The Dark Self by Michael White

Catalogue essay for The Dark Self, York St Mary’s, 2017

The Dark Self, 2017
York St Mary’s
7 June – 3 September 2017

Sleeping is the clear action which promises us to the day. To sleep: admire this remarkable act of vigilance. Only deep sleep lets us escape what there is in the deep of sleep. Where is night? There is no longer any night.[1]

‘How did you sleep?’ It is a question I have asked and been asked a thousand times. The answers I have given or heard over the years are very limited, though. ‘Well.’ ‘Not very well.’ ‘Woke up a lot.’ ‘Great.’ ‘Not a wink.’ Describing the experience of sleep is a difficult thing to do. Often we focus on the not-sleeping aspect of it. And even when we want to describe a positive experience, our metaphorical range is scant. I slept like a…what do we say? A baby? A log? A dead man, as a Greek friend once informed me?[2] Really good sleep frequently elicits negative comparisons, either to earlier stages of physical development or to a very late ones (such as death), to inertness and to states of non-being. Many of our colourful stories about sleep also relate it to deathlike states. Think of Sleeping Beauty, or Rip van Winkle, the idle man who missed the American Revolution. He was not so much asleep as stuck, immobile, unmoving while every living thing changed around him.

Ironically, the author of the latter tale, Washington Irving, wrote the story in a moment of inspiration that he compared to waking from a long sleep.[3] The mental clarity we have in the morning is why we often ‘sleep on’ things we are struggling to decide, indicating that more is going on during those missing hours than attested to by our ability to recount the experience of them. Since ancient times, sleep has been considered the antithesis of wakefulness and defined as the absence of consciousness.[4] Many serious and worthy thinkers have looked down on sleep as indolence, as wasted time.[5] They have almost defined their intellectual seriousness in terms of their sleeplessness. The heroism of insomnia can be found as a running thread through much modern literature and philosophy.[6] Nietzsche’s Zarathustra suggested that those who heard his message would awaken and then ‘stay awake for ever.’[7] The Italian Futurist poet, F.T. Marinetti styled himself ‘the caffeine of Europe.’[8] Much research on sleep until recent times was focused on how it could be controlled, and best of all avoided.[9] Sleep has been deemed a primitive thing, the only purpose of which was to serve the wakeful mind by granting it rest. It was nothing of consequence in itself and potentially linked to the troublesome illusions that are dreams. The research which underpins the art work in this exhibition paints a very different picture, though.

It was not until comparatively recently that neuroscientists sought to look at brain activity at a moment when the brain was thought to be doing very little, i.e. when we sleep, particularly the state of deep sleep. The result was astonishing. It was quickly observed that there is as much brain activity during deep sleep as at any other time. Furthermore, the brain is just as busy during very deep sleep, the period during which we are not even dreaming. What the brain is doing at such a time and why we need to be in a state of unconsciousness during it are the questions Professor Miles Whittington, Chair of Neuroscience at the University of York, is pursuing. It seems those ‘wasted’ hours are not inconsequential after all. Indeed, Professor Whittington’s research indicates that they may be the most vital times of brain function, crucial for our mental health. No longer something to be conquered, this research has determined how important sleep is to our very being. It should not be disdained but protected, shielded from invasion by a culture that insists on a permanent state of alertness.[10]

For the past three years, the artist Susan Aldworth has been part of the research project, bringing to it her own questions, primarily ones concerning creativity and selfhood, such as she has explored in several recent bodies of work.[11] The results are to be seen in this exhibition, which invites us to consider how artistic processes can also offer insight into the problem of the experience of sleep. Can we really know nothing of what appears to be an activity essential to our very existence? How is it that we can be switched off for these processes to be undertaken? And indeed, who are we at that moment? The collective title for the works on display is The Dark Self, incorporating prints, sculptures, a film and a large-scale collaborative work, all aimed at communicating how this most ungraspable phenomenon allows us to be who we are. Intriguingly, the common motif linking all of the works together is not the brain, or even the human head, but the pillow on which it rests. Just as Professor Whittington’s research transforms our understanding of deep sleep from a negative to a positive, visualised as the image of heightened brain activity ‘lighting up’ on a screen, so for Aldworth the seeming absence of the self in sleep has been given presence through the materials which accompany it.[12]

