Magazine article The Spectator

Caught Napping

Magazine article The Spectator

Caught Napping

Article excerpt

Sleeping & Dreaming Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1, until 9 March 2008

'To sleep, perchance to dream. . . '. If only. We are supposed to spend one third of our lives asleep, but many find getting their regulation quota a losing battle, and others don't even want to. Sleep is beleaguered in our busy world, fighting a slow battle of attrition against the massed pressures of modern life. And why do we sleep, and dream? It is still a mystery, although the scientific community is awash with different theories. For those of us who toss and turn nightly, armed with a fistful of heavily rationed sleeping pills (or a slug of Night Nurse, if desperate), that elusive and desirable realm enlivened with often baffling imagery takes on added fascination.

The many conundrums of sleeping and dreaming are explored in the second exhibition to be staged at the Wellcome Collection, and the first of its lively collaborations with the Deutsches HygieneMuseum in Dresden. It is an absorbing and thought-provoking show. The curators take as their starting point our relative ignorance despite decades of research, and have therefore framed the exhibition as a series of questions, not answers. The design itself conjures up the complex byways of the dreaming mind, with a series of black cabinets featuring different themes opening off the main space. The Wellcome's interdisciplinary approach pays off perfectly here: artists, philosophers, film-makers and scientists have all tried to probe the mysteries of the sleeping mind and body in their different ways, and their exhibits play provocatively off each other as they lead us through the labyrinth. My only quibble would be the difficulty of reading some of the labels in the encircling gloom.

Sleep is not much valued in a world geared to productivity and success, and scientists, we are told, are exploring the possibility of a pill to preclude the need for this inconvenient, time-wasting activity. It's not going to work, of course: here is the incontrovertible evidence that without sleep we slowly go mad, as any Stasi interrogator could have told you, inadvertently causing catastrophes along the way, the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl disasters among them. So how can our increasing fatigue be rendered less harmful? Some ingenious high-tech solutions are being tested by car manufacturers, among others, but they don't begin to tackle the deeper problem. …

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