Sleeping and Dreaming: More than a Repose

Have you ever tried hard to stay wide-awake in a dim and quiet exhibition? How do you interpret your sleepiness? Walking in the close circuit of Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, at Stuttgart’s Württembergischer Kunstverein, the usual tiring effect of looking at a lot of works was counteracted by learning new aspects of sleeping and dreaming. The title of the exhibition has prompted the lingering question: vengeance for what? The multiple layers of the artists’ and curator’s thoughts and feelings unfolded to me as intriguing, and never drowsy. The exhibition, which ran from October 19, 2019, to January 12, 2020, addressed various topics. It was curated by Ruth Noack, famous for her co-curation of the Documenta 12, who suggests studying sleeping as protest against the negative effects of contemporary bio politics.

The socio-critical exhibition derived from a seminar of Noack and subsequently and creatively developed from the curator’s and artists’ initial sketches projected during the seminar and curation. Invited artists included students as well as recognized artists. The outcome of their cooperation is provocative by all means, yet also inaccessible for a general, uninformed public, since the exhibition is delicately made, but very conceptual and experimental in its actual outlook. The sketches displayed in the center of the exhibition space served as a rich archive of the artists’ and curator’s ideas and previous versions of the traveling exhibition, while its recent iteration in Stuttgart was its most comprehensive version. The beholders enter the exhibition gradually and experience how it explores control and deprivation of sleep by the political and economic systems; as well as the resistance to clear rules and routines, fixed identities (especially from the angle of feminism), and even temporalities through the practice of sleep and the commonly associated diffuse or unconscious state-of-mind. Dreaming, on the other hand, can express hopes and wishes for the future; it seems to offer a parallel space-time, or a state in which hauntingly bitter memories are repeated. During the process of sleeping, everything can be suspended, and everything is possible. In what time, space, and circumstances do people sleep and dream? What kind of awakening follows? Sleeping and dreaming are not simply tranquil forms of repose and rest or activities in which silent fantasies take place, but can be creative and enacting vengeance. 

Sleeping and Dreaming for What?

In Stuttgart, the exhibition space was organized as a circuit with an entrance corridor, following the WKV’s architecture that is marked by a large foyer opening up to a single, large, square, and windowless exhibition hall. Despite the offered small manual in English and German that was crucial to understand the basic topic of the exhibition as a whole and provided minimal information for each individual work, the display also offered large banner-like curtains with some inspiring quotes hanging from the ceiling, but no other wall text were provided online or in the exhibition hall. Although the artworks, mostly displayed in the main hall, can be described as forming a circular arrangement emphasized by the positions of the curtains, its loose alignment actually encouraged visitors to find their own, random paths through the display.[1] The arrangement also guaranteed relatively equal space for each artwork. While walking through the entrance way, passing by works addressing the right of sleep, sleepwalkers, and fascist nightmares as well as featuring a bird that falls asleep when facing the choice of two equally appealing stimuli, the visitors started thinking of sleeping and dreaming as both an animal and a human behavior – its function, features, and related metaphors. After that, “Nabuqi’s curtain marked the passage into another sphere, the space of possibility in which we are given something to see that has a lot to do with the outside world, but which may establish other connections between us and the world than those we are accustomed to.”[2] The curator intended to construct a (dis)order of dreaming as background of the exhibition, in which the visitor might be surprised by how different works intertwine and resonate with each other.

Exactly as the title of the exhibition pointed out, the artworks reflected on how sleeping and dreaming can be vengeful, or at least hopeful. Many pieces therefore referred to strikes, both Anna Dacqué’s and Alice Creischer’s works addressed the anarchist Camille Pissarro who expressed political protests in the depiction of sleeping farm workers that evade their harsh working conditions. Jürgen Stollhans depicted the striking scene of a Uniqlo factory in China, in which the workers bend over the table to sleep. We might wonder what kind of life they were dreaming about as their dreams were not likely ideological: some artists reflected on the ideological future promised by regimes, such as the Chinese Dream in Miao Ying’s work. These works tell us that sleeping and even dreaming are likely to be governmentally administrated, as is the case with regulations of sleeping in public spaces, which Sanja Ivekovics and Lerron Tur-Kaspa’s works humorously explore. 

