Sleeping as Protest?

An exploration of Dominique Hurth’s artwork on display at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, 2019.

The Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, Germany, emerges, time and time again, as an ambiguous and challenging institution for exhibitions that often protrude to be more exclusive than inclusive. They frequently challenge socio-cultural perceptions, thus demanding the viewers to visually and intellectually engage with the artworks on a meaningful and experimental level. It does therefore not surprise, that the Kunstverein invited the acclaimed co-curator of the Documenta 12, Ruth Noack (1964), to conceptualise an intriguing exhibition. Hence, offering young as well as established artists, from numerous cultural backgrounds, the possibility to make their creative voices be heard. Noack is particularly known for her socio-critical and feminist-orientated exhibitions, that focus on the unexpected within temporal and cultural binaries of the post-modern world. Her present exhibition Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, hosted within the vaults of the Württembergischer Kunstverein, collectively fuses this interest of past and present, wrapped in a culturally diverse artistic landscape.

Intriguingly, the concept for the exhibition originated from a seminar Noack previously taught at the Dutch Art Institute in Rotterdam in 2017/2018, which had the same working title as the exhibition. In preparation for the exhibition, Noack asked artists to conceptualise artworks that would align themselves with the theme of sleeping as form of socio-cultural protest. She invited two groups of artists to participate in this exhibition. The first group consisted of students who attended her seminar, and the second of artists whom she had known for many years through her numerous curatorial engagements.[1] This meant, she had to combine artworks from emerging artists, with those works by established artists into one equal and harmonious space. She therefore intelligently incorporated so-called ‘Archive boxes’, as a sort of creative time-capsule and as vocal point in the exhibition space. By doing so, she granted each artist equitable importance and allowed the potential cleavage to merge. The viewer is correspondingly able to fully immerse themselves into the individual artists’ creative process, by sifting through their sketch files and apt to familiarise themselves with the artists at hand.

Aspects of feminism, such as the masculine gaze, the sleeping female or sleeping as last resort and subversion towards masculine authorities, have all been addressed in various context. Some protrude to be more demanding than others, making it indispensable for the viewer to acquire prior knowledge before visiting the exhibition, in order to meaningfully engage with the artworks, such as those by Anna Dacqué (1964), Teresa Distelberger (1981) or Miao Ying (1985). Due to their seamless approachability and intimacy, the two artworks with identical title by Dominique Hurth (1985), One Must Lull Them to Sleep to Prevent Their Escapes, thus stand out from the crowd of 49 artworks on show (fig. 1-2). As a whole, her artworks beautifully align themselves with the strong feminine sleep narrative, which weaves itself through the entire exhibition space. Her works however go a step further and strongly address and wish to deconstruct the ever-present patriarchal gaze upon the female sleeper in any form of matter. Therefore, analysing her 2019 work, with the aid of the prior 2018 version, should thus not only enable a closer understanding of art history’s potential patriarchal narrative and how sleep could act as potential liberator, but will also allow for an assessment of the quite demanding exhibition as a whole on a more comprehensive level.

Dominique Hurth: One Must Lull Them to Sleep to Prevent Their Escapes

Conceptualised by the French female artist Dominique Hurth (1985), who lives and works in Berlin since 2005, One Must Lull Them to Sleep to Prevent Their Escapes is an artwork that originally only consisted of a sculptural piece from 2018 (fig. 2). In 2019, Hurth decided to create a continuation of this piece in form of a photographic video installation (fig. 1). Now, the 2018 and 2019 versions are displayed next to one another at the Württembergischer Kunstverein. Both artworks ultimately address the deep-rooted patriarchy in art and art history, not only in its historiography but also within the creative space. The works consequently mirror her personal interest in the encasing and uncasing of objects and events into non-linear historical narratives detached from their sources.[2]

Hurth’s 2019 version of the artwork comprises two double slide 35 mm slide projections which emit their grainy image on two panels that have been arranged in an offset manner on the ground (fig. 3-4). The image of a seated seemingly sleeping woman carved out of marble and sat on a marble throne, is continually projected upon these panels with a zooming in and out effect. Thus, only revealing individual sections of her. In order for the viewer to grasp the entire figure, Hurth has set aside a stool inviting the viewer to linger and observe the virtual puzzle, which is accompanied by the rhythmic clicking sound of the projectors.

