Insomnia: Sleepless at the Serpentine

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Insomnia and artistic expression have always been strongly linked, says Hannah Duguid. Now a major London gallery is hosting a unique all-night investigation into the subject

Marcel Proust wrote at night, during periods of chronic sleeplessness. So did Emily Bronte and Walt Whitman. Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that insomnia was a positive influence on his work, once said: "Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals."

An all-night session at the Serpentine Gallery in London this weekend, co-hosted with the V&A, will explore the relationship between sleeplessness and creativity. The best way to do that is probably is when you are very tired. Gallery-goers are to camp out for the night, during which they will listen to lectures and watch films and performance art.

The idea of spending the night in an art gallery is perhaps not that tempting, given that one could be doing something more debauched. But it seems today's art lovers cannot get enough lectures and talks, even if they go on all night.

No other art institution has yet let visitors sleep all night in its galleries. But there will be no messing around at the Serpentine; the Sleepover is not for louche artist types who want to drink, eye up the opposite sex and slope off into to the bushes. It is to be a serious and self-conscious evening, providing plenty of opportunities for intellectual navel gazing. The psychoanalyst Darian Leader will give a talk about sleep disorders, dreams and art. If he sends his audience towards the land of nod, they will have access to a special sleeping area in this summer's swanky red pavilion, which has been designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel.

There will also be a taste of schoolgirl mischief, with a midnight feast. Modern performance art seems to incorporate every banal activity – sleeping, walking, reading. At the Serpentine, there will be a performance by the jelly makers Bompas and Parr, who will serve trifle with a twist. The trifle will be spiked with a stimulant or a sedative. Those who get the stimulant may be lucky – they may need it. If not it will be bye-byes, for a drug-induced snooze which will be a treat in itself. One is not usually allowed to sleep the night in Hyde Park, after all.

For the hard core, a series of lectures will begin at 2am. There is an argument that when tired, the mind goes into an altered state of consciousness and opens up to new ideas. The Serpentine lectures, geared towards the insomniac, will look at the benefits of sleeplessness.

Night owls say that creativity flows in the small hours, when the pressure and demands of daytime have ceased and they can sink into their imaginary world. Exhaustion can twist the mind and bring a whole new meaning to life.

This may be true, but it could also be that creative types are simply more susceptible to sleep problems. The stereotypical sensitive and neurotic artist, after all, struggles to relax at any time, overwrought as he or she is by a troublesome mind.

Tiredness has inspired many artists. The French writer Colette once said: "Insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge." Rudolf Nureyev used his extra hours of consciousness to pursue his greatest passions – dance and sex. The artist Louise Bourgeois suffered terribly from insomnia and made a series of drawings on the subject, including sketches of a ticking clock and an interpretation of the wild sleepless eye of an insomniac that will haunt any fellow sufferer. Another artist, Tomoko Takahashi, works through the night to create her elaborate installations.

Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and Douglas Gordon have made films about sleep. Warhol's Sleep was a five-hour-and-20-minute study of a close friend, John Giorno, asleep. Warhol said he had made the film because: "I could never finally figure out if more things happened in the 60s because there was more awake time for them to happen in (since so many people were on amphetamine), or if people started taking amphetamine because there were so many things to do that they needed to have more awake time to do them in... Seeing everybody so up all the time made me think that sleep was becoming pretty obsolete, so I decided I'd better quickly do a movie of a person sleeping."

At the Serpentine, a series of Insomnia Labs will explore the rich terrain between creativity and sleeplessness. There will be a discussion between the artist Laure Prouvost and the writer Melissa Gronlund about the relationship between insomnia and art and the scientist Dr Angelica Ronald and artist Lewis Ronald will explore why we sleep and the concept of sleep debt. This is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep. Such an idea will be as familiar to a young mother as to a strung-out artist.

It may be that a lack of sleep brings a new dimension to creativity. Many psychological studies, however, argue that most human beings think, work and function better when they are well rested. It may be that rest is just more difficult for some than for others. The curator of Sleepover, Hans Ulrich Obrist, is famous for his hard-working and sleep-deprived routine. But sleep debt, or deprivation, can lead to fatigue and even breakdown – a problem as common among artists as it is among the rest of the humankind.

For those who do manage to nod off every night, all is not lost. The moment of inspiration could be at hand. There is an entire history of dreams and creativity. The artist Jasper Johns painted his first American flag after seeing it in a dream. Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein and "Kubla Khan" came to their authors in dreams. The novelist Stephen King dreamed the plot to Misery. He was flying on Concorde when he fell asleep and dreamed about a woman who took a writer prisoner, killed him and fed him to her pig. Paul McCartney dreamed the tune to "Yesterday". And it is not only artists who are dreamers. The German physiologist Otto Loewi won the Nobel Prize for medicine after he dreamed about how to prove his theory regarding the chemical transmission of nerve impulses.

If you should choose to take a brief snooze at the Serpentine, you will be able to analyse your dreams with Charles Arsène-Henry, who will give a talk on the content of dreams. Perhaps you will dream about being in a strange red pavilion full of art obsessives in a meadow in central London.

The real treat could come at dawn, with sunrise over the park and river. And who knows who will follow the Serpentine's lead. We could see sleeping bags in the Tate and pyjama parties in the Royal Academy, Academicians from centuries ago glaring snootily from the walls.



Sleepover, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (08444 771 000) Friday

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices