We used to play ‘psychologist’ at school. Using Freud for dummies which had been passed around the playground, we analysed our dreams. Supposedly it came down to childbirth, Oedipusian fantasy, and fear of falling. As with everything at that age, the answers we gave to the questions were either ‘right’, or ‘wrong’. Growing up though, it became clear that dreams can be so much more. We internalise real events, thoughts and sensations which then get muddled up with fantasy in our sleep. Imagination in our daily lives are fulfilled in our dreams in bizarre, sexy and disturbing ways, and countless works of art have made this their subject. Dreams have also been the inspiration for political action, personal life-changes and spiritual orientation. The elucidation of dreams in relation to the realm of consciousness is called ‘dream interpretation’. In some societies, oracles and priests play the role of dream interpreter in others, psychologists have taken this position. Artists have always been key to the universalisation of dreams and continue to use them as inspiration for their work. So what is it about dreams that makes them so tantalising and how have they been represented throughout history?
Clocks dripping from branches, pools of water spawning eggs, long limbed Elephants parading through the desert, brick fireplaces giving birth to steam trains: ’tis the stuff that dreams are made of. Dreams, and paintings by the Surrealists. Enjoying their heyday in the 1920s, the Surrealists collided the realms of imagination and reality through film, paint and word. In their 1924 manifesto, written by André Breton, the Surrealists stated that their goal was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”. Using the techniques established by psychologists, including Freud, this group of artists experimented with making the private spheres of fantasy accessible. Andrè Breton used organic dream experimentation as a method to produce work, introducing new mechanisms on this basis, including automatic writing. Breton in particular was fascinated with Freudian methods because of his experience during the war as a trainee in a neurological hospital where he used Freud’s techniques to treat soldiers with shell-shock. Surrealism was, for Breton, a system through which a terrorised population could resolve both their deep-rooted fears and reveal and fulfil their true desires. It was about closing the gap between dreams and reality and allowing for one to exist in conjunction with the other. Other members of the movement, such as Salvador Dalì, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, used dreams as springboard to create fantasy worlds in honour, rather than as a portrait of, dreams.
A portrait of dreamers would be an accurate description of a contemporary photographic series snapped by British award-winning photographer, Paul Graham. Graham was one of a group of artists exhibited in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition Dream States: Contemporary Photographs and Video. His series Does Yellow Run Forever? explores the realm of dreaming, but it does so in an altogether different way to the system employed by the Surrealists and other artist dream-explorers. Rather than encouraging association through the viewer observing these worlds, the series explores voyeurism and ultimately, self-reflection. Does Yellow Run Forever? works almost cinematographically, with a back-and-forth between dreamer and dreams played out from one photograph to the next. Featuring his partner as the ‘dreamer’, Paul Graham encourages the viewer to imagine what this sleeping woman is conjuring up in her mind. He then goes on to expose her inner fantasies as rainbows and gold (represented through the multicoloured arches of the Irish countryside and facades of gold-bearing pawn shops in Harlem). The link between these two subjects of desire and the old dictum ‘gold at the end of a rainbow’ is clear, but what Graham does beyond simply conveying these desires is that he modernises them, encouraging the viewer to ask themselves “is this what I dream of too?” and “can dreams become reality?”.
In an age where the American Dream has become the holy grail for western civilisation, represented most poignantly by the current U.S. president, our relationship to dreaming now more than ever needs to be re-evaluated. Artists continue to be the mediums that we trust to do this and it seems that the obscure worlds of fantasy conjured up by the Surrealists have been replaced by a new definition of dreams; the desire to become someone or own something. It is this that Paul Graham’s series explores and it is this that which continues to be both honoured and mocked by contemporary artists. Now with the opportunity to create dream worlds in three dimensions, through alternative reality technology, perhaps we will be returning to an other-worldly understanding of dreams more akin to that which Breton and his movement introduced in the early 1900s.
Images from the series Does Yellow Run Forever? © Paul Graham, courtesy of Mack publishing.