September 16, 2020

Applied Practice | Dream Theory Project | Final images and critical evaluation

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Six final images & critical evaluation

Gallery Link

Click this link to see the final images in a zoomable gallery. The link opens a new browser window.

Short project pitch

I’ve gone into some evaluative detail in this post for each image that follows, but I wanted to try to write a short pitch that briefly summarises this project. It’s much easier to write the long form descriptions but I wanted to try and condense it into a couple of paragraphs—an 'Exhibition Description'. I think this could be of use if I get the chance to show these pieces and wanted to include a printed description or if I have to try to pitch them to a gallery.

Exhibition Description

What is it that the mind is accessing when we dream? How is it that we dream of places we’ve never visited, experiences we’ve never had and landscapes that don’t exist? What is the difference between the convincing reality we experience when awake and the reality we are equally convinced by, when asleep?

To explore these questions I drew on influences from the medieval imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, the anthropic reasoning of Nick Bostrom, the psychoanalytic theory of C.J. Jung, the metaphysical painters; Giorgio De Chirico and Carlo Carrà, the surrealist work of Max Ernst, the naïve art of Henri Rousseau and the supernatural events of Botticelli’s Forest of Ravenna series.

Is a fundamental archetypal language being expressed in dreams? Are we experiencing nested simulations? Is there a connection between psychosis and revelation? Can we glimpse the fundamental structure underlying a reality that seems so familiar yet we understand so poorly?

This series of composite images seeks to represent aspects of these questions through an exploration of the non-places of dreams.

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These composite images are intended as a sequence, although the precise order is not set in stone.

They're meant to blow up in print to as much as seven feet wide. The reason for choosing this large format as a goal for my presentation technique is driven in part by the way I would like observers to interact with the pieces. I highlight many highly detailed large scenes in my research for this project, (The Hieronymus Bosch panel paintings for example) that invite a kind of observation that wouldn't be possible at a more intimate scale. So I've gravitated towards a panoramic format that lends itself to this kind of display.

Cost is certainly a barrier to reproducing work at this scale, but one of the benefits of reproducing photography in a printing process is the ability to reproduce at different sizes depending on the space available or the cost. I would rather create work with a specific presentation aspiration in mind that suits the subject matter than impose limits that may not be insurmountable later.

Theme development

I used the briefed starting point of 'wellbeing' as a springboard into research on sleep and dreams, and from this flowed a procession of ideas and enquiry that led to the six final pieces.

At the time of writing my working title for the project is 'Dream Theory', after C.J. Jung's work on understanding the purpose of dreams—the healing of the mind that can be framed as an internal quest for wellbeing.

The more I worked on these, the more the theme revealed itself to me as a kind of journey through ideas of psychology, surrealism, wellbeing/psychosis and the strangeness of reality itself.

I found the process of tangling with questions from metaphysics to simulation theory and anthropic reasoning to psychology and perception while at the same time trying to capture some of those thoughts in pictures fascinating and challenging.

I saw how my initial ideas developed and along the way how failures of execution led to the final pieces. I had tried to rationalise and plan as much as I could but once I got started, I found I could find intuitive paths into the subject that I couldn't have planned for. I hope in future work to reach the intuitive stage more quickly and dwell in the planning stage less.

I now realise that I'd taken on a huge breadth of research topics and that getting to grips with a giant stew of influences was a hindrance in some ways, at least to begin with. But it was interesting to see how the influences manifested in the final pieces.

Late medieval Flemish panel painting led to the panoramic format, the religious thought and complexity in Bosch's tableaux, Blake's illustrations for The Divine Comedy, Nick Bostrom's questioning of the fabric of reality, the supernatural in the Botticelli series, Jung's archetypes and the collective unconscious—all this and more fed into the work.

Critical appraisal

Overall I think the series holds together quite well. I think I succeeded in avoiding my early tendency toward over-explaining in the work that was appearing in my sketch notes—a desire to  to show everything, being too literal. Instead of leaving it to the viewer to interpret the images through the simple conjunction of the repeated strings motif and the scene.

I like how the sequence of images shows a mix of scale and complexity. I also like how the theme carries through the series without being too repetitive. At one point I had a lot of forest images and at another a lot of abbey images. I'm glad I managed to pare these down and not overuse them. I think the inclusion of the clouds image helps reset the sequence.

I look forward to receiving some critical feedback from my course peers and tutors because there is always a great deal of value to be had from other people's interpretations—good or bad.

Mirror images & manipulation

One decision that was inherently risky was the idea of mirroring two images together, most notably in the ruined abbey. I was conscious that this technique might not work and would need to be used sparingly across the full series. The risk being that it could look like too much of a contrivance, something unnecessary, done for effect but empty of narrative purpose.

I decided to go ahead with this for two reasons, one conceptual and one aesthetic. The conceptual reason came down to what I was trying to represent—a place that doesn't exist anywhere but in the imagination.

