The honest truth about me is that it’s really a mistake me being a performer at all.
I first encountered Tilda Swinton as an actress in Derek Jarman’s films – I was particularly drawn to her roles in Edward II (1991) and The Garden (1990). She was a performer whose androgyne presence somehow embodied the sexual openness of Jarman’s communist (and communal) aesthetic. Coming of age in the Thatcher period, Tilda represented an alternative femininity: socially engaged, staunchly committed. Her persona and intelligence were very attractive to a number of filmmakers – during that time, we even discussed a science fiction film project I was developing. However, as she says herself, Tilda was never quite or just an actor; rather an artist shifting the materiality of her craft between different registers. In fact, one might argue that it is precisely because she never trained to be an actress – she graduated in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge – that she was able to approach her roles with an unstudied directness.
Whatever the case, I think it safe to say that the films of Derek Jarman would not have developed their range and force without Tilda Swinton’s contribution. Since then, she has, of course, and maybe strangely enough – especially since her Oscar for Michael Clayton – also gone on to become a household name in mainstream cinema and seems equally comfortable with appearing on the covers of glossy magazines as she does headlining experimental low-budget projects such as Isaac Julien’s Derek in 2009. And it is this ability of Tilda Swinton’s to appeal to such diverse audiences while still maintaining her credibility and independence that makes her such a unique personality.
I particularly remember her 1995 Serpentine exhibition The Maybe, where she displayed herself sleeping in a glass vitrine. The experience of seeing Tilda in the coffin was uncanny. Whereas to see Derek Jarman at his funeral in 1994 in an open coffin, in the shimmering gold costume of a Roman emperor, was to see a waxwork – his spirit was already somewhere else – Tilda’s performance created a living wax figure – letting the audience explore their own fascination with the visuality of celebrity, while reminding them that they could, in fact, not possess this image.
Tilda Swinton’s reflections on her role in cinema is part of a long tradition in which performers have struggled to control the value they create and receive proper recognition of their creative contribution. (As far back as 1918, a travelling group of actors – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford – had the idea of taking control of their careers as performers by forming a film production company, United Artists.) Throughout the 20th century, artists discussed more collaborative and egalitarian ways of working: In the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht talked about the collaborative potential of radio, Walter Benjamin of film. In the postwar period, however, these debates rather fell away and it was left to critical theorists such as Michel Foucault to underline the way our society’s focus on the author’s name – the cult of authorship and creative genius – has inhibited these alternatives. Tilda Swinton’s film and exhibition projects outside of the Hollywood system have shown her to be committed to an art or cinema as a social practice – one in which production, distribution and exhibition are of equal value and all serve to nourish the dreams and fantasies of the 8½-year-old children we once were.
Introduction by Mark Nash