On Euston Road in Central London, an advertisement for The Wellcome Collection’s “States of Mind” exhibition features what looks like the painted face of a sleeping mime. Finding it oddly mesmerising, I decided to check it out – and promptly fell into a rabbit-hole of existential crises.
The Somnambulist sculpture lies on the floor, strangely motionless between an interactive synesthesia screen, and audial and textual personal testaments of sleep-deprivation. It’s so life-like that I think I see it breathing, and mistake the life-size sculpture for a real blood-and-flesh actor. After a minute or two of careful scrutiny, I relax slightly and approach again for a closer look. It is completely and unexpectedly beautiful.
The slightly yellowed skin of the neck and hands recalls Frankenstein’s monster. In the white face-paint, exaggerated black make-up and real black hair that frames it all, mime costume converges with the sort of ultimate emo aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in a My Chemical Romance video.
In fact, Goshka Macuga’s Somnambulist is inspired by the 1920 film “The Cabinet of Dr Calgari”, in which a malevolent doctor controls a sleepwalking patient and uses him to commit murder. Cesare, the somnambulist depicted by Macuga, has unsettlingly large eyes when he awakes after 23 years in the film – Macuga’s depiction of him sleeping, with his eyes shut, also keeps us in the dark about his personhood and the nature of his experience.
Who are we when we are asleep or unconscious? When we are no longer in control of our actions can we still be considered ourselves? The questions posed by the symmetrical sculpture are matched with an unsettling personal identification with it – sleep straddles the line between life and death so I am disconcertingly aware that, like the Somnambulist, any of us could as easily find ourselves lying in a coffin as in a bed.
Goshka Macuga has created something inert and yet profoundly human, and – like much of the rest of her work – it is a testament to art’s power to force a reappraisal of concepts as central to our understanding of human experience as consciousness, agency, mortality and perception. The mannequin is the most hypnotic aspect of the “States of Mind” exhibition, and by far the most memorable.
All images courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.