Figures of Sleep, an international exhibition at the U of T Art Museum, sets out to provide a visual representation of how the idea of sleep is becoming more about the social and political interferences that negatively affect it. Today’s globalized technology makes it possible for 24/7 connectivity and for many people, sleep has become more of a burden than something done for peaceful respite. The artists of the exhibition intend to portray new meanings of the often-neglected and unexplored topic of rest.

I observed the exhibit as part of a guided tour by curatorial assistant Pegah Vaezi. The first work in the entranceway of the gallery is a towering photograph by human rights activist Jasmeen Patheja. The photo depicts a woman sleeping on grass in the middle of a park while two men in the background overlook her. Vaezi conveys that Patheja intended for her piece to connect sleep in public spaces with social constructs and violence against women. Her work visualizes how sleep, the seemingly most shared and necessary of all human acts, makes women vulnerable.

In addition, a tape of contemporary dancer James Phillips emulating poses of dance marathon hopefuls further illustrates how sleep is not simplistic in function. Phillips is shown juxtaposed to black and white photos where the depression-era marathon participants slumped over their loved ones, exhausted, for support. In contrast, Phillips attempts to maintain the same poses without a secondary body for support. His muscles tremble under the strain of the contrived and unnatural postures.

One of the most memorable works for me was Ron Mueck’s portrayal of a frail old woman sleeping under a thin, cream-coloured blanket. Her tangled grey head of hair rests upon a white pillow. The hyperrealism of the piece is chilling. She is sculpted in a fetal position and the fragility of her realistic facial features convey a sense of exhaustion and isolation. Upon closer observation, it seems her eyes are only barely closed, leaving whether she is trying to lose consciousness or maintain it up to viewer interpretation.

On the same idea of consciousness versus unconsciousness, On Kawara’s postcard project titled “I Got Up” questions if sleeping itself is indeed an action we are aware of doing. On Kawara mailed a postcard from where he lived in Halifax to the same address in Stockholm, Sweden every morning and part of the collection from 1973 is on display. He obsessively documented the exact time he woke up everyday on the postcard, by writing “I got up at 8:34AM,” for example. This timestamp represents the moment he became conscious again, after sleep.

Lastly, Gabriel Orozco chose the mass produced medium of a digital photograph to question the notion of home. His photo depicts a sleeping bag on leaves and Vaezi tells us that because he was nomadic for most his life, Orozco intended to redefine home, and convey how sleeping and the home are very interrelated. Similarly, I interpreted Liz Magor’s three-dimensional piece portraying a sleeping bag inside a log to explore human dependency on the digital sphere and materialistic things, and what society would look like if humans were left to sleep and fend for themselves in the natural world.

The Figures of Sleep exhibition ran until March 3.

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