I can’t sleep! Is it because I am arty?

Insomnia and artistic expression have often been linked. Since starting my foundation course at college I’ve had more trouble sleeping than usual. I keep dreaming about my art, thinking about it, and lying awake trying to relax my mind with thoughts of art coming into my busy brain. So last night when I couldn’t sleep I started to wonder more about this topic (yes, I know, that’s hardly going to help me sleep). Google tells me that I’m not the only person to wonder this, a couple of years ago a major London gallery hosted a unique all-night investigation into the subject.

Artists throughout history have been known to suffer from an inability to sleep. The artist Louise Bourgeois suffered very badly from insomnia and created a range of drawings on the topic, including sketches of a clock ticking (all insomniacs are clock watchers) and an interpretation of the mad sleepless eye of an insomniac. Another artist, Tomoko Takahashi, is said to work through the night to create her amazing installations.

This eye does not sleep easily

The all-night session at the Serpentine Gallery in London, hosted along with the Victoria and Albert Museum, explored the relationship between sleeplessness and creativity. Participants were allowed to stay there for the night, during which they listened to lectures and watched films and experienced sleep-related performance art. Psychologists, artists and writers all took part to present a discussion about sleep disorders, dreams and art.

It has been said that when tired, the mind enters into an altered state of consciousness and is open up to new ideas. The Serpentine lectures, geared towards the insomniac, looked at the benefits of sleeplessness. Is it true that creativity flows in the midnight hours? Is this because the pressure and demands of daytime have ceased and the sleepless can delve into their imaginary world? As a recovering insomniac I can vouch that exhaustion can twist the mind and bring a whole new meaning to life, not necessarily a good one.

Or alternatively is it that creative types are simply more susceptible to sleep problems? The stereotypical sensitive and neurotic artist struggles to relax at any time, overwrought as he or she is by a troublesome mind. That certainly describes me at the moment.

The other night I dreamt a painting I just had to paint the following day, related to the Contrast task we have been given at college. It was such a vivid dream. I could picture it exactly and I was able to recreate it.

Is it genius or too much cheese before bedtime? My dream painting

This got me wondering also about the relationship between dreams and creativity as a step beyond insomnia and creativity. There is in fact a vast history of the famous finding inspiration in dreams. When you sleep your mind does not switch off; in fact the opposite occurs and it becomes very active while dreaming. Through dreams, the mind continues to think through solutions to real life and work issues and it uses its innate creativity and problem solving skills to do so. How often have you woken up at 3am and thought ‘Eureka!’? The artist Jasper Johns painted his first American flag after seeing it in a dream. Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein appeared to their creators first in dreams. Stephen King it is said dreamt the plot to Misery on an areoplane ride. Paul McCartney claimed that he dreamt the tune to Yesterday one night. 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. How fab is that? What are you waiting for? Go to bed!

Does this guy have miserable dreams?


Brilliant Dreams, http://www.brilliantdreams.com/product/famous-dreams.htm [last accessed 23 October 2012]

Hannah Duguid, ‘Insomnia: Sleepless at the Serpentine’, The Independent (28 July 2010), http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/insomnia-sleepless-at-the-serpentine-2036775.html [last accessed 23 October 2012]

Serpentine Gallery, http://www.serpentinegallery.org/2010/07/park_nightssleep_overfriday_30.html [last accessed 23 October 2012]

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