Sleeping is an act, an act that has its rituals, objects and sensations. But it is an act we cannot will. We speak of falling asleep, of sleep overcoming us. We have to take ourselves unawares to achieve it. The folds and creases of the pillow speak both of struggles to sleep and the joyful sinking into it. The pressure of the head on the pillow is made extraordinarily manifest in Aldworth’s sculptures titled The Evidence of Sleep. Every sinking in is accompanied by a pressing out. Every falling has a rising, like the rhythms of breathing and the cadences of slumbering and waking themselves. While sleep might seem to be a form of disembodiment, its postures are one of its key aspects. All creatures who sleep, adopt a particular bodily manner to do so.[13] Without representing the body itself, Aldworth has provided a powerful means to reimagine sleep as embodiment in its greatest intensity.

In the monotype prints, pillows reappear in the form of pillowcases, which Aldworth has used as printing surfaces, inked silver or gold and pressed onto black paper. Any sense of their inherent flatness is quickly contradicted by the strange sense of space their bright textures create. Aldworth has added more stuff to them, indeed some of their potential stuffing, feathers and hair, the traces of which weave and float betwixt and between them. An intaglio plate at the very centre produces the same sense of pressure to be found in the sculptures, cleverly using the devices of printing itself to indicate the way that our sleep is imprinted onto the materials with which we surround it. As in the sculptures, this negative space at the very heart of the work performs a positive role, forming a portal into which our attention sinks and the promise of sleep beckons.

Negative and positive impinge on Professor Whittington’s research in other ways. As an electrophysiologist, he researches electrical activity in the brain, looking for patterns that will identify what is taking place under particular circumstances. One way to find out what could be happening during deep sleep – something to which we cannot testify and during which we cannot be compelled – is to compare its brain patterns to those of waking states when test subjects can be asked to perform activities that can be more accurately controlled. Control and lack of it are fundamentally embedded into the printing processes Aldworth employs and, like the state of unconsciousness itself, the moment the paper is in the printing press, it is completely out of sight and out of the artist’s hands. Where the artist leaves off, the paper itself becomes most active, absorbing and resisting the inks, creasing and rebounding under pressure from the plate and other objects. Each impression is unique and unrepeatable. While the format of pillowcase and paper size establishes certain parameters and apparent repetitions, can we really equate any two prints, or have the same experience of sleep on any two nights?

Printing famously obliges the artist to think in reverse. What will be printed is a mirror image of what is on the plate or printing surface. Here, the pillowcase, as surrogate for human head, shares its basic left-right symmetry. The structure of Aldworth’s prints, with their powerful central focus, encourages us to think in these bilateral terms, although without showing a bias for either side. Could sleep involve losing the sense of left and right? Losing our orientation? Or is it a process of becoming completely centred? Aldworth’s film, Dormez-vous?, features many images of pairs. A woman pours water from two jugs at the same time, one in each hand. Two girls skip in time. Clouds pour and fold into each other, sucked into the centre, like moving Rorschach inkblots, the symmetry of which was identified by their psychologist designer as a means of encouraging his subjects to address them as a whole.[14] But often that wholeness is fleeting. Sometimes the two sides of the screen mirror each other. Then they double. Then the doubles split off from each other. What is in step one moment, such as acrobats and divers, is out of step the next, while we hear repeatedly the children singing the canon, Frère Jacques, sometimes synchronised, sometimes not.

Dormez-vous? features a large amount of found film footage, some of it tinged with nostalgia, relating to childhood memories of circuses and playgrounds, some if it derived from scientific studies, some (such as the brain ‘lighting up’) from Professor Whittington’s very own research. Speeded up and slowed down, a hallucinatory effect is produced that echoes Surrealism, the twentieth century art movement most concerned with the state of sleep and in particular dreaming. In his 1930 film L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold), the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel experimented with the latest techniques of sound recording, synchronisation and overdubbing, to combine sounds produced by the actors and others by the environment (wind, traffic etc.) with music and with old fashioned intertitles in a fully dissociative manner.[15] Buñuel deliberately confused internal and external sound in his film. Actors both responded to each other’s speech but also to ‘noises off,’ frequently disordering the sense of what is perceived to be nearby and what far away. In Aldworth’s film, children we never see sing as if close to us (to wake us or put us to sleep?), while phrases cut from odd film clips accompany strange chords and shimmers produced by the composer Barney Quinton’s sleeping brain, electrical signals which have been converted into notes. Unlike the regular thud of blood pumping in the ears, which can keep one awake for hours, Quinton’s melodies wash over us and are barely memorable. Only when we no longer hear ourselves can we achieve the state of being most internalised.

