Until I saw it written down I thought the title of this exhibition was just one word, “Sleepless”. It made me think of stubborn nights kicking off the sheets, maybe broken dreams and fractured nightmares at worst. But the underlying panic in the self-disciplined command of “Sleep Less” is more acute than that; trying to keep yourself awake can be torture, especially in childhood when minutes during the night drag by like hours. But in desperation, staying awake is the only guaranteed way to avoid recurring nightmares or the terrifying grip of sleep paralysis, as well as various bogeymen and maybe even alien abduction. “Sleep Less” also speaks of a desperation to get it all done in not enough time, when forgoing sleep is the only solution to time running out. That these anxieties are depicted in a work set within the context of a child’s world makes it darker still, the anguish of the little mind unable to turn itself off to sleep.
The artist’s childhood bedroom has been sculpted from memory at roughly two-thirds the actual size. It’s a plain, blank room - two single beds where Ronnie and his brother slept, blinds on the window, a wardrobe, not much on the walls. Drudged through van Hout’s memory (maybe stored away and scuffed up by the little man homunculus in his brain), the room has come out decades later as a claustrophobic, gloopy, monochromatic (head)space. It’s murky in here.
Stepping inside the room is like stepping inside a piece of memory. In its physical form this fragment is drained of colour and blurry at the edges, as if the brain has lost some of the information needed to reconstruct in more detail. The scale too has been distorted by time, as memories and dreams are prone to be, exaggerating the insularity of this introspective space. Condensed to make us feel out of place, we become clumsy giants in a fragile container. It has become a room in van Hout’s brain as much as it was ever a room in a house.
Someone has made a few marks on the bedroom walls, drawings filling in the gaps of the ‘60s wallpaper pattern with the imagination. Kinda like marking the days spent in solitary confinement, leaving evidence of having been there (this is echoed by the voice in an accompanying video work “there’s something here, I’m here”). But also it’s just a kid who is good at drawing making an effort to spruce up his immediate surroundings, which were otherwise pretty lacking in aesthetic stimulation.
In reconstructing his bedroom, van Hout has poured detail into rendering the few pictures he can remember and must have spent hours looking at when he should have been asleep. The Sacred
Heart and Virgin Mary communion cards take on a spooky form, and seem oddly alien placed as they are to look over sleeping children. A popular print of a hunting scene is the one other picture chosen to decorate this boys’ room. In such a sparse space the impact of visual imagery seems heightened and makes you wonder what effect the pictures might have on a growing brain.
Beyond the bedroom walls, the world goes on. External events, biographical documents and amateur brain theories are all presented, as if van Hout has been collecting pieces of information that might help him explain himself. Local newspapers from the artist’s first ten birthdays have been pulled out from the archives, memorials to the time and place. Further digging has uncovered documentation of the Glenelg Health Camp (where van Hout was sent for some period of time during his childhood, on the recommendation of his school). These are the kind of archival documents someone might look to when researching their genealogy or local history, but van Hout is just looking for clues to himself.
In trying to connect the child to the adult self, van Hout pays attention to both sides of the nature-nurture argument. The surrounding environment is seen in parallel to the brain’s activity, with a map of Glenelg Health Camp sharing a strange similarity to a diagram showing the chemical processes of sleep. Sleep Less seems to be trying to piece something together based on the information at hand, but the sources may not be entirely reliable. The brain can play tricks and the science deployed seems a little rough. But maybe by combining a whole range of imperfect information, Sleep Less gets somewhere towards drawing the unseen line of identity development from childhood to adulthood. It allows for an honest crumbling of boundaries between the self and the world it exists in, and a little slippage between the conscious and unconscious.