E. M. Forester asserted that, at least in terms of plot, “The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.” In Yulia Mahr’s short film and in Max Richter’s SLEEP, the composition it springs from, sleep at last gets its due. Richter describes SLEEP as “an eight-hour personal lullaby for a frenetic world and a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” Mahr’s visual lullaby “Path 5 (delta)” is decidedly more restless, but still haunts this unspoken, dreamy space we hardly understand, draws us down under the covers to find our own sleepy understandings.
The film, like the music, is minimalist, repeats a few visual themes: the waxing and waning of a moon, time lapse film of crowds, traffic, cities, and time lapse footage of people sleeping. In this way it moves from the macro to the micro, from the ghostly, pock marked face that pulls at us, watches over our sleep, through the frenzy of the lives we choose, down to the small dances of sleep in our tiny rooms and beds.
Mahr chooses to make all the footage black and white and then reverses the colours so the film takes on the ghostly appearance of photography negatives. This reversal means that light takes over, swallows the moon then offers it up again, bodies of light rush through cityscapes, and sleepers of light toss and turn. All the darknesses here are sublimated into light.
Fades to light in film, and perhaps most notably in the TV serial Six Feet Under, lean towards the divine, look heavenward, counter to the fade to black’s going under swallowing of time, of consciousness. Less established in film vernacular, a fade to white is highly specialized, more rarely used. Jacob T. Swinney explores this visually in his video montage of the device:
As Sami Emory points out, “When filmmakers invert the norm, however, and end on a wash of white, what follows can be wholly enigmatic.” The fade-to-white’s ambiguity is perfect for Mahr’s repeating, minimalist reflection on sleep and its place in our worlds.
Where Richter’s composition lulls towards sleep states, Mahr’s visual composition is restless. None of the film is peaceful. The chaos of the time-lapse crowds and cities crossfade so that they layer over the sleepers, the moon haunting the background. The boundaries between the images are porous, sleep not a separate eden of peacefulness. What this emphasizes, divulges, is the bare truth of sleep, its vulnerability.
Richter, in several interviews, has talked about his fascination with the neurological aspects of sleep. In interview with Robin Murray in Clash Magazine, he describes his process and the questions he has explored with “Sleep” is how he has created a work of art that, in many ways, relies on the experience of the listener:
“It’s actually on the condition that people bring their own biography and their own thoughts about it, and then you start to get a sense of the bigger picture of the thing. Because until then it’s just hypothetical, really,” he states. “You’ve got this thing and you think this is what it is, but honestly, that’s just through the lens of my experience and my intentions. And actually, especially in this piece, the experiences of the listener are really at the centre of it. If there is a theme, then it’s the act of hearing and the act of sleeping – that’s the theme of it.”
Though performances of the piece have incorporated actual sleepers, this is something Richter himself can never experience. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy Daily, he confessed “For me, though, that part of my brain is just incapable of turning off. Listening to music is a really busy activity. I’m going, “Hmm… I’d rather do that, I’d fix that noise…” [laughs] That’s how I’m wired. I don’t listen to music before bed because then I’d never fall asleep! You think about it from a maker’s perspective, you know – how is that made? I think that’s quite natural, that sort of curiosity.”
The fundamental experience of SLEEP is inaccessible to him, like the secret world of our sleep is inaccessible to us, the audience like dreams indirectly linking the artist to his artwork.
Yulia Mahr is a visual anthropologist and award winning filmmaker, a combination which evidently makes her the perfect dreamer for Richter’s “Dreams.”