Combine science with other approaches to explore complex questions

Susan Aldworth, Printmaker and filmmaker 

In my work I explore the complex relationships between the physical and philosophical. One of the projects I am currently involved in, The Dark Self, is an example of how science can be used as part of a multi-discliplinary approach to explore the questions that are fundamental to being human.

The Dark Self explores sleep. Sleep presents scientists, who often deal in objective, repeatable facts, with an interesting problem. Not only is being asleep a solitary act, even the person sleeping cannot give an account of it. What happens to the ‘self’ in this dark time of sleep when the brain is in a state of high function? Multi-disciplinary approaches help to bring such questions to life, and allow us to express them in ways not possible with science alone.   

Deep sleep is an experience of nothingness but one that is full of fundamental but hidden activity. What is this transition from consciousness to unconsciousness? What can we know about it? What is it about these fundamental sleep-associated activities that are so ‘secret’ they demand that we remain unaware of them? What happens to the self in this dark time of sleep when the brain is in a state of high function? Is the very real perception of nothingness a critical component of the restorative power of sleep, or just a mundane consequence of the mechanical ‘sorting and filing’ that is required during sleep to keep us cognitively healthy? These are difficult questions, but Art can be a catalyst in bringing together both scientific and art historical ideas in an innovative way.

Artists have long considered sleep a resource for their creativity but this has been primarily in connection to dreaming. The project shares more with attempts in modern art to empty the art work of content completely and confront the viewer with a complete absence or void. The possibility of presenting ‘nothing’ without it instantly becoming ‘something’ is an aesthetic as well as practical challenge that brings together art and science in a unique way.

The exhibition will bring together the narratives of sleep using science, art history and personal experience in a series of different forms of artwork. The centrepiece of the exhibition will be the 1001 Nights installation of 350 embroidered pillowcases  depicting the sleep stories and dreams of over 350 people, who have participated in the sleep exhibition.  Other works will include moving image (as in the image below), sound, print and sculpture to reflect the complexity of Sleep. The audience will be taken on a journey in this multi-faceted exhibition to explore sleep from many different perspectives.


Susan Aldworth is an experimental printmaker and filmmaker interested in questions of human identity. She has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally in venues including the National Portrait Gallery,  V&A, British Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum and Wellcome Collection. She is currently working on a project exploring Sleep with both Professor Miles Whittington at the University of York  and Professor Adrian Williams at Guy’s Hospital in London. The Dark Self will be shown at York St Mary’s, York, from June – September 2017. Susan’s work can be seen at







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