Perchance to Dream, a group exhibition on view at New York’s Andrea Meislin Gallery, features twenty-five international artists’ photographs that relate to the Shakespeare quote referenced in the show’s title. We see napping children, embracing couples in bed, homeless men on the street, passed-out teenagers on the beach, and even an abandoned, sleeping dog. We also see the strange addition of soiled and torn mattress “landscapes,” presented here as portraits of the missing sleepers. The photographic mediums, colors, styles, and sizes are heavily varied; many works are tacked to the walls unframed, and a curtained-off video installation features sitters singing childhood lullabies. As a whole, the exhibition is misguided and reductive: the single ostensible connection here—sleep—is too obvious. The banal relation between the disparate works leaves little room to appreciate the complexities of the featured artists’ photographs; their profundity is lost in this cherry-picked exhibition.
The exhibition’s curation is thin at best. It reaches its deepest point with the overused theme of voyeurism yet is completely overswept with a space-caked, kumbaya sense of universal solidarity that could be found in an Ambien commercial. Can we really place the image of a spooning middle-class Western couple next to that of a dozing dog alongside a sleeping African laborer to make the naive point that “we are all the same”? At best, this halfhearted framework is irresponsible, given the serious and politically sensitive issues with which many of these artists engage. One expects more from a gallery with such a fine selection of artists, but the Andrea Meislin Gallery has fallen into the insipid trap of the “summer stock show,” complete with a sophomoric press release that made me want to pull my hair out. Sadly, the exhibition’s daisy-chained connections fail to do justice to the artists, whose unique works should not be diminished by such an overly broad categorization that extracts all their meaning. The show recalls the danger of sameness Marcel Broodthaers alerted viewers to in Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968–72), a false museum exhibition that featured an overly reductive collection of artwork linked only by the subject matter of eagles. In this case, however, the commercial gallery has become the “Department of Sleepers” and the subject of Broodthaers’s institutional critique.
Regardless of the exhibition’s remedial curation, I was pleased to find works that, with their nascent Renaissance ambiance, sparked my curiosity about the classically beautiful subjects while indicating the potential for violence and pain found in Shakespearean tragedy. Certain photographs stood out as being particularly well suited to the show’s title. “To sleep; perchance to dream,” Hamlet remarks in the soliloquy where he famously ponders whether “to be or not to be.” As in this exhibition, his description of sleep is often misinterpreted as a romantic fantasy about entering into a euphoric dream state. It is, in fact, a euphemism for suicide as an option to escape the pain of life. As Shakespeare writes: “To be, or not to be: that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer,/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;/No more; and by a sleep to say we end /The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to…” In the works of Adi Nes, Tim Hetherington, Pieter Hugo, Mike Brodie, and Angela Strassheim, among others, the sleeping subjects share a respite from difficult lives in which death and suffering seem imminent.
Adi Nes’s photographs are arguably the show’s most beautiful and interesting. The Israeli artist intricately stages his photos. In a process very similar to cinematography and reminiscent of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, he’s uses actors to achieve an image that has already formed in his mind. Nes’s work often captures the moment right before a calamitous event, as suggested by his untitled photograph of young soldiers that appear to be sleeping on a bus (1999). The uniformed figures are undoubtedly moving into a place of danger; perhaps they are already in one (the threat of road bombs come to mind). Projecting vulnerability as they sleep, the soldiers exist in a momentary peacefulness threaded with tension, underscored by the butt of a soldier’s rifle that juts into the frame. The rows of soldiers with their eyes shut suggest that they are already dead—metaphorically or literally—like ghosts on a spirit train or lambs to the slaughter. The pose held by the handsome central figure evokes the arch of the Christ figure in a Renaissance Pietà, elevating the sacrifice of the everyday solider and implying that his sleep is a prelude to a violent death.
The British American photojournalist and artist Tim Hetherington (1970–2011) also borrows from the Renaissance with his photograph of a sleeping soldier: Lizama, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan (2008). The surrounding wooden barracks and the figure’s horizontal pose recall Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521–22), which gruesomely depicts the bodily mortality of Christ and is the ultimate memento mori. Unlike Nes, Hetherington does not pose his figures, yet both artists use the image of the angelic, sleeping soldier to emphasize their
Angela Strassheim, an American photographer working in New York and Israel, also suggests the pain of life and the presence of death in her photograph Untitled (Waiting Room) (2006). A child, limp as a rag doll with exhaustion, sleeps in her father’s lap in a hospital waiting room, creating a classic, stable pyramid form that reinforces her sense of serenity and safety in dreaming. Her tranquility is overshadowed by the broken expression on her father’s face and the missing mother symbolized by an empty chair. The narrative suggests that the absent part of this nuclear family is gravely ill or, worse, that the innocence of this child may soon be shattered. Here, Hamlet’s expression of death as a permanent sleep seems like something a parent would employ to explain the passing of a parent to a naive child.
South African artist Peiter Hugo’s photograph from his Permanent Error series, a 2009-10 body of photographs taken in an environmental wasteland in Ghana, is immense and beautiful but also the exhibition’s most problematic work. In his series, we are introduced to the disenfranchised inhabitants of a slum outside of the city of Agbogbloshie where obsolete technological waste is burned in order to extract the precious metals within, a process that releases toxins into the soil and air. Most of this waste is shipped from the first world to the third under the guise of donations to help narrow the technological divide. It is a condescending and abhorrent practice that self congratulates using poor countries as dumping grounds for the consequences of over-consumption. In the untitled photo featured in Perchance to Dream, we see the scarred face of a sleeping man, exposed to the elements, his calloused hands delicately holding an equally worn plastic cap. The man’s placid dream state represents a reprieve from his fire-scorched environs, yet it is an image that couldn’t be further away than the accompanying photographs of white women in lush featherbeds exhibited nearby. In so far as Hamlet is concerned, divorcing this photograph from the context of Hugo’s larger series to communicate a romanticized notion of universal solidarity is akin to pouring (more) poison into this sleeping man’s ear.
Perchance to Dream is on view at Andrea Meislin Gallery through August 9, 2013.