Between heave and light, sleep and wakefulness …
Written by: Cecilia Sjöholm
That state when we totter between wakefulness and dreaming… when we cannot fix our attention on one distinct point… that in-between state, what is it? It can feel unsettling, as we are no longer in control of what we see and experience. But it can also be enjoyable, our experiences and visions are stronger and clearer than when we are awake. This in-between state causes the feeling that our sensory impressions of reality are richer and more complex than we can encompass and comprehend when awake.
We may awaken with a jolt. Often, we experience that the objects and figures whose presences were so palpable in the dream suddenly vanish before our eyes. Perhaps we fall into a stupor and re-immerse ourselves in the dream world. We may also have a sense of being jolted back, of slightly strange figures appearing before our eyes, but soon realise that they are only in our head. We are reminded that the figures and objects that seem so real around us are always the result of a very complex process called perception.
Meta Isæus-Berlin’s paintings and installations in the exhibition Nocturnal Logic concern a state between dreaming and wakefulness. Psychology, philosophy and brain research have long been exploring the difference between that which our consciousness pays attention to, and that which we only vaguely note. (1) Often, however, these explorations of our perception are based on the “normal state” of wakefulness. Many have of course pointed out how this differs from dreaming. The state between sleep and wakefulness, however, is often disregarded; as though it had no specific qualities. But perhaps it is precisely in this elusive state, this in-between, that is neither dream nor lucidity, that the richness of our preceptive capacity is most distinct.
Nocturnal Logic relates to the space where we fall asleep and wake up. Minimal and simple: a bed, a bedstand, a table, a chair, a coffee pot. Familiar objects that we encounter at the beginning or end of the day. In Meta Isæus-Berlin’s work, it is this simplicity that is striking: the bed in the exhibition Nocturnal Logic is a single bed. The sheets are wrinkled, but the bed is neatly made. On the bedstand in the work entitled The Arcadian Mirror, there is an open book. There is also a glass of water. There is sometimes something almost sacral about the simplicity, as though this were a meditation on the bear essentials. There is nothing modern or cluttered about the furniture, no screens or distractions. We are moving freely through the land of in-between.
All these objects are part of the predictability we seek before falling asleep. The simplicity surrounding these things will make our thoughts slow down rather than rush, our gaze on the world disperse rather than burn into, our bodies feel the comfortable relaxation of no longer needing to tense in anticipation of the unexpected.
And yet, this is a state where we are at our most open and ready to embrace the most unexpected. They say that sleep-walkers should not be woken, because the shock might be upsetting if the shift from sleeping to wakefulness is too abrupt. The pulse quickens, muscles tense, the brain cannot adapt to the new reality at the speed of a blink. But the familiar bedroom alleviates the shock of wakefulness up. We recognise the bed, the glass, the book.
But Isæus-Berlin’s works take us beyond familiarity. By suspending both the installations and paintings, she creates a new horizon, above the ground. Everyday reality is reversed, altered, shifted. Parts are added, properties transformed. This concerns gravity, above all; the bed in Nocturnal Logic hangs on the wall. What is usually heavy becomes light. But the bed is made of bronze. What should be light suddenly grows heavy again. And what is usually soft – sheets, pillows, blankets – becomes hard. The nature and feel of the materials belie our perception. What are we seeing?
Art, writes René Descartes, who was a master of describing the state between sleeping and wakefulness, does precisely what dreams do: uses composites to produce a new reality. It is hardly a coincidence that Descartes, in his notebook Olympica, described dreams lodged in his memory since he was a young man. In one of these dreams, he finds a book of poetry. Reading it, he can penetrate the deepest secrets of the universe through “the spark that can only be ignited in us by reason”, but which poets can make shine more brightly than philosophers. (2)
In Descartes’ Meditations, the state between dream and wakefulness is allowed to form the path to a new understanding of the conditions of perception. “I am afraid to wake up”, Descartes writes, “for between dream and wakefulness I can see things as though they were part of my everyday life. I am freer, and I can reflect on my perception in a way that enables me to understand not the objects, but how I see them. The ensuing state of wakefulness would be all the more ruthless, for it would put me not in the lucid daylight but in ‘the excessive darkness of the difficulties’ that had just been uncovered.” Meditations is about this falling, into the darkness, down to the bottom, that he describes in the introduction to his second meditation: “just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom, nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface.” (3)
In this vertiginous movement, as I meditate on how the sensory qualities of the objects affect me, their heaviness, lightness, colour and form, I also become alien to myself. Isæus-Berlin’s works capture this dizzying sensation and create this in-between surface in the spaces, this state of neither touching the bottom nor swimming.
