The connotations of the act of sleeping have often been imbued with negative import; take for instance the Spanish artist FranciscoGoya’s etching, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The etching that was created between 1797 and 1799 captures the artist asleep at his desk, surrounded by owls and bats, creatures that are considered symbols of folly and ignorance in Spain. It is said that Goya created this work as a critique of the corrupt and ignorant Spanish society of the time. Furthermore the work has been referenced by many contemporary artists and is seen as an important metaphor of dark and troubled times.
In contrast to Goya’snegative interpretation of sleep and nightmares, artist Sonia Khurana brings to the act of sleeping the potential of constructive action and thought. The somnambulist and the insomniac coalesce into the same space and the act of sleeping becomes one that is meditative, even poetic. We saw Khurana address this aspect of slumber in her exhibition at 24 Jorbagh, titled Oneiric House round about midnight that was opened during the India Art Fair in February andclosed mid March. Khurana, a well known performance and video artist, revisited a subject that has often fascinated her—sleep. “My fascination with the act of sleeping pre-dates this exhibition. It all began with a 2005 video where my friends recorded me before I am going off to sleep, while I was talking to them—it is that moment of slipping away that I wanted to focus on. I revisited the concept whileI was in a residency in Norway, in 2008, because the landscape and the people I met evoked a desire to explore it,” said Khurana. “Sleep is ultimately about degeneration and regeneration,” she added.
For this particular exhibition the artist sourced an old house rife with memories of its past inhabitants. A stately old house in a prime location in Delhi’s leafy JorBagh area, it is nowin its twilight years. “Hosting the exhibition here meant renovating the three floors without losing the old-world quality of the house,” said Khurana who then claimed it as a site to create and stage her video artworks, sound pieces, photographs in light boxes, vitrines with drawings, cuttings and poems that revolve around sleep. The project was supported and hosted by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) and the exhibition was curated by Roobina Karode.
The works were spread over the three floors, where the first floor consisted of photographs a vitrine and a video work. What immediately grabs one’s attention in this section is the image of the artist, lying down in a fetal position, about to drift off to sleep under a blue sky against a charming landscape in Norwaywhere it is always day and the concept of night is completely altered. Sleeping during the day is considered an act of sloth, however when the sun never sets and perennial sunlight filters through the clouds, even that notion is challenged. “Being in Norway with this eternal sense of day was why I revisited by dream/sleep work,” says Khurana who has also staged performance pieces where she sleeps on the sidewalk in various cities across the world. Her intention in these performance pieces was not to evoke the politics of the homeless rather than to explore the poetics of dwelling in and embodying space. “By situating myself in public space I am obliterating this self-consciousness,” said Khurana.
Inside another room,on the same level, alarge screen video work postulates another aspect of sleep. The piece is a time-lapsed stop animation that captures the artist and her mother sleeping in various positions, facing each other. Even though they are asleep they appear in conversation, with one another and with their inner-selves as they change positions, their bodies intuitively accommodating the other on the mattress. This act of moving in one’s sleep in relation to the other person sleeping next to one is proof of humanity’s innate ability to live in conjunction to each other. Underling the sleeper’s dialogue is the artist’s voice reads out phrases, poetic lines that function as thought bubbles for the sleeping figures.
The other levels are devoted to metaphors of water and sound. One video work captures saxophonist Froy Agre, whom Khurana met during her residency in Norway, playing a haunting evening raag Marwa. Khurana filmed her in her studio and on a chair in the backwaters of the Sognefjorden. This piece is accompanied by Wassifudin Dagar singing the same raag as he sits by a pond with fish swimming around. “Sound and water are symbols that I engaged in with these works to create an epiphany which connects the nebulous links in this show,” says Khurana. Another video-work captures an ornamental fountain covered in luxurious foliage and rising mist. The fountain is perfectly symmetrical and it becomes apparent that it is a mirror image that completes the fountain. The mirage of beauty is so hypnotic that it is almost dreamlike and it ties in perfectly with the other dream inspired work that is the central leitmotif of the show.
Finally we are presented with a sculpture piece, a replica of the actual house in which the works are being displayed. The model is created out of transparent material and a video of crawling ants is projected onto its surface. The scurrying ants serve as a prophetic footnote sending out a message of our own mortality and the inevitable decay of the dream-house.In a sense the show comes full circle with this piece. Khurana’s Oneiric House, the house of dreams leaves the viewer with much to ponder and that slight sense of disquiet that one experiences after stumbling into someone else’s dream world.