A young man with rich brown hair, soft lips and a blindfold reposes on a mattress. It will only take one quick movement of your wrist to sign the waiver, and then he is yours to watch. To kiss. Or both.
This fairy tale come-to-life is what approximately 45 visitors encountered this past Saturday at Beauty Sleep, an experimental performance at Glasshouse. Those who participated did so with the hope of waking the modern day prince with a kiss because, if successful, they were promised a date with him.
“Someone described the piece as staring at a lover sleeping, wanting to connect with someone and not being able to,” said the artist, Scears Lee, who deleted his dating apps two weeks prior to the performance. For Lee, the purpose of sleeping for six hours in front of strangers, hoping one of them would awaken him with a kiss, was to meditate on the problems of online dating and to explore love and human connection.
Lee didn’t sleep for 24 hours prior to the show with the goal of forming a “spiritual connection” with the person who woke him from his slumber. Women and men, ranging in ages from 18 to the oldest in her 60s, came with the hopes of being “the one.” Lee chose to keep quiet about the fact that he is gay, lest it deter people of all genders and sexual orientations from connecting with him.
“I really wanted to create a piece where I was in the most vulnerable possible position and where I was not conscious of what was going on,” he said, and explained that the whole social experiment was filmed and photos were taken of participants. “I want to create work where I can observe from a third perspective.”
Lee, hailing originally from Atlanta and now a denizen of Bushwick, has had work exhibited at places like Dixon Place, The Bushwick Starr and Cloud City. He also worked with the well-known artist Marina Abramovic, who helped guide his approach to performance art.
A romantic at his core, Lee was compelled to create this experiment and an earlier piece (OkCupid Graveyard) in which he filmed a run through Greenwood Cemetery and recited messages from the dating site. The end goal was to help himself and others who are hurt (either consciously or subconsciously) by online dating.
“These messages we’re sending on all of these apps, we don’t realize how much they’re affecting us,” he said when describing the cemetery piece and how his two years on OkCupid impacted him. “They’re taking mental and physical space inside of our bodies. So I created the piece as a way to release those from my mind. The idea was that these accounts that we have are sort of like a graveyard and these messages are like ghosts that are living inside of all of us. I think [Beauty Sleep] was just the next step in this work.”
Lee was quick to clarify that he is also “part of the problem.” He said he doesn’t have any friends who date more than he does and only recently purged himself of the problematic apps. “The immediacy of these apps has created this barrier between us and other people. It’s sort of like stripping away our ability to be intimate,” Lee said. “That’s what I’m trying to do in my work, to truly be intimate and vulnerable. To help people or change people, make people think about what it means to be vulnerable.”
His vulnerability and his desire to make his audience contemplate their own comfortability with intimacy were so effective that some visitors reacted negatively. A few refused to enter the exhibit altogether, and others entered only to leave in a fury because they weren’t willing to kiss Lee. Those who did participate usually kissed him tentatively – placing quick kisses on his hands or forehead like you would your grandma.
But Lee’s original goal was that everyone would kiss him in a more intimate way – on the lips. Away from the gallery this may not seem like a challenge, but consider watching someone sleep and then kissing them unawares. A shade disturbing if you don’t know them, right? For some, such an act is as embarrassing as catching a stranger in the shower.
“I don’t know if it was the stillness and the vulnerability of the piece that scared or intimidated them,” said Lee with puzzlement. “But for some reason it made a lot people really uncomfortable.”
But for a few women the situation wasn’t embarrassing. Instead, it was so appealing they were emboldened by it. Lee, who watched the video after the performance, said one woman watched him sleep for an hour and a half. She told a performance facilitator that she came to the exhibit because she was looking for love. “That was the cool thing for me — people are looking for the same thing I am,” added Lee.
Even cooler (or, should we say, hotter)? The moment that Lee was awakened, which only happened once at the end of the performance. The person with the magic lips was a 51-year-old woman.
“I haven’t spoken to her, but the people I was working with on the piece said that she seemed really willing,” said Lee, who went back to sleep immediately after the kiss to allow others a chance to awaken him. “She really wanted to connect with someone. Maybe her kiss was more physically forceful or something.”
In a follow up email Lee wrote that he plans on meeting the woman who woke him. He also discussed the kiss: “I still don’t know why she woke me. Maybe out of all of the participants she had the most love to give. Or maybe she needed love the most.”