The Dark Self

an exhibition exploring the experience of sleep

Artist Susan Aldworth in The Dark Self at York St Mary's. Photograph by  James Hardisty, Yorkshire Post

“The Dark Self is the best thing I have seen in York (and I’ve seen many awesome things). Truly inspired.” Visitor’s comment

I love the show! Sleep is a private world, which we all go to separately. Here I could see into the private sleep worlds of others. It is intimate like sharing a secret.  Visitor’s comment (David).

My new exhibition The Dark Self was inspired by my research into sleep during a three-year residency funded by the Wellcome Trust at the University of York, working with neuroscientist Professor Miles Whittington and art historian Professor Michael White. The Dark Self explores human identity through the unconscious, subjective experience and challenges us to reflect upon our nightly transitions from consciousness to oblivion.

For centuries, sleep was thought to be an unimportant state of not-being: an absence. However, we now know that it is crucial, not only for health but for the formation of the self. Rather than being switched off in sleep, the brain is as active as at any other time – even during those periods of deep sleep unconsciousness when we do not dream, and of which we have no memory.

“What we think of as a state of nothingness is full of neurological activity essential to the development of identity.” said Professor Whittington.

How can we begin to describe such a fundamental part of our lives? What does it mean for our sense of self? How, indeed, do we even fall asleep and then wake up again? The Dark Self is a meditation on such questions. Intriguingly, the common motif linking all the works is not the brain, or even the human head, but the pillow on which it rests. Integral to the installation is the scale and setting of York St Mary’s, a deconsecrated medieval church in the centre of York.

I made four distinct bodies of work for the exhibition : print, sculpture, video and a central collaborative work, 1001 Nights, involving hundreds of fellow sleepers.

1001 Nights is an immersive installation of 414 embroidered pillowcases filling the nave of York St Mary’s. It embodies the dreams and sleep stories of hundreds of people from all walks of life across the UK and is loosely based on the idea of the Arabian Nights – of nocturnal tales of hidden treasure and magical powers. A call went out for embroiderers. The response was amazing: from members of the public, local and national craft groups, textile artists, prisoners and students of all ages. Working on old hotel pillowcases (which already had a sleep history), donated by Bates of London, hundreds of people hand embroidered their unique sleep testimonies in words and images using a colour scheme of blue, gold and silver. The results, which represent more than 40,000 hours of hand-stitching, are sensational: beautifully crafted, personal and expressive. They provide a unique testimony of sleep and a cultural snapshot of our sleeping lives.

After reading John Donne and William Shakespeare, I found this exhibition to be a profound personal mediation on the self and sleep. Professor Rakesh Sharma, Punjab University

What is the evidence of sleep when even the person sleeping cannot give a full account of it? The Evidence of Sleep sculptures present the indentation of a sleeper’s head in glazed porcelain and plaster pillows, a hard unyielding material that contrasts with the soft and giving quality of a pillow. The sleeper is absent; the indentation is a negative space; and the work begins a dialogue about the unconscious state of deep sleep.

The pillowcase is a recurring motif throughout this exhibition. We lay our head on it to sleep: it contains the experience of sleep, the falling asleep and the waking up; it is transformed by our movements during sleep.

For the monoprints The Dark Self and Golden Slumbers, I used vintage pillowcases inked up in gold and silver and printed onto Somerset Black Velvet 250 gram paper. Sleeping is an act we cannot will: we speak of falling asleep, of sleep overcoming us. The folds and creases of the pillow speak both of the struggle to sleep and the sinking into it. In these works I explore the progress of the sleeper down into deep sleep. A portal opens in the middle of the pillowcase through which the sleeper passes into unconsciousness, and a coronet of human hair across the pillowcase suggests the transition from one state to another.

The “Golden Slumbers” prints are especially beautiful and touching. There is something in the way dreams stitch together the threads of everyday life in new and audacious ways that the art of embroidery captures very well. Visitor’s comment (Paul).

In my video work Dormez-vous? I used new and archive film, some of it tinged with nostalgic memories some derived from scientific studies. The video begins with a sleeping baby on a breathing pillowcase. 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. But whilst Dormez-vous? deliberately references its Surrealist heritage, it diverges in its intention. For the Surrealists, the focus was on presenting dreams and sleep as a challenge to the rationality of modern existence, whereas Dormez-vous? is a contemporary meditation on 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.

Composer Barney Quinton has written a ground breaking film score for Dormez-vous? using a generative music technique. Electrical signals produced by his sleeping brain have been converted into the notes, chords and shimmers of this extraordinary soundtrack.

The Dark Self opened on 7 June 7 and runs until 3 September 2017 at The Dark Self, York St Mary’s. It is attracting over 1000 visitors a week, many who have returned to see it a second time.

Beautiful exhibition. We’ve been coming to see many different exhibitions, but this one has moved me in a very unexpected way. Visitor’s comment (Martin)

The Dark Self, York St Mary’s, Castlegate, York YO1 9RN

Wed 7 June to Sun 3 Sept, 11am to 4pm (Wed to Sun only)

Admission Free

Twitter: @SusanEAldworth

Instagram: #thedarkself

Facebook: @TheDarkSelf

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

By New Africa/Shutterstock

Only Half of U.S. Children Get Enough Sleep: Why That’s a Serious Problem

by Christopher Curley
Westend61 / Getty Images

What the Peloton Ad Says About Our Morning Routine Obsession

by Arianna Huffington

“5 Ways To Optimize Wellness After Retirement”, with Kelly Donahue and Beau Henderson

by Beau Henderson

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.