LONDON — For centuries, artists and thinkers have been fascinated by the nature of sleep. Aristotle saw it as a subject of teleological intrigue; Goya saw it as a metaphor for ignorance and the decline of reason; Julia Margaret Cameron saw it as an analogue to death. This enduring interest in our nighttime habits makes sense — after all, until the mid-20th century, somewhere between a third and a half of our lives were spent asleep.
Recently, sleep has taken up far less of our day. Today, the average adult gets around six and a half hours a night, far less than our preindustrial ancestors. If art historian Jonathan Crary is to be believed, late-stage capitalism is to blame for our insomniac tendencies. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, he argues that the ever-increasing demands of a globalized economy — the 24-hour news cycle, the endless scroll of a Twitter feed, the ability to work anywhere, at any time — have taken their toll on our ability to disengage. When we manage to close our eyes and slip away, we access the last remnant of our lives that is untouched by capitalism. “Sleep is a ubiquitous but unseen reminder of a premodernity that has never been fully exceeded, of the agricultural universe which began vanishing 400 years ago,” Crary writes.
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The desire to explore this fast-fading pre-modern tendency is at the heart of the Festival of Sleep at London’s Museum of the Home. For the event, the museum has restyled its iconic Rooms Through Time — meticulously decorated spaces that correspond to different moments in British history — to revolve around different historical notions of sleep. Period rooms can conjure images of hokey roadside attractions occupied by a panoply of animatronics. But at the period rooms in the Museum of the Home, no people are in sight. To reconstruct these rooms around sleep, an act that is so deeply tied to the human body, is thus a difficult task. The curator behind the project, Louis Platman, has chosen to hint at the presence of sleep through evidence of the rooms’ inhabitants and their soporific circumstances.
In one room, a parlor from 1695, traces of a couple who had awoken in the middle of the night draw attention to biphasic sleep, a two-part sleeping schedule popular in medieval England. A pile of sheets in a 1915 living room hint at a war veteran’s injuries. He cannot ascend the stairs to the bedroom, so he’s made a makeshift bed on the couch. Another room, set in an East London loft at the turn of the 21st century, bears remnants of a post-Pride party, its inhabitants sleeping off the debauchery just out of sight. These vestiges will likely provoke a forensic compulsion in viewers, a desire to craft a complex narrative for these invisible dwellers.
A few rooms down, sleep becomes a tool for constructing new mythologies of Georgian England in a bedroom designed for the very real Dido Elizabeth Belle. Born in the mid-18th century, Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British Naval officer. Unlike most children in her situation, Dido Belle was claimed by her father and was brought up at Kenwood House, a countryside manor owned by her great uncle, Enlightenment legal reformist Lord Mansfield. Kemi Lawson and Lara Senbajo have constructed an anachronistic dreamscape that brings out the inherent contradictions in Belle’s Georgian life. Her privileged position kept her insulated from the harshest elements of the racial hierarchy of the era. At the same time, she was still subject to legal and social norms that defined her as a second-class citizen.
This incongruous and at times conflicting existence pervades Belle’s bedroom. In her dreams, the opulent surroundings blend with an imagined reality in which her cultural heritage is celebrated rather than ridiculed. A Yoruba beaded chair pays homage to the royals of the West African civilization, while a series of gold framed portraits locate the inspiration for Belle’s dreams of emancipation in a rich range of Black historical figures. But it is Sheila Bridges’s Harlem Toile that epitomizes this confluence of craft and luxury and the paradox of Belle’s life. The fabric, which hangs on the walls and adorns the pillows that dot the room, is a interpretation of the French toile de jouy pattern. But while the fabric traditionally features very White, very French scenes of countryside revelers, Bridges has created elaborate vignettes of Black life. And at $350 a roll for the hand-painted wallpaper, Harlem Toile is a reminder that the relationship between race and class is exceedingly complex.
The notion of the dreamscape returns later on, in Michael McMillan’s mid-century Afro-Caribbean front room. This space, a version of which the artist created for Tate Britain’s Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s, is based largely on the artist’s childhood home. Here, McMillan has inserted references to Caribbean and West African dream culture, including allusions to the bedtime story of Anansi, a trickster spider character from Akan folklore.
While sleep can be a space for imagination, it is also a time of vulnerability. Maayan Sophia Weisstub’s installation “The Bed” (2022) reconsiders the safety of the domestic space, reimagining furniture as an index of violence committed against its human occupants. The mattress and pillows are covered in a silicone “skin” spotted with lifelike bruises. Weisstub’s practice often involves imbuing furniture with anthropomorphic characteristics — a previous installation featured a nondescript wood desk that mimicked the sound of breath. The work is a reminder that the privacy of the home can be weaponized, turning the safety of the bedroom into a site of violence.
In recent years, sleep’s sanctified place as the last bastion of uncommodified existence has been under attack. Sleep tracking apps encourage us to quantify this amorphous period, while startups promise to optimize every moment of this previously unexploited part of our lives. Despite these constant incursions, sleep has endured. Whether in a 17th-century mansion, an imagined Georgian bedroom, or a contemporary loft, the unconscious experience remains unadulterated.
Festival of Sleep continues at Museum of the Home (136 Kingsland Road, London, England) through September 1. The exhibition was curated by Louis Platman.