Sleep, as a necessity for every creature, has legitimacy by its nature. This exhibition pointed out how it can be subversive while the natural legitimacy has given some possibilities to the subversion: the silence, ambiguity, and even unconsciousness of sleeping could protect the sleeper from being accused for refusing identities, rules, or reality; the sleeping refuses being disturbed: at least, “you cannot wake up a person who is pretending to be asleep.”[3] Especially, women sleeping can be a subversion of a patriarchal society. For example, in Simon Wachsmuth’s work, the photo of the sleeping transsexual deity Hermaphrodite had a clock pinned on it, showing the ambiguity and suspension of identity. Some works also concerned traditions, habits and memories that accompany sleeping and dreaming. For example, the nightmare of fascism was displayed with impressive effect by Franz Kapfer. More interestingly, before-bed rituals, like telling stories or lullabies and the mother’s role, were explored as well.

As Haytham el-Wardany argued with his The Book of Sleep against “simple demarcations between sleep and alertness, passivity and activism,” [4] this exhibition explored the hope embedded in sleeping and dreaming, and their presage of awakening and action. By looking attentively into sleeping and dreaming as a behavior, an act of protest as well as a way to create in silence, and knowing that the possibility lies in everyone (even every animal) – for the fact that we sleep and dream as long as we are alive – the exhibition specified a profound, enduring hope: “[…] for each sleep is the true practice of hope, a long training at emancipation and freedom.” [5] 

The exhibition made me not only observe my own sleep or dreams more consciously, but also made me wonder, which one is more productive or chaotic: the reality or dream? The topics covered are so abundant that they inspired me to think of further ideas: bedfellows (couples) with different dreams of life or lovers versus the ability and rights to leave the beds (namely divorce); drugs, coffee, and tea affecting sleeping versus activating dreaming; mandatory versus not allowed siesta; sleeping while commuting (during the changing locality); and the common lethargy or art fatigue that museums or galleries induce. 

Awakening Exhibition 

I would say that such vanguard exhibition with strong academic interests and profound reflections on society and biopolitics raises multiple questions waiting to be discussed and further explored. However, the overly conceptual approach also risked the exhibition to come across quite exclusive for many people and it required the audience to consciously and patiently engage with its theme and the experimental artworks on display. Few supportive texts were provided in the exhibition, so that visitors might have found it exhausting to open the guiding manual again and again, while there were some works demanding pre-knowledge to understand their narratives or visual metaphors. It took me quite some time to grasp the idea of the exhibition despite already having researched the show and its theme before my visit. Although the exhibition’s inspiring ideas intrigued me at the end, I found the ways of expressing them sometimes too poetical, too subjective or theoretical. Considering the heterogeneous assemblage of artists with different reputations and the highly thoughtful content, the target audience for this exhibition seems to be either professional artists or people well acquainted with contemporary art. This might be explained by the fact that the Kunstverein is very professional, ambitious and supported by artist membership, but still, to me it is not really in accordance with the exhibition’s strong social concerns, unless the exhibition itself wants to fall under the “sleepy” radar of a broader public’s attention. I understand and appreciate that an effect or impression of dreaming and sleeping for the visiting experience was valuable and Ruth Noack perfectly arranged the artworks so they tie up with each other seamlessly. Nonetheless the introductory texts and labels could be more welcoming and guiding, while the diffuse, yet creative impression of sleeping and dreaming have been (or, could be more) conveyed by narrative means. 

Provoked by the exhibition, I wonder what will happen if a visitor fell asleep in the exhibition space. Probably he/she will be immediately woken up by a museum personnel. If a spontaneous performance artist or courageous visitor who pretends to be asleep were to challenge the gallery and curator back, does the performer need a certain identity and discourse to justify his/her vengeance? Mostly, we only dare to yawn and chew gum. Coming back from the exhibition, I started observing my sleep and dream more often, even if a tiny sign of sleepiness, like a yawn, might indicate (in a reverse way) to somewhat irritating me at the moment and help me understand my inner emotional flows. 

“Sleep becomes a source of strength and a means for change.” [6] Making concessions in order to gain progress, the feature of sleep is what I interpret as most important and provocative in this exhibition. It cut into the chase seemingly from individual behavior(s), yet pertinently questions the larger level of contemporary biopolitics. This inspiring exhibition shed so much light on the overlooked meanings, characters, and functions of sleeping and dreaming that sleeping is hopeful and subversive, while dreaming is creative and productive. Once we truly enter the exhibition, no doubt it leaves us with a smile, a moment of silence, or even a yawn and ensuing questions that will penetrate our perceptions of daily life and society.

[1] Ruth Noack, “Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, Exhibition Manual,” 2019, 3.
[2] Noack, 3.
[3] The title of Miao Ying’s artwork in the exhibition. 
[4] Noack, 7.
[5] Noack, 16.
[6] Noack, 16.

Quoted Sources:

Ruth Noack, “Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, Exhibition Manual,” 2019.