko, a Ukrainian-born artist based in Alberta, as well as what might happen when fiction crosses over and the fairy tale becomes real.
Polataiko’s bringing to life of the myth, in this era of The Bacheloretteand similarly lovelorn reality shows, has cast a spell on international media from Forbes to Le Figaro. Polataiko is surprised by his project’s global reach; he expected one review that probably nobody would read. Instead the Guardian, the Telegraph, BBC, Der Stern, Huffington Post,Euronews and many others have all come calling. Part of the attraction is surely the novelty of the potential for real and binding life consequences to result from an artwork. Another enticement is the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture’s attempt to shut the exhibition down on the day before the opening, for reasons that remain unspecified. The artist responded to museum officials simply by asking if he should call Reuters, and any objections were worked out.
What has been largely overlooked in the global media frenzy, however, are the provocative precedents for Sleeping Beauty in Polataiko’s oeuvre, as well as the performance’s connections to the Canadian prairies.
Polataiko’s practice goes back and forth between Ukraine and Canada, where the 45-year-old artist has lived since 1989. He teaches art at the University of Lethbridge, which has funded Sleeping Beauty along with the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and he has represented both Ukraine and Canada at various international art festivals. He was one of 22 artists in “Rearview Mirror: New Art From Eastern and Central Europe,” recently co-presented by the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Power Plant. He will also be one of 36 artists at the 2013 Alberta Biennial at the AGA, which (full disclosure) I am curating.
Polataiko’s debut as an artist-provocateur actually came some 20 years ago on the streets of Saskatoon with the performance Artist as Politician: In the Shadow of the Monument (1992). For this work, the artist, covered with graphite, stood motionless on the street for hours and impersonated an official statue of Canada’s then–Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn, a Ukrainian Canadian and alumnus of the University of Saskatchewan, where Polataiko had just completed his graduate work. Polataiko’s living monument was dedicated to all Ukrainian Canadians who did not become Governor General.
Four years later, Polataiko travelled to Ukraine to visit Chernobyl. On the 10th anniversary of the meltdown of the town’s nuclear reactor, the artist exposed himself to a light dose of radiation. When he returned to Canada, he made Cradle, a nickel-plated bathtub into which he poured his gradually recycled radioactive blood and sealed the top.
While this latter work is an extreme example, throughout his career, Polataiko has been more willing than most to enter risky territory that brings life so far into art as to make people uncomfortable—and he has done this with great purpose and intent.
Reality TV, which is crass but not very real, gives The Bachelorette a way out of the commitments she makes while in the public eye. Not so for Polataiko’s Sleeping Beauty.
“I posted the description of the project on the National Museum’s web page,” Polataiko says in an email from Kiev, where the performance is ongoing through September 9. “No specific requirements: anyone over 18 and single. More than 100 women sent their info. Every one of them was invited to the interview, but only 20 actually came after they realized that I’m not joking about the marriage contract.
“In the beginning, I planned to have only one Beauty, just like in the fairy tale. But so many amazing bright young women came to the interviews that I thought it would be unfair to exclude them. So I decided to invite five. The performance is 15 days long, so each sleeps for three days. This fairy tale is gentle and magical. It attracted people who are beautiful, gentle and refined. Each girl has her own motivation and expectations from the project. They are very different.”
One Beauty told the Telegraph in a video interview, “If I feel it’s my true love, I will feel it on an intuitive level…if I don’t feel it, I won’t open my eyes. Anything can happen in life. And suddenly, it’s fate. What if this is the only way I’ll meet my soulmate?” Such high romanticism, acted out in Ukraine, well known as a source of mail-order brides, might make one wonder if the artist’s project is cynical or skeptical at very least. But he says not: “No, I’m being very sincere.”
And so this Sleeping Beauty, which could give sociologists a field day, is fuelled, unpredictably, by some of the old mysteries of love, life and art. Will Beauty intuitively sense the arrival of true love and seal her fate when she awakens to the touch of her Prince’s lips—and actually marry someone she has never seen before?
“I really don’t know,” Polataiko says. “It’s life, and what’s happening in the show is incredibly intense and unpredictable. It is so intense that all I can do after those three hours is to go for a quick drink and try to get some sleep to be ready for the next day.”