While similarly disorientating, Aldworth’s approach ultimately departs from Surrealism in the unifying rhythms of sound and vision she assembles. While calling for the resolution of ‘dream and reality […] into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality,’ as the poet André Breton put it in his Manifesto of Surrealism, the Surrealists valued sleep, dreams and the night as radical challenges to the rationality of modern existence and were therefore loathed to seek purpose in them.[16] The enemy of the dream in Breton’s view was memory, which took pleasure in ‘stripping it of any real importance.’[17] What Breton had little sense of in his day and is becoming ever clearer in neuroscientific research is the connection between sleep and the laying down of memories. Rather than a process of forgetting or forgetfulness, sleep is essential for us to remember anything. The large installation at the centre of the exhibition concerns this issue. Titled 1001 Nights, it is a research experiment in its own right, one involving a host of participant sleepers. They have all responded to Aldworth’s call to embroider something related to their own experience of sleep onto a pillowcase. It may be the experience of a single night or a synthesis of many, a continuous thread of sleeping. The stitching and connecting that the sleepers have performed has more than mere metaphorical resonance, though. Just as Aldworth uses the means of printing itself to reflect on what can be known or not known, predicted or not, embroidering obliges the participant sleepers to engage in an act of close concentration, the kind in which one readily loses oneself. The recent resurgence of craft activities, in the form of ‘mindfulness,’ is the reappearance of age-old means of mental relaxation. Have we not all had such moments of sleeping wakefulness where we become so totally immersed in something that we forget what we are doing? This daytime sleeping may simply be the obverse to a waking sleepfulness that happens at night. It is the vigilance of the brain in deep sleep, now known to be the condition of our night-times, that Aldworth has conjured up for us with such poetry here.

[1] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Sleep, Night,’ in The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p.264.

[2] Hypnos and Thanatos were brothers according to ancient Greek mythology.

[3] Brian Jay Jones, Washington Irving: an American Original (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2008), p.169.

[4] For an excellent overview of this, see Simon Morgan Wortham, The Poetics of Sleep (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.1-7

[5] Wortham refers to the example of Plato, who denigrates sleep specifically in his Laws where he states that, ‘while a person sleeps he is worth nothing – no more than one who isn’t living. But whoever among us cares for living and thinking to a special degree stays up the longest time, reserving only so much time as is useful for his health, and that isn’t much, once a fine habit has been established.’ The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas L. Pangle (New York: Basic Books, 1980), p.198.

[6] See the wonderful account given by Lee Scrivner in his book Becoming Insomniac: How Sleeplessness Alarmed Modernity(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p.232.

[8] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Marinetti e Il Futurismo (Rome & Milan: Augustea, 1929), p.23, quoted by Iva Glisic, ‘Caffeinated Avant-Garde: Futurism during the Russian Civil War 1917-1921,’ Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol.58, no.3 (2012), p.357.

[9] See the extraordinary claim made by Ray Meddis that ‘sleep serves no important function in modern man and […], in principle at least, man is capable of living happily without it’ in his book The Sleep Instinct (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), p.vii.

[10] For a polemical critique of the invasion of commerce into all hours of our lives see Jonathan Crary 24/7 (London and New York: Verso, 2013).

[11] See Aldworth’s exhibitions and publications Scribing the Soul (2008), Reassembling the Self (2012) and The Portrait Anatomised(2013).

[12] The phrase ‘lighting up’ is used by researchers to refer to the appearance of brain activity on monitors.

[13] For an account of the criteria for determining whether a creature is actually asleep and the status of posture within them see Steven Lockley and Russell G. Foster, Sleep: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.41.

[14] Hermann Rorschach, Psychodiagnostics (Bern: Verlag Hans Huber, 1942), p.15.

[15] For a detailed account of these effects in the film see Paul Hammond, ‘L’Age d’Or,’ in Rob White and Edward Buscombe eds., British Film Institute: Film Classics, vol.1 (London: BFI, 2003), pp.115-137.

[16] André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1924) in André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p.14.

[17] André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism,’ p.11.


Michael White is Head of Department and Professor of History of Art at the University of York.