In 1978, Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic documented himself sleeping in a Zagreb gallery, giving his performance the title “Artist at Work”. Stilinovic’s gesture was not only a critique of the ideologization of work under socialism, but also of the imperative of productivity weighing upon Western art. Stilinovic went on to write the manifesto “The Praise of Laziness” in 1993, in which he declared laziness as the very condition of art.
In 1963, Andy Warhol famously produced about 5 hours of film, documenting his lover and poet John Giorno sleeping. “Sleep” was an anti-film and thus an anti-work (of art).
In “Artist Portraits”, we see Pierre Bismuth napping on a couch in what could be his studio, in broad daylight. The dramatic curtain and the dark paint of the wall can do little to stop the cold bright light – the artist is shielding his eyes with his hand in his sleep. The photographer has allowed the light to penetrate all detail, avoiding any over-dramatization of shadows and half-tones. It is a beautifully composed, yet perfectly raw image.
Pierre Bismuth’s nap could be interpreted along the lines of the aforementioned works, as a refusal of utility, and within a whole lineage of iconography of workers at rest. Work and sleep, the abandoned body, being in and out of the demands of the world, in and out of productivity and of reason itself. Watching someone we don’t know asleep can be a form of forced intimacy, but here the visual distance from the subject and the play of dark horizontal and vertical lines make the body of the artist not the focus of the composition, but simply a structural element of its equilibrium.
This being a portrait, sleep is also a refusal of representation. What is an artist? How does an image represent who the artist is and what the artist does? For all we know from this picture, the artist might not even be asleep, but simply posing, shutting his eyes, hiding his face, not doing anything that could be interpreted as personal or artistic identification, not revealing anything about himself. Isn’t it an artist’s privilege to be both connected with and disconnected from his world, to be both in and out of himself? Sleep makes us anonymous, the artist remains undefined.
We can very well imagine the words Michelangelo put in the mouth of his sleeping sculpture “Night” being muttered by this napping (anti-)representation of an artist:
My sleep is dear to me, and more dear this being of stone,
as long as the agony and shame last.
Not to see, not to hear [or feel] is for me the best fortune;
So do not wake me! Speak softly.