Whatever magic in the Prince’s kiss aroused the original Beauty from her 100-year sleep, in 2012, such awakening is up to the woman’s choice. As of this writing, none of the five women, dressed in white like brides, has opened her eyes. The Beauties take turns in the performance, “sleeping” for two hours at a time on a high, bier-like bed with a white satin pillow and sheet, while the slow tempos of Eric Satie’sGnossiennes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 play in the gallery.
In versions of the story older than Perrault’s, like Giambattista Basile’s 1634 tale Sole, Luna e Talia, the Beauty was penetrated and impregnated as she slept. In the museum, the rule is one kiss on the face; otherwise, it is forbidden to touch the artwork. Polataiko expelled one man who gently touched one of the Beauties on the wrist. Another suitor traveled 600 kilometres after seeing a story about the exhibition on the television news.
“He saw the Beauty on TV and thought she was his destiny,” says Polataiko. “He took a night train, came to Kiev early in the morning, and stood motionless behind the two huge lion sculptures in front of the museum, leaning against the tree and holding a big rose in his hand. He stood there from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. waiting for the show to open. We were all really worried at the museum.
“He came in very timid and really pale, spent some time just looking at the Beauty, then put his hands together like in the prayer. Eventually he stepped up to the Beauty, gently kissed her on the forehead and froze for a second, hoping. She didn’t wake up. He started walking backwards still facing her, then all of a sudden he dropped on his knees and bowed to her, his head touching the museum floor. He was in tears. I was, too.”
Given such intense encounters, Polataiko and a security guard do hover nearby during exhibition hours to make sure that no one takes liberties with the Beauty. “I’m always there near the Beauties to make sure nothing inappropriate happens,” the artist says. “I function as a guard, photographer, computer tech for online live streaming and a general coordinator of the whole project.”
That art awakens intense desire, and the desire to possess, is certainly one of the several themes of Polataiko’s Sleeping Beauty. Its installation references the ancient Cretan palace of Knossos, which some believe stands over the monstrous Minotaur’s labyrinth, and its music is from Satie’s mystical Gnostic period. It is an allegory of romantic love in which the smitten, each blinded by Eros, marry without really knowing each other at all.
Yet there are also strong current-day sagas of desire—this time for power—evoked in the work, as this performance constructs a political allegory related directly to Polataiko’s homeland.
“Sleeping Beauty” is a story about patience, Polatiko says, in a country with a difficult history where “people have been patient for a very long time.” In a report on PRI’s The World, interviewer Marco Werman asked a pointed question about the 2004 uprising, known as the Orange Revolution, which resulted in the election of Ukraine’s first female prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Last October, she was given a seven-year jail sentence for abusing her public office, by men she claims are her “old guard political opponents.”
While Tymoshenko awaits release, Polataiko told Werman, “nobody is really doing anything. It’s a place of apathy. It seems like nobody cares about politics, because everybody is so disappointed about the bad outcome, or the failure, of the Orange Revolution…. The Sleeping Beauty is waiting, and waiting is a kind of patience.”
But Polataiko thinks he could also redo Sleeping Beauty in any country, he says. “It shows a lot about society. Each culture is different, so the show would be a completely different experience in each country. In Ukraine, it revealed the most gentle, beautiful and magical qualities of the human soul, as well as the ugliest ones. Full spectrum. I’ve met and became friends with most wonderful gentle souls who contacted me offering their help with the project because they liked it and wanted to live in the fairy tale. And there were also pretty ugly, bureaucratic, corrupt, cowardly creatures that were trying to shut down the fairy tale to protect their asses. It is too raw, sincere and real for them, I guess.
“There is a cursed beauty in Gogol’s classic story ‘Viy,’ based on an ancient folk tale—a quintessential Ukrainian narrative in my opinion. When the Ministry of Culture was trying to shut my fairy tale down one day before the opening, it came to me that I’m Khoma, who is reading prayers for the dead beauty in the church for three nights. He draws the magic circle around himself on the church floor to make himself invisible to the hideous monsters that are trying to break in, as he is praying for the Beauty within the enchanted circle.
In Gogol’s story, Khoma dies. Meanwhile, Polataiko is protecting hisSleeping Beauty, which has special resonance in Ukraine but is open to many interpretations. “It’s really interesting to watch Euronews TV coverage of Sleeping Beauty,” he says. “The same video is being interpreted in completely different unrelated ways in 11 different languages. I’ve posted some on my Facebook page. I’m also thinking of doing Amor and Psyche and reversing the gender roles.”