Did Lady Gaga Rip Off Artist Taras Polataiko?

Lady Gaga sleeping at the Guggenheim
Lady Gaga sleeping at the Guggenheim (screen shot via YouTube)

Lady Gaga hosted the last big party of fashion week on September 14 by creating “Sleeping With Gaga,” a performance that has uncomfortable similarities with Canadian-Ukranian artist Taras Polataiko’s recent Sleeping Beauty. After drawing a lot of international press and attention, his modern-day fairytale closed at the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kiev on September 9, five days before her one-night-only performance took place at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Fairytales are continually updated to comment on the current times. Gaga used “Sleeping Beauty” to discuss the state of celebrity in the internet age, whereas Polataiko commented not only on the political state of “sleeping” Ukraine post–Orange Revolution but also on the possibilities of a queered fairytale.

In Gaga’s rendition, the mega pop star wore a black dress rather than a classic white one, as in Polataiko’s project. Gaga slept for an hour Thursday evening, positioned on a black raised bed inside a giant mock-up bottle of her new fragrance, Lady Gaga Fame. Outside of the bottle and inside the museum, people spritzed each other with samples of Fame. Visitors were allowed to touch Gaga only through a porthole in the bottle. Her performance was live-streamed, just like Polataiko’s.

One of Polataiko's Sleeping Beauties at the museum in Ukraine
One of Polataiko’s Sleeping Beauties at the museum in Ukraine (screen shot via YouTube)

In his Sleeping Beauty, a rotation of Ukranian women dressed in white dresses slept on a raised bed inside the museum. Polataiko both guarded the women and documented the performance. Visitors to the exhibition could kiss the women as long as they had signed a contract stating that if a beauty awoke to his or her kiss, the two must marry. In fact, one of the beauties is now on her way to marrying another woman. Lady Gaga, protected inside of her giant perfume bottle of Fame, awoke on her own. Did Lady Gaga rip off of Taras Polataiko?

I spoke with the artist to get his thoughts on this pop culture appropriation of his work. In art, after all, it’s usually the other way around.

Alicia Eler: When you conceived of the Sleeping Beauty project, did you forsee the sort of global success it has attained?

Taras Polataiko: No. I thought it was going to be a normal art show. I was hoping to get a review or two in the art magazines. It’s a very quiet and gentle show after all.

AE: Are you a fan of Lady Gaga’s music? What type of message do you feel this appropriation sends to her fans?

TP: To be honest, I don’t know her music. I know it probably sounds strange and I don’t want to be rude, but it is true. I live a pretty solitary life, and I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. My musical taste is pretty far from that type of music. I listen to Erik Satie and Tom Waits. I don’t know what message she’s sending, but she’s sending a live stream, just like I did. Surprising? I guess it is surprising in its obviousness. Imitation is the best form of flattery.

AE: Do you feel like Lady Gaga stole your concept? 

TP: From what I read in the link a friend sent to me, she was just sleeping in some sort of perfume bottle, and the whole purpose of this “performance” was to sell that new perfume. This is as far from my concept as it can possibly be. There is no money in my piece. Everyone participated voluntarily. It was very important for me ethically and magically. Money spoils the fairytale.

AE: Andy Warhol and Richard Prince became famous for incorporating images from pop culture into their art. What happens when the idea flips and pop culture appropriates an artist’s work? 

TP: When artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Prince appropriate pop imagery, it makes you think about the nature of art, images, and their circulation and hierarchy. These artists are making you think about things you wouldn’t have thought about without knowing their work. When pop culture appropriates the work of an artist, there’s nothing left to think about. It’s just sad. It vulgarizes the beauty and the gentle complexity of art. It dumbs it down.

There’s a difference between banal theft and sensitive homage to another artist. The first one kills the beauty and fragility of the original by using its most obvious features without any understanding of its essence. The second one pays homage to the original and takes it further. It preserves the essence of the original and shows something new about it, making us think about it again and again. In short, the first one kills art. The second one extends its life. It’s a difference between brutality and gentleness.

AE: Will you talk to Lady Gaga about this? 

TP: I’ve spent all my money making Sleeping Beauty, and I can’t afford the lawyer. And I’m not good at attacking people. I just want to make more good art, and I hope that life will sort things out.

AE: Where do you want to take Sleeping Beauty next? 

TP: It would make sense to show it at the Guggenheim now.

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