Exhibition Review: InSomnolence

In the second of the Sociability of Sleep (SoS) series, Matthew-Robin Nye provides an evocative tour of the InSomnolence exhibition and its sleepy spaces.

InSomnolence is a group exhibition curated by Alanna Thain (McGill University) and Aleksandra Kaminska (Université de Montréal), co-directors of the interdisciplinary research-creation project “The Sociability of Sleep,” and Marianne Cloutier (curator).

Entrance of the exhibition. Variations in Zzz display in the background. 1000 + 1 Dreams by Henry Tan and Ding Yun Huang on the screens in the foreground.

Presented at the Agora d’Hydro-Quebec at the Université de Québec à Montréal from June 21 to July 13, 2023, the eleven works in the exhibition explore the theme of what Kaminska and Thain have called “sleeper subjectivity,” which they describe in the exhibition guide as the “quotidian ways we navigate time, space, ourselves, and others” as sleepers.

Our sleeper subjectivities are explored through video works, interactive and immersive installation, collaborative performance, zines, and experiments in sound and radio broadcasts. The themes that emerge include the role of labour in the sleep industry, how sleep is recorded and documented, shared sleeping environments, and the creation of collective oneiric (dream-based) experiences, sleep disturbances, restlessness, soundscapes, and the representation and interpretation of dreams and terrors.

At the core of the exhibition’s aim to explore the sociability of sleep, is the paradox that sleep both isolates the solitary sleeper from the world, and yet a sociable experience is necessary to make the sleeper knowable to themselves. Reflecting the curators’ proposition that “sleep is social,” the presented works seek to foster a common language and collectivity in relation to sleeper subjectivity.  

During InSomnolence, the blinds were drawn on the exhibition space’s large windows, the lights were dimmed, and the gentle pulses of sound created by Nik Forrest, filled the space. The result was a cool, sleepy environment where pools of light illuminated islands of artworks as though they were made of dreams, enticing the viewer to skip from one world to the next. To traverse the exhibition space was to engage with sleep’s many socialites, the nature of consciousness in excess of wakefulness, and how these murmuring forms might connect with one and other as a way to meet elsewhere.

Overviews of the exhibition space at the Agora au Coeur des sciences

Dayna McLeod’s In Dreams took a central space, a dentist chair-cum-therapist’s couch invited spectators to wear hot pink fun-fur earphones while gazing into futuristic suspended screens. There the artist’s tik-tok-filtered avatar attempts to narrate her dreams upon waking. The work initiates the first step of a collective somnambulation through the exhibition, and with its own theatrical absurdity begins to queer the experience of dreaming and sleeping.

In Dreams, Dayna McLoud

The theme of dreaming continues with 1000+1 Dreams by Henry Tan and Ding Yun Huang, which emerged from the artists’ attempts to synchronize their sleep between their respective homes in Taiwan and Bangkok. Their proposal for a collective dreaming might be found in the two-channel video installation (iPad screens tucked into 2 life-sized human-shaped pillows facing each other), a utopian political imaginary designed to explore, through repetitive practice, “the possibility of meeting in the dream through memory reinforcement and dream incubation.”

Entrance of the exhibition. Variations in Zzz display in the background. 1000 + 1 Dreams by Henry Tan and Ding Yun Huang on the screens in the foreground

InSomnolence takes up, and runs with, the multiplicities expressed by sleep, half-sleep, troubled sleep, and the laboured sleep of researchers, artists, and performers striving to reach one another. It co-composes a sociality of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call the “art of the unconscious, this art of molecular multiplicities” (2004), without attempting to give meaning to the ineffable.

Untitled, extract from the work in progress, Oneiric Lights, Marion De Pauw, in collaboration with Pierre-Marc Ouellete

In Manon De Pauw and Pierre-Marc Oulette’s Untitled (2023) (extracted from a larger work in progress called Oneiric Lights), the distinction between sleep and wakefulness is expressed through an interactive installation where suspended mylar (a polyester film) contorts images so they seem to melt and drip, pinching and pulling the viewer at the precipice of sleep, or what is scientifically referred to as hypnagogia (the state of falling asleep) and hypnopompia (the state of waking from sleep). As an audience, we gaze into the installation’s reflective forms in order to be reconstituted, prostrate and contorted.

