In praise of insomnia: Curator Angela Kingston discusses 3am at The Bluecoat, Liverpool

By Mark Sheerin | 24 September 2013

Exhibition Preview: 3 am - wonder, paranoia and the restless night, The Bluecoat, Liverpool, September 28 – November 24 2013

Colour photo of teenagers snogging in a pub
Tom Wood, Leg Over, 1985, from Looking for Love series, 1983-86.

C-type, 47.5 x 62 cms (frame size).© Courtesy the artist, Tom Wood
Insomniac curator Angela Kingston says she “slept like never before” while researching her new exhibition about sleeplessness for the Bluecoat in Liverpool.

Mentioning this in passing to a psychiatrist, the shrink just nodded, “and said that if you start to find your state of insomnia . . .  somehow interesting you can have a different relationship with it.”

So Kingston got to grips with sleep, claiming a condition of repetitive thoughts known as monkey brain, and adds: “So I suppose this show has helped me identify that brain state and before I know it, I’m asleep.”

But 3 am is not an autobiographical show. Some 22 international artists each have their own take on the small hours of the night.

Many, like Marc Hulson and Nathan Mabry, respond with fear. And yet a surprising number seize upon the potential for euphoric freedom which that time of day brings.

Colour photographic self portrait of an artist in mismatched clothes
Danny Treacy, Them #24, 2010.

Lambda digital C print mounted on aluminium, 215 x 180 cms.© Courtesy of the artist, Danny Treacy
So, after hours, Francis Alÿs turns a fox loose in the National Portrait Gallery; Sophy Rickett photographs sober well-dressed woman as they urinate in public; and Dorothy Cross films a maritime mercy mission by a sea rescue helicopter. “It's very multi-faceted show,” says Kingston.

While acknowledging that artists and curators are not the only ones who might experience insomnia, she also says with a laugh: “When I look at some artist practices, I wonder how they sleep.” Indeed, Kingston points out, an overactive imagination can take you to some dark places.

But the curator is not one for putting artists on pedestals, metaphorically speaking at least: “I try and resist the idea that artists are extraordinarily different from other people.” In the course of putting together the show she discovered insomniacs from all walks of life.

And generally, she prefers these sleepless types. “If people have an uncomplicated relationship with sleep I sometimes worry.” She points out that despite his many acts of miltary aggression, former PM Tony Blair once said he didn't lose sleep. “That’s very disturbing,” says Kingston.

Politics is an unlikely undercurrent of this private phenomenon. The dark hour of 3 am is a mirror of the hopelessness many have experienced during the recent years of recession. Says the curator: “It seemed to be zeitgeisty in that kind of way and I think that's why the Bluecoat  decided to go forward with the proposal.”

There are many theories about the cause of sleeplessness but one which Kingston comes back to is a fear of death. “Every night is a rehearsal for death really.”

But while the hour of 3 am may be all gloom, it is not all doom. Teens, for example and as a general rule, appear to prefer the night.

“It was a way of having other possibilities and for things not to be so proscribed,” recalls the curator. What's more, the deepest point in the night “forces us really to think beyond the daylight thoughts”, she adds, which is an exciting prospect.

3 am tours to Chapter (Cardiff), The Exchange (Penzance) and Ferens Art Gallery (Hull) in forthcoming months. But insomniacs please note, the gallery may well be shut when you most need it.
  • Admission free. Open 10am-6pm daily.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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