Sweet dreams

A striking, thought-provoking new exhibition at York St Mary's explores sleep, dreams, consciousness and identity. Yvette Huddleston reports.

ARTWORK: Part of Susan Aldworth's exhibition The Dark Self,Picture James Hardisty.

Sleep – that mysterious realm into which we all travel every night – is the subject of a fascinating new exhibition which opened at York St Mary’s this week.

The Dark Self by acclaimed artist Susan Aldworth is the culmination of her three-year residency with the University of York, funded by the Wellcome Trust, investigating dreams and the unconscious experience.

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Bringing together the worlds of art and science, the show explores that unknown, and unknowable, dominion of our unconscious, the place where we go to dream.

Aldworth is an artist with a background in philosophy and a long-held interest in human consciousness. It is an area she has explored in her work before, collaborating with others across the art-science divide.

“Over the years I have often worked with scientists and philosophers looking at the relationship between the brain and the self,” she says. For The Dark Self she worked with neuroscientist Miles Whittington and art historian Michael White.

“I started talking to Professor Whittington at the University of York, who I have worked with before, about his project looking into deep sleep.” Aldworth discovered that he and his team had found that the brain is as active during sleep as it is during the day although for much of that time we have no awareness of ourselves or our surroundings.

It was this absence of self that Aldworth was particularly interested in, and the relationship between sleep and identity.

“I was exploring how to find a visual metaphor for this nothingness. Sleep is a subjective state and I wanted to bring into the show the idea that it is an incredibly personal thing. That’s when I came up with the idea of the pillowcases.”

The installation One Thousand and One Nights is the result. On display in St Mary’s, hanging from the ceiling of the nave, are 414 pillowcases upon which hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds have embroidered their personal dreams. It is an incredibly striking image. “I approached the Embroiderers’ Guild both in York and beyond and I had a fantastic response,” says Aldworth. “We also got in touch with local primary schools and Fine Cell Work, a charity that works with prisoners. And on social media the call out just went viral. I was overwhelmed by the number of talented people out there who would never call themselves artists. It is a really impressive piece of fine art.”

Other pieces include The Evidence of Sleep – a series of porcelain and plaster sculptures of indentations left by sleepers on pillows – and a short film Dormez Vous? which looks at the stages of sleep through a collection of dream-like vignettes. It has a very unusual soundtrack. “The composer Barney Quinton had a headset that records your brain waves,” explains Aldworth. “He worked out the chord sequencing so that, effectively, his sleeping brain waves have been composed into a score. The film is a tribute to the surrealists but with contemporary neuroscience thrown in.” Aldworth sums up the exhibition as “a poetic look at sleep informed by scientific ideas” and says that the three years of her residency have been “absolutely extraordinary. It’s been a fantastic experience.”

The Dark Self is part of York Festival of Ideas and runs at York St Mary’s until September 3. www.yorkfestivalofideas.com