Elizabeth Price makes art that seems to follow a sort of dream logic. Take The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), the video installation for which she won the Turner Prize: a performance by the Shangri-Las is connected to news coverage of a terrible fire in Manchester through the twisting gesture of a hand. Price has a gift for affective association: she can link apparently unrelated things in ways that chime visually and emotionally, just as our unconscious minds do during sleep.
Sleep is, interestingly, one of the organizing themes of ‘In a Dream You Saw a Way to Survive and Were Full of Joy’, a Hayward touring exhibition curated by Price that opened at Whitworth Art Gallery in June. Borrowing its title from a Jenny Holzer work from 1983–85, the show is an oblique, evocative exploration of the horizontal in art. Applying the same magpie approach usually seen in her moving-image work, Price traces a meandering, somnambulant path from Giulio Paolini’s Nécessaire (Necessary, 1968) – a stack of blank, white sheets of paper, singing with potential – through artworks from all over the world, ranging from a 13th-century effigy to an ongoing text piece by Katrina Palmer.
Entering the exhibition (which is divided into four sections: Sleeping, Working, Mourning, Dancing) visitors find themselves in a space filled with sleeping figures: some peaceful, others vulnerable. In Edward Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift (1901), a naked young woman appears to surrender to both gravity and death, melting back into the marble slab from which she has been carved. Nearby, Andy Warhol’s film Sleep (1963) tenderly traces every inch of his boyfriend, John Giorno, over the course of a night.
In the same room, there are photographs by Yto Barrada, David Goldblatt and Marketa Luskacova, showing poor and homeless people sleeping in parks and on benches. And, on the floor, easy to overlook, lies Gavin Turk’s Nomad (2003) – a grubby sleeping bag, with what appears to be a person inside.
In the second section, these inactive forms transmute into bodies at work. Photographs show labourers in factories and mills, bent over the machines. In one, by an unknown artist, a woman appears enmeshed behind a loom, as the thread criss-crosses diagonally across the frame. These lines extend in other images of fields scored by ploughs and scenes of polar explorations of the early 1900s, including Edward Adrian Wilson’s delicate, ghostly drawings of icebergs.
The chill seeps into a section focused on death and rituals of grieving, in which the final scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) plays on loop. In this mesmerizing homoerotic clip, one man throws himself onto the body of another, who has just been shot. In slow motion, the two of them twist around on the ground, in a morbid dance.
In the show’s final section, their embrace is echoed in archival footage of Carolee Schneemann’s notorious performance Meat Joy (1964) and Danse Serpentine (Serpentine Dance, c.1899) by The Lumière Brothers, in which a woman whirls in a billowing dress, like a dervish or butterfly. Beginning with stillness, the show ends in a kind of ecstatic, kinetic frenzy. The Enfield Case (1977) by Graham Morris shows a young, working-class girl who is supposedly possessed. A skinny figure in a red dress, she leaps with furious energy from her bed, as if trying to jump out of her cramped, beige surroundings.
Like Price’s own work, this extraordinarily rich, and clearly extensively researched, exhibition seems to hang together effortlessly. Rifling through eight centuries of art history, disrupting its linear chronology, Price traces a line of meaning that seems always to have been there, dormant, revealed as if in a dream.
Anna Coatman is a writer and editor from Leeds, now based in London. She writes about art, film and literature for publications including Sight & Sound, The White Review, Another Gaze, the TLS and the LRB.
First published in Issue 181