The sense of pushing through a sensual surface to glimpse another world continues in the enveloping and mood-dampening fabric chandelier and plush landscape of The Lantern (2023), an installation constructed by New Circadia (Natalie Fizer and Richard Sommer), Henry Tan, Ding Yun Huang, and students from the Daniels School of Architecture at the University of Toronto. Here, in the darkness on the mezzanine level, a welcome text invites visitors to remove shoes, choose a charm, and recline in the space to find rest. (Nearly) illegible whispers of dream-worlds from speakers hidden within soft, handmade “sleep induction charms,” ventriloquize the haziness of consciousness, charged by disembodied limbs, soft rumblings, and the outlines of the sleeping forms of other attendees. The charms—felted reproductions of objects connected to specific dreams—are strewn about the felted circular lounging shape taking up the room. They charms were brought deposited onto this structure during the opening of InSomnolence. Puppeteered by their creators, they wove through the gallery space and adjacent courtyard in a hypnotic and lyrical procession, evoking a ritual evocative of the phantasmagoric ambulations of the spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away (2001).

The Lantern, Natalie Fizer, Richard Sommer, Henry Tan, Ding Yun Huang (with the collaboration with students from the Daniels Faculty of Architure at the University of Toronto)

At the other end of the exhibition space we encountered the collaborative installation How to Stay Sleepy, a reinterpretation of a project organized earlier in the year by SoS at Montreal’s Phi Foundation (PHIXSOSXDSC). On that occasion, the Phi had Yayoi Kusama’s dream-like installation Infinity Room on display and, in an adjacent room, a “response” to Kusama in the forms of a physical environment/soft sculptural installation. Created by local artist collective doux soft club, bleu de lieu created a dialogue between these two experiences. SoS worked with the sound artist Nik Forrest to create a soundscapethat remixed Very Low Frequency [sound] recordings of the atmosphere and electronics felt in both spaces. During InSomnolence this soundscape’s ongoing low rumble filled the exhibition space.

Doux Doft Club, How to Stay Sleepy? with Ovaries Dream, kimora byol-lemoine

How to Stay Sleepy also included a large beatific digital collage print by kimora byol-lemoine, Ovaries Dream, featuring Kusama’s sleeping form (alongside that the “napping artist” figure of Maïté Minh Tâm Jeannolin). Placed on the wall, the work served as both figure and ground for the onsite mobile play-architecture by doux soft club, whose teal-blue geometric foam forms are meant to be arranged and shifted by the viewer to playfully architect the shape of rest for themselves. Here, as elsewhere in InSomnolence, it is at the edges of sleep, night, and half-light that the sociability of sleep as a proposition for worlding-otherwise becomes most affecting.

Dead (1), Paul Litherland, with narrated cartography of his neighbourhood

Other works in the exhibition include Paul Litherland’s self-portrait Dead (1) set within a psychogeography of the Montreal neighbourhood in which he lives, sleeps and works; Yoojin Lee’s three screen installation FALL(SSS); Morphai, an exploration of digital and sleep avatars by Yiou Wang; the listening station broadcasting reflections on night, restlessness and solidarity Radio Insomnia by Anabelle Lacroix and Nicolas Mongermont; and the research-creation station Variations in ZZZ.

Last, I am left with the meditative and appropriately disquieting image of a hotel worker in an unnamed and unplaced hotel—with manicured nails, steady breath, brisk pace, and mechanic precision—as she tidies and straightens room after room while their temporary occupants (guests) are out for the day. In The Labour of Sleep (2023), Ilona Gaynor’s eight-hour film follows hotel workers as they labour in the service of a consumer environment dedicated to the provision of sleep, while also underscoring the irony of the labour wasted on insomniacs spending the night awake. In these frames, we (still) do not see the worker’s face, though the camera attached to her head (a GoPro) traces her every movement. The experience of looking through the eyes of another mimics that of an extended reality, but the realism in this view of hidden labour startles the viewer awake.

About the author

Matthew-Robin Nye is a visual artist and cultural producer, and has exhibited, lectured and held residencies in Canada and abroad. He is a Joseph-Armand Bombardier PhD candidate at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University, in Montreal. In both his art and scholarship, he investigates how aesthetics, artfulness and queerness encounter one another.


Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari. 2004. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia [1980]. Translated by Brian Massumi. London/New York: Continuum, p. 30.

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