LETTER FROM EUROPE
We dodge the taxicabs hurtling down Charing Cross Road, hop over the puddles and hurry through the doors of London's National Portrait Gallery—a slow, steady stream of women shaking the rain from our umbrellas and asking, with just a hint of excitement, for Room 41. Deep in the belly of the gallery, beyond the Lucian Freuds and the Cecil Beatons, I join 11 visitors curled cross-legged on the floor, gazing at a plasma screen where a shirtless blond man lies sleeping: David Beckham, of course. David, Sam Taylor-Wood's 67-minute video of the slumbering football hero, was commissioned by the gallery and shot in a single take one afternoon in January as Beckham took a posttraining siesta in his Madrid hotel room. We settle in.
The monitor is positioned so that he is lying at our eye level: We can see only his head and his naked upper torso; light-blue sheets begin at his waist. It is amazingly intimate, as if, yes, you yourself are curled up in bed with Beckham. I think I can speak for all 12 of us in the room when I say that this is a mighty fine place to be. Taylor-Wood is a leading figure in the Young British Artists movement. Although the title of her Beckham portrait winks at Michelangelo's sculpture, she says that her inspiration was another of his sculptures, Night, a curiously muscular, semiclad woman carved in the 1520s for the crypt of Giuliano de' Medici in the Church of San Lorenzo, in Florence. Gazing at David, one can't help but think of Andy Warhol's Sleep—the 1963 film of the slumbering poet John Giorno, coupled, perhaps, with the rich hues and dark settings of a Caravaggio. Ultimately, though, David is nothing more than an hour or so's footage of a really handsome, really famous Real Madrid footballer fast asleep. Our thoughts, in Room 41, are full of the beauty of Beckham, and the creamy blue light bathing his torso. His golden shoulder may nod to the classical statues of the gods, but we mortal women gaze, moonfaced, at the soft flicker of his eyelashes. He licks his lips and scrabbles at the crucifix around his neck, he moves his hand, and the row of bands and bracelets around his wrist shuffle like waiting footmen. We are bewitched.
What is it about this man, with his metro-sexual style, his pop-star wife and his oddly named sons, that holds our attention? Since the news broke of his alleged affair with personal assistant Rebecca Loos (and a procession of honey-limbed others), we've all been given license to consider what it must be like to sleep with Becks. The video merely takes it one step further. After all, in the 17th century courtiers would take turns in the king's bed chamber, watching his majesty as he slept Why not today?
Still, no one lasts the full 67 minutes. They meander in, stay five minutes or 20, then meander out, perhaps because they do not wish to seem infatuated enough to stick around for most of the afternoon. Then suddenly Beckham rearranges his arms, and a flickering smile drifts across his face. We sit before him in respectful, half-blushing silence. Finally, Anna Carin Hollstrum, a 51-year-old administrator from Sweden, speaks up. "They said it was like Michelangelo," she says. "And I think it is."