Ukrainian Sleeping Beauty art exhibit seeks to awaken political slumber

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Sleeping beauty in Ukraine (Photo courtesy of the National Art Museum of Ukraine.)

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In 2004, Ukraine seemed to be a country on the verge of great change.

It didn’t have a civil war, but it did have an uprising that was dubbed the Orange Revolution, which sought to rid Ukraine of its corrupt Old Communist Guard and bring in democracy.

One of the uprising’s leaders was Yulia Tymoshenko. She went on to become the country’s first female Prime Minister. But since August 2011, she’s been in jail, convicted of abusing her public office. She claims she’s being persecuted by her political opponents who have returned to power. Ukraine’s highest court rejected her appeal last week and upheld her seven-year prison sentence.

Tymeshenko’s supporters in Kiev rallied after the ruling, shouting the word “Shame” over and over. Supporters outside the country include the European Union, which has been critical of the ruling, casting doubt on Ukraine's efforts toward EU integration.

There’s another event taking place in Kiev that at first glance seems unrelated, but shares a common thread with Tymeshenko.

An art exhibit called “the Sleeping Beauty project” has been causing a stir in Ukraine. It’s part social experiment — part political statement

The exhibit features women who look to be sleeping. Certain gallery visitors have the opportunity to kiss the sleeping woman. If she opens her eyes, she is to marry the person who kissed her.

Artist Taras Polataiko, who created the exhibit, said the project represents Ukrainian patience, with Ukraine in the role of the Sleeping Beauty.

“It has had a difficult and even tragic history, and somehow, I think the enduring, kind of long patience,” Polataiko said. “With Tymoshenko in jail, nobody is really doing anything. It’s like a place of apathy. It seems like nobody cares about politics because everybody’s so disappointed about the bad outcome or the failure of the Orange Revolution.”

During the Orange Revolution, thousands of Ukrainians protested the results of the 2004 presidential election, with allegations of massive corruption, voter intimidation and direct electoral fraud.

The Ukrainian government allowed new elections to take place, and Victor Yuschenko, the people’s choice, won. But three years ago, when the country held new elections, Ukrainians elected the candidate who’d been defeated in the Orange Revolution, Victor Yanukovych. Some Orange Revolution leaders, like Tymoshenko, have been put in jail.

“The Sleeping Beauty is waiting, and waiting is a type of patience. The other thing that I’m interested in is taking the old archetypal narrative, which any fairytale is and making it real and seeing what happens,” Polataiko said.

The gallery consists of five sleeping beauties who each get three days of the 15-day exhibit.  Polataiko said the room is empty except for the sleeping beauty, dressed in white, and the white bed she sleeps on.

“To make it simple, if you kiss her and she opens her eyes, you marry her,” he said.

Anyone who is over 18 and single can come into the exhibit. They choose between a contract and a statement. The statement is an agreement that whoever signs it will not kiss the sleeping women, but just observe. If an attendee signs the contract, it means they’re a potential kisser.

If the woman opens her eyes during the kiss, then legally, the person who kissed her must marry her.

None of the beauties have opened their eyes yet.

“What makes the performance intense, is that the consequences are serious,” he said. “I describe them in terms of roles — the prince and the beauty. The prince has to think twice because he doesn’t know the essence of the beauty, he just sees the surface, and the beauty is opposite. The beauty doesn’t get to see the prince, but she gets to feel intuitively.”

Polataiko said the women are OK with the arrangement.

“I root for all of them because they’re really romantic types. They’re really romantic souls,” he said. “It’s magical, and the kind of people it attracted are of that kind. They’re very refined and gentle girls, and they’re smart and beautiful. They actually believe they want to find their true love."

If at any time the women feel uncomfortable, they lift their hand to let the security guards handle the situation. There’s also a rule that says no touching.

“Everything's been great so far, but I pushed one guy slightly back because I think he kind of got too emotional and he touched her gently on the wrist,” Polataiko said. “He was mad at me, because he actually left the iPad on the bed, and eventually the beauty (said) there was money in it for her ticket to Amsterdam to visit him and his e-mail address.”

The exhibit is at the National Art Museum in Ukraine.

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