The Fairytale Lives: Unpublished Feature on Taras Polataiko’s “Sleeping Beauty”

With the gay marriage debates once again heating up in the United States and, of course, on Facebook, and actor Tilda Swinton’s sleeping in a glass box at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, now felt like the perfect time to revisit Canadian-Ukrainian artist Taras Polataiko’s Sleeping Beauty performance artwork, which went viral in the fall 2012. I originally wrote this article for Canada’s C Magazine. At the last minute, the editor-in-chief killed it. And I’m so glad he did because this story is not meant for print—it belongs right here, on the Internet. 

But I would also like to acknowledge the highly problematic nature of this piece as a whole, and realize why it didn’t get published.

When I wrote this story, I realize I was captivated by the fairytale of it all. Like falling in love, we become unaware of any real consequences or really even what is going on around us. It’s the best feeling—who doesn’t want to fall in love? Upon further reflection and discussions with colleagues, I have an additional comment. This piece is extremely problematic, on the whole. I didn’t want to write about it in a negative way, however, because I felt that a critique might ruin it—just like the unpacking of a fairytale idea ultimately ruins the magic that it conjures. Within Mr. Polataiko’s piece, we see stereotypes of Russian mail order brides, sensationalism and playing into the gay marriage/ soft activism stance at the last minute to seem newsy (which I will admit I did as well so I could have a reason to publish this piece that C Magazine killed off), the juxtaposition of fairytales in a consumer culture that literally sells fairytale dream weddings to women, thus propagating harmful cultural myths that a woman is not truly “valued” as a commodity exchange unless she is married or in a monogamous, state and church-sanctified union—which is completely disgusting considering where we are at culturally, that women’s bodies are even still thought of in this way. The commodification of women’s bodies in this work marks just the beginning of a meaningful critique. This would be a great starting point for a poignant piece, and I will eventually write it. Mr. Polataiko is a genius in that he tricked mainstream media and the Internet and especially the women who gave consent and willingly entered into this “marriage.” Essentially, he did rewrite the fairytale. What saddens me most is that these women are not aware of the consequences of what they willingly took part in—and some of them might even be lesbian, who knows. I have Facebook messaged with some of them, and even became their Facebook “friends.” This is a highly problematic work of “art,” and the critique of it remains up for discussion. But in order to truly critique this work, first we have to buy into the fairytale and all of its associated baggage. It’s fun for awhile, until reality sets in. I enjoyed the ride.

Taras Polataiko
Sleeping Beauty
National Museum of Art, Kyiv, Ukraine
Dates: August 22–September 29, 2012

Canadian-Ukranian Taras Polataiko’s conceptual work, though sensational and provocative, is charmingly subtle in its commentary on utopian ideals and government-sanctioned moments of consent. In Sleeping Beauty at the National Museum of Art Kyiv (August 22–September 29, 2012), Polataiko restaged Perault’s 1697 fairytale, and added a modern-day twist. Ukranian women auditioned for five coveted Sleeping Beauty roles. After extensive interviews and trials, Polataiko selected five to be a part of the three-week long fairytale performance. Visitors to the Sleeping Beauty exhibition ranged from everyday museum-goes to romantics ready to meet “the one.” Upon entering the exhibition, each signed a contract that stated they did not have mouth herpes and that, if they kissed a Sleeping Beauty and she woke up, they would marry her. The contract did not prescribe the kisser’s genders; indeed, the result could yield a gay or straight wedding. The Sleeping Beauties themselves were dependent on their intuition, the conceit being that if they opened their eyes it would certainly be because they felt “the one.” The performance ran for three weeks; the five Beauties took two-hour shifts, sleeping on a raised bed in the middle of the gallery.

Polataiko documented Sleeping Beauty (2012) in much the same way he did Kyiv Classical (2008)—with a camera that allowed the viewer full access into the performance. Kyiv Classical was similarly inspired by Polataiko’s home country, Ukraine. It documented his heroic search for a commemorative plaque that marked the site in Bad Ems, Germany where, in 1876, Russian Czar Alexander II signed a secret edict banning the Ukranian language. In Kyiv Classical, Polataiko positioned himself as a rewriter of history; in Sleeping Beauty, he called himself a weaver of fairytales, a contemporary Perault, an artist who modernizes the classic, universal fairytale. However, with Sleeping Beauty, Polataiko posted all video, photos, texts, links and other relevant information to his public Facebook page. This added a mediated layer to the paperback fairytale revision. Polataiko also made himself available via phone, email and Facebook to answer any questions; he became the Internet and real-life gatekeeper to this performance. At the same time, he guarded the five beauties. He married both the real-life and virtual realms of this durational performance that tested the limits of love.

Despite the addition of modern elements, fairytale aspects remained intact: a trust in fate to guide young lovers, a kiss to seal the future. All that was required of the willing participants was belief. Open eyes meant wedding bells. But would true love strike? This was the tricky part in such fantasy-infused work that walked the line between real life and synthetic fairytale.

As the three-week durational performance wore on, the exhibition captivated audiences like a reality TV show. Eric Satie’s Gnossienes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 played on a loop in the gallery, providing an eerily romantic ambiance. Tensions heightened as lips met. Sleeping Beauty walked a fine line between reality and fiction, the possibility of true love and the despair of being forever alone. This is extreme, perhaps—but aren’t all fairytales? Online viewers participated in Sleeping Beauty via an Internet livestream, waiting to see if the suitor in question might actually be “the one.” One Ukranian man watched news coverage of Sleeping Beauty on television, and then hopped a seven-hour train ride to Kyiv. After seeing one of the beautiful beauties on television, he felt convinced that she was supposed to be his bride. He arrived at the museum exhausted and ready to pucker his lips for that fateful moment. Yet when he kissed the Sleeping Beauty—who knew nothing of this princely journey—she laid still, her eyes closed and heart not skipping a beat.

On September 5, 2012, Sleeping Beauty Jana Krasna awoke to the kiss of another woman. Laughing and embarrassed, Jana and her “princess” weren’t sure what to make of a moment they’d supposedly been waiting for their whole lives. Internet headlines declaring a “lesbian kiss awakens Sleeping Beauty” ran in sites from the Huffington Post to the BBC. Could this queer kiss symbolize a shift in Ukraine’s stance against gay rights and same-sex marriage?

The unexpected lesbian moment left people baffled, unsure how to respond. If the point is for art to obfuscate, Polataiko accomplished his goal. Yet we’re left wondering whether love was what awoke or whether an altogether different awakening occurred. The Ukranian Ministry of Culture tried to shut down Sleeping Beauty on multiple occasions, bringing in a political twist both unexpected and shocking to this newly emerging country that experienced its first revolution, The Orange Revolution, in 2004–2005. But in this queer political moment, would the lesbian princesses even have the opportunity to live happily ever after? This is where the fairytale illusion crumbled and reality set in.

Ukraine is far from a gay marriage agenda, let alone LGBT visibility. In early October 2012, shortly after Polataiko’s exhibition closed, the Ukranian parliament voted in favor of a new law that banned “propaganda” about homosexuality. The outcome of Sleeping Beauty’s unexpected lesbian kiss could be labeled as such. Arrests and beatings regularly occur at Ukraine gay rights protests; queers have no governmental protection. Still, it’s never too late to “wake up,” and the unexpected lesbian kiss in Sleeping Beauty yields a seed of hope in a country that is still shaping its post-Soviet identity. Whether or not the romantic outcome of Polataiko’s Sleeping Beauty ends in marriage, perhaps one day two real-life Ukranian lesbian princesses will weave their own fairytale—and this nascent country will experience love anew.