Celestial Bodies: Approaching a Poetics of Sleep

by Carol Schwarzman


Dark Matter Shannon Egans _ 1020 x 1530mm 2017Dark Matter – Shannon Berry-Bam (2017), Acrylic on canvas, 102x153cm. All photos courtesy the artist.

Billy Shannon’s Sleep Series gently exalts the meeting of the body with the ethereal world of slumber. For him, this part-corporeal, part-supernatural coupling forms a bridge with the infinite and the stuff of galaxies and nebulae. Asleep, we enter a phantasmagorical universe as vital to survival as waking life. And even while the body’s weighty physicality is the foundation for our existence – during slumber, we cross over into an emotional sphere not bound by rules of somatic logic, reason or fact.

Rudi Mineur Master of Circus _ 970 x 970mm 2016Master of Circus – Rudi Mineur (2016), Acrylic on canvas, 97x97cm.

Here, Shannon’s primary preoccupation as an artist is to stretch the material limitations of paint – to conjure up a portrait of a specific sleeper experiencing that paradoxical mix of visuals and affect, phantasm and healing operating within dreams. He creates poetry from prismatic colour, expressive brushwork and layers of glazing to speak about how, for all dreamers, “the physical self dissolves,” into the vast theatre of the unconscious mind. Clearly, he has closely studied the painting techniques of Romantics like Delacroix, Géricault and Turner: his painterly emphasis on each sleeper’s internalised state of consciousness allies him with the Romantics’ sensibility of individuality and expressiveness, as does his use of atmospheric skeins of colour to conjure psychological truth. While we usually associate the Romantics’ kinship with nature as referring to life on Earth, Shannon’s paintings posit a natural alliance with cosmic forces beyond Earth’s atmosphere, as if to say that the earthly boundaries we take for our limits are always surpassed by sleep’s access to freedom and grandeur.

2Natano Fa'anana Love and Strength _ 1020 x 1980mm 2017

Love and Strength – Natano Fa’anana (2017), Acrylic on canvas, 102x198cm.

His breadth of imagination fed an earlier stint as scenic artist for theatre, film and television. In 2007 – working from a scissor lift – he painted a mammoth 13 x 10 metre San Francisco skyscape featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, windswept clouds and blue sky for the film Nim’s Island (2008). He continues to maintain strong connections within the theatre community not only through innumerable friendships with directors, actors, dancers and acrobats, but also in work as a master masseur to the industry (yet another métier he has pursued with enthusiastic rigour). His knowledge of the body and its mysteries is deeply informed – his experience with the dramatic possibilities of stagecraft invigorates the visuality of his work.

Shannon-fb-1024x1024Sharon Berry-Bam and the Rosette Nebula (2016), Acrylic on canvas, 87x87cm.

Creative Fire Asher Bowen-Saunders _ 970 x 970mm 2018Creative Fire – Asher Bowen-Saunders (2018), Acrylic on canvas, 97x97cm.

In fact, he first began Sleep Series about four years ago when the acrobat/dancer Asher Bowen-Saunders suggested that she “would love to see what I look like through the eyes of your brush.” And so, after her massage, when Asher had fallen asleep (as most of Shannon’s clients do – I can personally attest to this experience), he painted her sleeping portrait. He explains, “the high comfort and trust level initiated by the massage” creates a pathway for the subject’s subtly drifting off to sleep. “Everyone makes a beautiful shape when they’re asleep. This way of pushing the limits of traditional portraiture interests me – as a means to essentially tell a subject’s specific, personal story.” Thus the body’s gesture is relaxed, intimate, vulnerable and suspended in a singular, timeless space that mirrors the sleeper’s life story.

A portrait session is also preceded by a subject’s completed questionnaire relating insights into their relationship with sleep. Queries such as: “Have you ever been taught anything in a dream?” or “What shape is sleep?” provide Shannon with intuitive cues. He asks for date and time of birth, potentially for an astrological chart, but more often to identify celestial formations at place and time of birth. A discourse begins amongst stars, planets and individuals – connecting the heavens and the human – and the ineffable with the everyday.

Broken Sleep Richard Causer _ 1380 x 1020mm 2017Broken Sleep – Richard Causer (2017), Acrylic on canvas, 138x102cm.

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Before the discovery of REM sleep cycles in the early 1950s, sleep was universally thought to be the passive opposite of wakefulness. For instance, in his Laws (circa 350 BC), Plato presumed, “When a man is asleep, he is no better than if he were dead; and he who loves life and wisdom will take no more sleep than is necessary for health.”1 Today, we know that sleep is a dynamic behavior with five stages, and that dreaming involves as much activity in the brain as wakefulness. The process of sleep/dreaming has its own poetry and is “not simply a matter of pure physiology outside consciousness.” Instead, it belies an alternate state that changes how we think about what consciousness is. If sleep, considered as poiesis, is a process that “unveils”, or “makes truth”… that gives rise to a “mode of truth as unveiling … relating more to… the experience of production, than simply to its result,”2 then perhaps Shannon’s paintings – with their dreamers afloat in veils of stardust – characterise sleep as the production of a universal poetry – and are visions of our creative contribution to the unfolding universe. Thinking in this way, I immediately imagine a child being told by his mother, “Go to sleep now, my darling – and dream your story to add to all the other children’s stories – in order to build the future.”

Sabine-complete-1024x1021Dream and Trust in Yourself – Sabine van Rensberg (2016), Acrylic on canvas, 96x96cm.

Most of us consider our waking hours as more ‘valuable’ than those spent while asleep. Yet during sleep, the body’s immune system regenerates its vital functions, and total sleep deprivation leads to madness and death.3

We often analyse the significance of our dreams, but how often do we stop to consider how sleep itself shapes meaning in our lives (other than when we’re suffering from its lack)? Shannon offers us contemplation of the significance of slumber and the way it connects us to something greater than ourselves. In sleep, we create a coexistence with the Universe, losing and finding who we are – and what we may yet become.

1 https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Philosophy-of-Insomnia/127029, (accessed 14/01/2019).

2 Simon Morgan Wortham, The Poetics of Sleep (London, 2013), p. 17.

3 https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/dreaming-in-the-digital-age/201412/why-sleep-deprivation-is-torture, (accessed 15/01/2019).