Sleep in public for $10 an hour! That’s the offer that lured hundreds of young women (18-40 only please, with active health insurance) to try out for This is XX, a “living sculpture” by the Chinese artist Chu Yun, 33, currently showing at the New Museum. I auditioned in order to write a story about the exhibit from the outside, but wound up being selected as a participant.
12:08 a.m.: The night before, I try to stay up late and build up a sleep deficit. Things that don’t work: A bottle of wine; a disingenuous attempt to forge a commitment to HBO’s insufferable In Treatment. I fall asleep at 2 a.m., then sleep through the alarm I’d set for 6.
11:45 a.m.: I arrive at the New Museum not tired at all. I change into my sleeping outfit (white T-shirt, flimsy shorts) and take a Tylenol PM. (My choice; they’d suggested Ambien.)
11:57 a.m.: An intern escorts me down to the exhibition space. She tells me that the girl who slept here Tuesday, on opening night, was “hit” by a guest, but that I am safe because today it won’t be nearly as crowded.
12:02 p.m.: The bed is a cubic iceberg in the middle of the floor—no ropes or do-not-cross lines. I climb under the duvet and take out the book that I was told to bring to help me fall asleep (Cathedral, by Raymond Carver—a self-conscious choice, not overly erudite). But re-creating a bedtime routine is hard when the environment is the audiovisual opposite of a bedroom. I guess this is why they suggested earplugs. I wish I’d listened.
12:20 p.m.: Pretending to sleep. The nearest installation is a Polish movie in which disembodied heads and anthropomorphized vaginas dance across the screen to a thunderous voice, “If only there was no evil, illnesses, cripples …”
12:25 p.m.: Guests’ shoes start to click around me. The most popular topic of conversation: whether or not I’m real. Cameras snap in my direction. I drape my arms in the thinnest-looking way possible.
2:18 p.m.: I wake up to a gravelly voice whispering in my ear, “Sleeping beauty, sleeping beauty …” It’s so close I can feel the hot breath on my cheek. I panic, disoriented and momentarily unable to move or open my eyes.
2:20 p.m.: When Prince Charming seems a safe distance away, I check my phone and am delighted to see that two hours have passed in unconsciousness. But I’m hungry, my contacts itch and I need to pee.
2:25 p.m.: I hear footsteps passing by but little dialogue. I worry that I’m a boring sleeper.
2:33 p.m.: A young boy asks, “Is she real?” Someone who sounds like his mother tells him I’m not. “But she’s breathing,” he insists. “They put something in there to make it look like she is,” says the mom. I stretch dramatically and flip over onto my stomach. The kid shrieks.
2:39 p.m.: Two women are talking about my red hair. One starts to stroke it. Move along, please.
2:44 p.m.: I still need to pee. No way around it. I slowly open my eyes, run across the floor in my socks and jump on the next elevator that arrives. I’m so eager to escape the gawking guests that I don’t notice it’s headed down instead of up. There are more people inside, and they stiffen and exchange glances. We stop at six different floors. Should’ve worn a bra.
2:50 p.m.: I get back into bed and shamefully cocoon myself in the duvet. I think I know every line of the dystopian Polish film now.
3:12 p.m.: No footsteps for a while, so I open my eyes for a second to adjust my contacts. I am looking straight into the blue eyes of a carefully disheveled young fellow not two feet away. I give him a quick smile and snap my eyes shut.
3:18 p.m.: More camera noises. A man tells a woman, “It’s for her book! She’s gotta have a book deal.” No such luck.
4:30 p.m.: Someone is touching me and saying my name in a warm British accent. It’s the intern, come to collect me. I’ve managed to fall asleep for the rest of my shift. After I change clothes I stick around for a few minutes to watch the girl who has taken my place and is already dozing peacefully on her side. She’s a much better sleeper than I was. Or maybe she’s just pretending.