The works are not surreal in the sense that they seek an alternative reality or formulate an aesthetic of metamorphoses, unexpected encounters or ambiguities. There is nevertheless a tendency towards an aesthetic of dreams; perhaps towards a narrative, or an autobiographical story. There are also similarities with the female Surrealist wave that emerged after the Second World War, in the wake of a Surrealism that was a little more formally supported by manifestoes calling for an expansive dream logic, and preferably one with erotic dimensions. Women artists such as Leonora Carrington, Toyen, Leonor Fini and Frida Kahlo often created dreams and spaces, spaces that also embraced a story, or fragmented memories at the very least. They outlined their childhoods. They revealed something archaic and arcadian, with references to a life that was distinctly female, as in the artwork Oblivion, which we open and peek inside to see a dress. The furniture, and the dress, are as simple as they are ambiguous. I also encounter a person at that moment. The bed, the cupboard, the table, are for one person. Who is this person? Could it be me?
The Surrealists also used dreams frequently. And Freud explored the terrain in-between. Without that secondary processing – i.e. the moment after wakefulness when the dream is fashioned into a narrative – the dream could not have been portrayed even as an image. The story may be incoherent. But to Freud, this processing, which perhaps takes place only in between dream and wakefulness, is a vital part of the dream, which would not be recalled otherwise, even in an illogical version.
Collecting these works under the title of Nocturnal Logic also says something about the Surrealistic streak in Isæus-Berlin’s art. The object is not to uncover anything astounding, or to search for a mythology. Instead, it is about finding another world within a world. Maybe an underworld, or an Alice in Wonderland world. But Nocturnal Logic is too terse to be Surrealist. It invites us to another world, but not one where the unconscious does not intrude. On the contrary, this world has an enigmatic parallel, a correspondence.
The structure of these correspondences is fairly straight-forward. Under the table is an identical table. Under the chair is an identical chair. Perhaps they are situated below the surface. But it is unclear which is the original and which is the copy. And the works in 3D have corresponding 2D versions; after the sculpted bed comes a painted bed, and so on. According to Isæus-Berlin, the paintings are a kind of “memory paintings”. They repeat an experience, while shifting it and making us see it in a new way.
To a large extent, it is about the materials. This is an exhibition that addresses our senses. Our senses circle around and orient themselves to the materials, occasionally being deceived or tricked, by gravity, the horizon, the colours and the apparent realism.
Proportions also play in. Is the bed too big? The table too small? On the cusp between sleep and wakefulness, proportions and sensory impressions are never obvious. There is also something else in Isæus-Berlin’s aesthetics that takes us to the issues of the object and materiality that are discussed in contemporary philosophy. For too long, Bruno Latour writes, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters-of-fact. But this is unfair to them, unfair to experience. Objects are “much more interesting, variegated, uncertain, complicated, far-reaching, heterogeneous, risky, historical, local, material, and networky” than we have wanted to acknowledge so far. (4)
This may be a modified truth. Both the 20th and 21st centuries have indeed been obsessed with the object. In Negative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno formulates the idea of “the preponderance of the object”. From Marx to Freud, from Adorno to Kristeva, the object has been the focal point. From Marxism to psychoanalysis, theories have been woven around how to approach the object in art more specifically. Art objects give rise to projections, hopes and dreams. They can also be turned into fetishes, in a socially and erotically charged economy. The art object has always assumed multiple forms; it is a body in transformation. It can be regarded both through conscious perspectives and in unconscious metamorphoses. Perhaps this is what makes it so revealing.
Isæus-Berlin allows her works to draw the viewer into their sphere; into their in-between wakefulness and dreaming. I can sense the weight of the works, but I can also hear them resound in the space; they trickle and whoosh.
The exhibition embraces a will to not only dissolve the divide between viewer and viewed, but between human and non-human. Isæus-Berlin focuses on matter in many different ways. Matter appears as gravity, and challenges our senses. Matter is also used in the juxtaposition of parallel worlds that takes place in several dimensions in the exhibition, through repetition and inversion.
There is a sophisticated discourse today on materiality, pointing to its relational nature. For Karen Barad, matter is not a static concept, entangling objects and humans in fixed formats. Instead, every atom, be it human or non-human, takes part in a perpetually-changing flow, where interactions and experiments overturn and reformulate the terms.
In many ways, these are the relations that the land between dreaming and wakefulness can bring forth. I am summoned as an onlooker by the faceless objects. They are somehow at the same time about someone else, about me, and about themselves. As I move through the rooms, I become increasingly aware of the complexity of these objects, while reflecting on my own observation. In this in-between land, the leading part is played not only by the works, but also by me, as a viewer.
1. See, for example, Gurwitsch, A. (1964). Field of consciousness (No. 2). Duquesne University Press, Husserl, E. (2012). Ideas: General introduction to pure phenomenology. London: Routledge.
2. Les Olympiques de Descartes ed. Fernand Hallyn (Geneva: Librarie DROZ, 1995), 22.
3. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol II, ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 16.
4. Bruno Latour 2006 http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/realpolitik-to-dingpolitik-introduction-to-making-things-public.