In order to fully comprehend this work, the viewer should relatively quickly familiarise themselves with Hurth’s previous work from 2018, which has been conveniently placed on the ground in direct vicinity to the 2019 version. Her 2018 work is composed of a panel lying on the ground, which is structured as a grid revealing zoomed in monochrome excerpts of seemingly lulled female statues (fig. 5). Over the lower right-hand corner lies draped a piece of white fabric with a bronze coloured cast of a sleeping mask (fig. 6). This assemblage, with direct focus on female statues, has allowed Hurth to directly address the patriarchal notion that is indirectly present, through the mere existence of these female statues. Namely that of the male sculptor, who breathes life into the dead materiality of stone, allowing these females to exist for eternity – and yet they cease to fully exist. They have been lulled by their male creators either to sleep, deemed blind or set into an eternal dream existence, thus living a life on the peripheries – merely present through the onlooker’s gaze directed towards their bodily figures. Within this analogy of vitality and repose, Hurth understands their closed eyes as a synonym for muteness, ultimately translating it into a descriptive narrative of deprived female speech and consciousness.[3]

Comprehending or rather envisioning the narratives which lie beneath these almost sterile like figures from her 2018 artwork, is what Hurth consequentially desired to explore in her 2019 version. Within this artwork, she has aspired to look beneath and into these closed eyes, that seem to be seeking an autonomy of their own far removed from their often aestheticised and eroticised outer physicality. She wished to explore the hopes, dreams and thoughts of these lifeless female carcasses and what they could have experienced. Thus, each slide projection allows the viewer to enter this experimental and hypothetical space and to immediately emerge within the next. The medium of slide projection, despite its outdated character, equally served Hurth in bridging the gap between still images and a full movie sequence, thus allowing the viewer to engage on a personal imaginative scale with the artwork. The audible noise further enhances the stepping in and out of private realms that go beyond what the makers of these statues could have imagined or granted their created figures to feel and think. Hence, she is actively reinforcing the participatory role of the viewer as fictive narrator, who is in possession of the ability of envisioning a life beyond a visual physical existence of the lulled statue. The ascribed title further enhances the notion of sleep being catalyst for mute obedience and preventative element for their escape towards maturity. Merely within the construct of a dreamscape, can they still enact self-determination and gain autonomy from the patriarchy.

Hurth hence not only intended to grant the seemingly societal invisible female figure an autonomy from their male makers in her current work, but she has also held the intent of de-eroticising the female sleeper by allowing the viewer to see beyond their physicality and immerse themselves into their dreamscape by not visually creating a world beyond their sealed eyes, but establishing an environment within which the viewer is invited to take charge and envision lives beyond the marble materiality.

Final thoughts:

As a whole the exhibition sought to contextualise numerous personal narratives into one conglomerate, collected beneath the scheme of a vengeful sleep, which had the potential of being considered offensive towards those seeking oppression. Noack not only established a very demanding narrative for the artists to follow, but ultimately for the viewer too. Prior research regarding the artists on display and the curatorial approach taken by Noack, proved itself to be vital element for any visitor of this exhibition. Only then will he or she be able to comprehend the scene, contextualise and interpret it accordingly, without being astray amongst ominous artworks, where one more often than not could question its relatability towards sleep as a form of protest. Hurth’s artworks, as one of the few artworks in this exhibition however, possesses the ability of narrating its meaning through active participation of the viewer alone. The viewer thus acts as figurative mute voice for those oppressed to silence by patriarchy and reduced to pure aesthetics by the dominant male voice of historiography. By allowing the viewer to actively engage with her artworks, Hurth consequently promotes a re-working of art historical and gender narratives. The viewer is subtly asked to go beyond physicalities and is thus given a novel perspective on a normatively gender-biased historiography through the medium of sleep. Sleeping as tool to grapple with established societal structures, ultimately emerges as plausible instrument for dreaming of a life liberated from oppressive dictations.


[1] Insight into the preparatory curatorial work was kindly supplied by Anna Romanenko (on-site guide).

[2] Dominque Hurth, “About,” Dominique Hurth, accessed December 09, 2019, https://dominiquehurth.com/About.

[3] Dominique Hurth, “Works: One must lull them to sleep,” Dominique Hurth, accessed December 09, 2019, https://dominiquehurth.com/one-must-lull-them-to-sleep.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.