Darkness Visible by Sam Winston
Artist Sam Winston spent a number of weeks living in his studio, drawing in complete darkness.
From this experience he has created a new immersive exhibition called Darkness Visible, with the aim of everyone experiencing the creative power of darkness. In this guest blog, he tells us about how the experience affected him:
I was not sure, initially, why I was interested in living in the dark. I had read of yogis spending years in complete darkness and psychologists running light deprivation studies, but I guess, as a visual artist, I was interested in what I might see by not looking at anything at all. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of a rich creative journey.
And it was this rather foolhardy curiosity which led me to black out the light in the studio, make a bed from the sofa, and buy in seven days of dry food. I then closed the door and didn’t see anything for quite some time.
Biologically speaking the absence of daylight triggers large hormone imbalances in the pineal gland. This gland normally releases melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates sleep, and with this out of balance I quickly found myself not knowing if I had just slept two or twenty hours, or even if it was the night I was sleeping in.
With my sense of touch leading the way, making a cup of tea could easily take 45 minutes, and walking across a room was a big event in and of itself. I suspect, to an outsider, my movements resembled those of a heavily sedated sloth, but that was fine by me because, in contrast, anyone passing outside sounded like they were rushing around madly.
I also seemed to have lost a normal sense of self. With no visual reminders of my body, things like my arms and legs, unless active, had an uncanny habit of disappearing. Over the days this became so pronounced that the difference between noises from in and out of my skull blurred to the point that I could easily mistake the rush hour traffic as being inside my head.
I found that I did continue to see but in the way that you see when images appear in dreams. The mornings were as black as the nights so it became easy to continue dreaming whilst awake. This lucid state was interesting because I got to watch my unconscious mind whilst still having a fairly clear sense of being awake.
It would be fair to say that by day four I was clearly having a vacation from what we would call ‘normal’, and surprisingly this was, on the whole, a rather pleasant experience. Free from alarm clocks, the somatic world operates at a much slower and more sedately pace. It felt not dissimilar to that of a small child exploring the world.
Before blacking out the studio I had set up a large roll of paper on an oversized work surface and placed a pin in the centre of it. I had chosen three coloured pencils – red, green and blue – to represent the three types of pigment in the eye, and I used all of these to draw in the dark. This process of blind drawing was the thing that kept me company throughout the duration of the week, and by the end of it I felt as if the artwork itself had become a friend.
I was interested in using my art practice as a way to structure time. In some respects the experience of groping around in the dark, trying to make something tangible out of it all, is most probably an apt metaphor for a lot of things in life.
When I came out the only way I could explain the experience of the light was – physical. In the same way that a loud bass shakes windows, here the light entering my body came as waves of energy as opposed to something I could simply see.
This project was never just about blindness, but rather the crossing of boundaries and how those changes in turn alter how we understand the world. The week was deeply affecting and it didn’t take long to realise that there was a creative goldmine to be explored here. So, the endeavour then moved from being an inward facing exploration to ways in which to share the experience.
I began commissioning ‘darkness residences’ for three poets, a composer, a photographer, and a filmmaker. I wanted to see what insights would come to them after exploring their own journeys between senses. With the support of Arts Council England I set out to install a Dark Room at Southbank Centre and also present the poets words about their own journeys. It’s an installation in which visitors can experience both the shifts that happen when entering and exiting the dark, as well as encountering other artists responses to this experience.
The immersive exhibition has been created at the National Poetry Library where the walls and floor are covered in text and room sized art works from my time in darkness. Over three hundred written pages describe my own experiences of living without sight. The facade of the installation looks to capture an external voice, and then entering into the Dark Room, you can hear and feel the shift to inner voice.
In part, the poet George Szirtes had this to say about the experience –
The idea of total darkness is not the same as total darkness.
The idea of light is not the same as light.
The words expressing the idea of light or total darkness are not ideas.
The word may be imagined vanishing into total darkness.
This word has begun to express an idea but most of it is lost in darkness
This sentence is not total darkness.
This one is.
The exhibition at the Southbank Centre is accompanied by a live event at the Whitechapel Gallery with composer Jamie Perera, photographer Andy Sewell, and filmmaker Anna Price.
Both the exhibition and live event incorporates spoken word performances by the featured poets Emily Berry, Kayo Chingonyi and George Szirtes.
Sam Winston – Darkness Visible
Friday 17 November 2017 — Sunday 25 February 2018
Opening times – Tuesday — Sunday, 11am — 8pm
The National Poetry Library, Level 5
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX
Sam Winston’s project Darkness Visible continues in 2018 with a 90 minute, immersive event at Whitechapel Gallery.
Screening & Event
Thursday 11 January 2018, 7pm — 9pm
77—78 Whitechapel High Street
London E1 7QX