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Embroidering dreams: major new sleep exhibition for York

Posted on 16 May 2017

A major new exhibition focusing on sleep and dreaming by critically-acclaimed artist Susan Aldworth will open in York next month as part of the York Festival of Ideas.


The Dark Self 17, Susan Aldworth, 2017, monoprint

The Dark Self is the culmination of a three year residency with the University of York, funded by the Wellcome Trust, investigating the unconscious experience of sleep and subjective dreams.

Working with neuroscientist Professor Miles Whittington and art historian Professor Michael White, Aldworth’s research has produced a body of work ranging from an installation of hundreds of embroidered pillowcases, to sculptures, prints and film exploring the different stages of sleep.

One Thousand and One Nights

The Dark Self exhibition will open in York St Mary’s on 7 June showcasing One Thousand and One Nights – an immersive installation consisting of hundreds of pillowcases on which people from diverse backgrounds from across the UK have embroidered their personal dreams.

The pillowcases will be hung from the ceiling of the nave of York St Mary’s in the patterns of neural pathways associated with sleep in the brain, with the public encountering these intimate works by walking down these pathways.

Other pieces include The Evidence of Sleep – a series of porcelain and plaster sculptures capturing indentations left by sleepers on pillows – and Dormez-Vous?, a film exploring stages of sleep in dreamlike vignettes, accompanied by a soundtrack of recordings of a sleeping brain.

Sleep mysteries

Susan Aldworth said: “We spend a third of our lives asleep and during that time - with the exception of transient periods of wakefulness and recalled dreaming - we are completely unaware of ourselves and our surroundings. Deep sleep is an experience of nothingness but one that is full of fundamental but hidden activity.

“Sleep presents scientists, who deal in objective, repeatable facts, with a huge problem. Not only is being asleep a solitary act, even the person sleeping cannot give an account of it. What happens to the ‘self’ in this dark time of sleep when the brain is in a state of high function?

“Artists have long considered sleep a resource for their creativity but this has been primarily in connection to dreaming. However, I am interested in exploring the unconscious, subjective experience of sleep and confronting the viewer with ideas about this absent, dark self.”

Susan Aldworth has spent much of her career exploring the complex relationship between the physical brain and our sense of self, with exhibitions including Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013, and Reassembling the Self at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle in 2012. Most recently, her suite of prints – Transience - marked the first time etchings had been made from an imprint of human brain tissue, and were shown earlier this year in Realisation at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Dark Self opens at this year’s York Festival of Ideas on 7 June at York St Mary’s, running to 3 September 2017. Aldworth will launch the exhibition with an artist’s talk from 6.00 – 7.00pm on Tuesday 6 June at York St Mary’s, Castlegate, York, YO1 9RN.

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