From sleeping at the Venice Architecture Biennale to sleeping with others is a sculpture park, Matthew Bird alters our perception through artful snoozing.
Sleep is a solitary experience - or one shared only with intimates - but artist and architect Matthew Bird is challenging audiences to take a snooze while being part of an exhibition Bird believes that sleep might even be our truest creative expression. ‘Part of my creative life is my sleep life. I think I am normal. I have pretty colourful dreams,’ he said. Bird’s interactive sculptural project by Dormitorium, currently at McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery, is a communal sleep chamber where visitors are invited to share this very intimate activity with strangers.
‘The experience of lying with strangers is something that I wanted to explore, everything from primates sleeping in huddles to sleeping on airplanes, and that strange moment when someone leans into your shoulder and they are completely comfortable,’ said Bird. Bird started with conventional research to try to understand what makes us comfortable in sleep. He worked with sleep disorder and physician Dr Marcus McMahon from Austin Health and Professor Shanta Rajaratnam from Monash University’s Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences. ‘I was fascinated with dormitories of the 1950s, where people with sleep disorders would lie together in an iron lung – 20 – 30 people lined up. That communal aspect of sleep feels so counterintuitive and yet so normal.’ This is not the first time that Bird has worked with sleep as a medium. His construction, Sarcophagus (2016) was presented last year at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, and is designed as a single person experience.
This multidimensional architectural installation renders creative curiosities of biological and induced respite, challenging a range of aesthetic, cultural and behavioural concerns,’ he explained. In the same way users are invited to physically occupy his latest installation Dormitorium. Bird draws across and unites numerous creative disciplines from architecture and interior design to installation art, photography, video, sound and performance. So how does it work, and will you fall asleep in Bird’s Dormitorium?
Walking into the gallery space Bird described the visitor experience simply as ‘weird’. ‘I think there is this uncanny moment, but then you are seduced into it,’ he told ArtsHub. You walk into a blush pink room with a 5-meter long interactive installation placed central. ‘It’s the best colour to help you go to sleep apparently,’ explained Bird. Visitors climb aboard his sleeping machine, and it slowly rotates. ‘It sounds like a thrill ride, I know, but it rotates super slow. I was thinking of carousels, playground spinning activities and the Graviton – they have a nostalgic reference for me,’ he said.
Bird wore EEG headgear (Electroencephalography) to monitor his brain waves during sleep, which were then translated into animated patterns by artist Caitlyn Parry, and are projected within the sculptural chamber, like a cloud hovering over the viewer. ‘They were largely the colours of sunset and sunrise. The greater conversation is why do we sleep in relation to those moments? ‘In the chamber you feel like you are being slowly rocked to sleep, and then suddenly there is this blue light that appears – that is the colour of “alert”. It is meant to be a commentary on our phone and computer use before going to bed,’ said Bird. Research has found that if you remove the amount of information you process before you go to sleep, the quality of that sleep is far better. ‘I learnt about the efficiency of sleep and how it is just as important to your well being as is eating and exercising,’ he added.
About a third of our life is lived in sleep mode and part of that is in a creativity activity when dreaming. And while we all have very different sleep habits and needs, the commonality is that we all dream – and by default harness creativity through sleep. ‘I automatically think they are linked as I am a creative - our brain is constantly active and we all dream – it would seem the most natural link,’ said Bird. He said that it was the Surrealists who best drew connections between creativity and dreams. Bird’s Dormitorium encourages audiences to engage with a complexity of sensory propositions, from textures and materials to the immersive effects of moving light and sound technologies. Simply, through art we can better understand how we rest and rejuvenate.
Bird described himself as a ‘spatial entrepreneur’. ‘I don’t sit in silos. I think what they trained me to do at RMIT University (studying architecture), was to think spatially and entrepreneurially. I have just found different ways of doing that,’ he said. Collaboration across disciplines has been key to this project, and to most of Bird’s professional oeuvre. ‘I’d rather call it inter-discipline rather than cross-discipline. In that way the two merge together and blend, rather than cross discipline which talks about collaboration but remains in those silos,’ said Bird.
Apart from working with sleep disorder physicians and clinical neuroscientists, Bird has also worked with composer and sound designer J David Franke and performer and choreographer Phillip Adams of Ballet Lab and Shelley Lascia, to further interpret sleep data. ‘For me, I think it is the everyday, the prosaic that I find inspiring. Most of my works are created from Bunnings materials, literally. I like to look at what we live with already, and am keen to translate and transmute that into the unidentified, the esoteric or the poetic - and to ask the bigger question of how we value the everyday.’ Sleep for Bird is a big part of that question, and he invites visitors to join him in exploring the sensory propositions and answers that sleep offers.