He is outstretched on a bed, his body framed by the pallor of sheets and surrounded by the darkness of night. Overlaid with shadows and city lights that glimmer like stars, he is shrouded by a dreamlike world.
Alec Soth’s self-portrait mirrors his enduring interest in sleep and beds as vehicles for dreaming. Documenting the view outside a window and the reflection of the scene inside, Park Hyatt Hotel, Tokyo (2015)—the stimulus for this exhibition—is one of many photographs by the Minneapolis-based artist that captures internal experiences and unfamiliar journeys.
He is enclosed within a dark tunnel, caught between physical and spiritual realms. The light at the end beckons; it could be an illusion or deception and provide no escape.
Focusing on a theme that has flowed like a stream of consciousness through his work for more than 20 years, Soth searched through his far-reaching history of projects to create Hypnagogia, eliciting a perspicuous connection to the transitional stage between wakefulness and sleep. Described as a neurological phenomenon, one recurrently associated with creativity, a hypnagogic state is the dreamlike experience while awake that conjures vivid, sometimes realistic imagery.
He gazes out the window as if in a trance, wearing patterned nightclothes as green as the surrounding foliage. Laura tries to run, her twisted legs precipitating a fall.
A dream logic metaphorically connects Soth’s pictures. Whether drawn from his travels, publications, or other multifarious projects, the murky territory between fiction and non-fiction comes together through a rhythmic sequencing of images, analogous to the cadence of poetry.
He fashions a sleepwalker’s symbol from stones in the landscape. While on hands and knees, in different states of undress, they recite a passage from Nabokov’s Lolita: “I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze, I cannot get out said the starling…”
Eclectic themes and sensuous details evoke the spirit of Soth’s epic 2000-mile journey along the Mississippi River’s mighty course. Capturing dreamers and visionaries, motels rooms, and abandoned beds, he engenders an overwhelming mood of loneliness.
He places the naked torso of a woman atop the obsessively adorned bed. The bird’s arrested flight signals both desire and captivity.
Luring viewers into a psychological journey through the gallery, Soth’s photographs are as much about the spaces they depict as they are about the ways in which he navigates each environment. The images are open to interpretation by viewers, however, to a great extent Soth sees himself in front of the camera, whether lightheartedly poking fun or battling inner demons.
He descends headfirst into rushing water far below the steep, jagged cliffs. A woman’s face interrupts the scene; whether she is singing with joy or screaming out of fear remains unclear.
Soth disconnects pictures from their particular stories, forming new, inexplicable narratives that spark imagination. Here, and throughout his artistic practice, lyrical depictions of individualism are placed in tension with images that cast light on the contradictory desire to be bound to a community. He inventively blurs boundaries to challenge the American ethos centred around personal prosperity and success. In doing so, he commemorates acute sensations of longing, shattered aspirations, and the desire to flee civilization and live “off the grid.”
He is a lost soul, haunted by images from the past that cover the wall above his bed. Asleep on the ground, he is surrounded by a blanket of fresh moss and dead leaves.
Soth has travelled countless roads over the past 20 years, intuitively following a path that always leads back to his origins in Minnesota. This is where the artist’s awareness of wakeful dreaming was aroused, and method of free association began—documenting sleep patterns, and photographing sheep, repeatedly, one at a time. Through this lens, he bends facts and crafts fictions, responding to his early works in ways not previously imagined. Coalescing images created between 1996 and 2016 for the first time, Soth’s retrospective was formed by a vision, as he awoke in the middle of the night.
He is the bedraggled man with eyes closed, tangled in the wires probing his unconscious.
Organized by CONTACT in partnership with Arsenal Toronto