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Review: Sleeping Giants: Theories of Sleep in Art, Liverpool Biennial 2016

Sleeping Giants: Theories of Sleep in Art and Philosophy from Ancient Greece to the Present Night
Tate Liverpool, 14th October (Liverpool Biennial 2016)

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

If you look back at this year’s Biennial, the unmissable recurrence is in education. Whether it was direct involvements with schools by artists and arts educators, or the onslaught of talks, tours and workshops – for kids and adults alike – this Biennial will probably be remembered for what it taught.

So Sleeping Giant’s was slightly unexpected. I turned up anticipating a talk on the influence of Grecian architecture to modern day Liverpool, and the modern Biennial – in particular, I was expecting a direct correlation to the Ancient Greece exhibition at Tate Liverpool. But while there may not have been a particularly obvious correlation between this and the exhibition next door, there was a distinct relevance between the subject and the Biennial.

Mid-way through, Prof. Matthew Fuller said “Think of Art as a particular culture in terms of reflexivity, then sleep is sort of outside of Art.” And I think that was the point this presentation clicked. The point where all the theory, all the big ideas, became an allegory for the various episodes of 2016’s Biennial.

Take the Online Software episode; part of the Biennial that allowed you to dip in and out, taking interest here and there for things that are just as passive as Facebook – in that instance you have no real responsibility to make judgement. It’s a strange new way to judge art, but one that linked back to Dr. Alexei Penzin’s link to the Non-sleeping King.

If you’ve not heard of the non-sleeping King, I’m the wrong person to explain it as I only received a snippet as part of a much bigger talk, but from my understanding, it is an idea that bled from various fictions: Sleeping Beauty, the Mountain Kings, Ephesus in Ancient Greece, John the Evangelist, Bran the Blessed, Muhammad Al-Mahdi, and Various Mad Kings (and no, the links to Game of Thrones were not missed by Dr Penzin).

The idea is that the king is above the law, but hits a problem that was highlighted about a year ago, where courts struggled to convict a man whose defence for homicide was sleep walking. The idea that you are ungovernable while asleep; that you have no responsibility if your conscious mind is not actively responding to the world surrounding it. So this king (I’ll refer to him as the Mad King) believed he would lose control of his land while sleeping; for how can the ungovernable govern?

Equally, to turn back to Prof. Matthew Fuller, how can you understand great art, or science, or architecture while you are treating it as social media – or, and perhaps a point the two speakers may have reached with more time, can you be expected to appreciate the work of an artist dead for 2500 years? If to be dead is to be asleep? And if to be asleep is to be ungovernable?

Whether you’re looking at work in the gallery, or stringing your thoughts together based on online representations of these ancient masterpieces, there will be no governance, and no true ownership of the artist’s intention. Just as can be said for Goya, for Ruskin, for Manet – whatever their medium, their work will be translated into modern ideas, in ways that keep them useful.

Somehow, Fuller and Penzin, managed to turn what was an ethereal theory of sleep, into a relevant, and almost summative explanation of this Biennial. Education and understanding has been available for all who visited the festival, and this conclusive contribution was no different.