My theme hinges on the notion that we dream of places that we've never visited. How do we fashion these perfectly convincing mental images when we're immersed in REM sleep?

Jung contends that we are accessing an ancient language of archetypal characters and stories. Nick Bostrom talks about simulations within simulations. The medieval imagination of Bosch depicts heaven and hell. Botticelli, supernatural allegory, DeChirico, metaphysics and Rousseau, constructed places of pure imagination based on fragmented stories and displaced flora. Therefore using a technique to build illusory spaces aligns well with my central concept.

The Abbey

The aesthetic reason with the abbey image was that I knew I could disrupt the symmetry with the superimposition of the strings element. I could visually challenge the mirrored layout such that the discord and harmony combined might result in an image that would read as a cohesive whole.

I experimented with repeating the mirror technique in other images in this series, but pulled back from using it again in the same way. For example, I have another version of the pill box image, shot from outside showing the entrance. It works well as a mirrored image, but I chose not to use it because it seemed unnecessary. The fact that the Abbey mirror images are shot and lit differently results in an image that is not the same as simply reflecting the same image through a central axis.

I also aligned the two images imperfectly and introduced other details to disrupt the symmetry.

The willow tree

This simple execution was the result of spotting the tree and knowing exactly what I wanted to try with it. The low-light iPhone shot that I took actually works better than the brighter high resolution one that I took at midday on returning to the location.

I have a hankering to re-shoot this in the evening to get better light, but in the end I think the piece works to convey a sense of a hidden meaning, some arcane machination overlooked or obscured from plain sight.

I have a family member, my younger brother, who struggles with an acute schizophrenic condition. I was thinking about that when I was working on this piece. The idea that psychological imbalance or a lack of mental wellbeing can manifest itself in ordinary words or mundane objects becoming darkly freighted with an immense weight of hidden meaning. As if there's a substructure to reality waiting to break out and sometimes you can catch a glimpse of it.

The pine forest

I've detailed the lengthy development that led to the pines image in previous posts so I won't re-litigate it here, but conceptually I wanted to make my source forest panorama shot into a more dream-like space.

I chose to fracture the image and repeat the background in several places. Again, this was conceptual as well as aesthetic. I was poring over Nick Bostrom's Simulation Theory for this one, and happened upon a discussion of code re-use in computer simulated environments.

I have a background in digital design and can code in Actionscript and Javascript so I'm familiar with the concept and utility of re-using code. Simulated spaces often do this—in video games for example.

An observer will be able to spot repeating patterns among the trees in the pine forest scene, put there to allude to this feature of the simulation. I wanted to craft an image that addresses this idea in the scenery, before applying the motif, but without making it too obvious.

More broadly—and this applies to some of the other images as well, I wanted to create scenes with an illusory quality, where things are not quite what they seem. Where the rules that appear to govern base reality are not entirely firm.

When applying the many layers of string to this image, I focused on the Botticelli series and the story of the pair of ghosts—the knight doomed to pursue and slay the woman through the forest for eternity.

I wanted to try to imply a sense of that violence in this piece. The supernatural forces in the story that power the ever-repeating scene. I wanted to approach the sense that some places, such as battlefields—have an almost palpable sense of their own life, death, terror, horror and human struggle somewhere just beneath the surface of the objectively real.

The pill box

The interior of the pill box engaged me in so many ways. I had an intuition that I'd like to photograph one in connection with this project but I wasn't sure why.

Out of luck I found one conveniently situated near the abbey location (with help from my location scout collaborator), and was immediately struck by its cinematic quality.

The large rectangular aperture and spartan darkened interior, analogous to an internal/external experience of self. There is something about transition here, the act of crossing a boundary between reality and dream, waking and sleep, the mind and the world we observe. The contrast between sheltered and exposed, internal and external, dark and light, real and illusion.

I wanted to show the structural element of the strings in some way crossing that boundary, invading the internal space instead of existing in the trees beyond (at first I had created the exterior shot with the interwoven strings, but although an appealing abstract, I felt it didn't properly address the idea). The idea of encroachment over the threshold between one state of being and another. That there is something unknowable that can move freely between one state and another, a citizen of the boundary itself.

Finally, the historic fact that this is a structure built for war. Specifically, as a machine gun emplacement to try to mount a defence should the planned land invasion of Britain were to have taken place in 1944 and forced ordinary people to commit unspeakable savagery in defence of their home.

Warfare is perhaps the ultimate dream-state, the ultimate nightmare. Trauma, literally meaning dream. Strange to think of these innumerable structures, with their cyclopean eyes trained on the bucolic English countryside, awaiting a cataclysm that never came. The physically manifested relics of a waking dream.

The lake

I found this lake shot while pursuing two things, water and evening light. I wanted to catch an evening sky similar to my Rousseau and Magritte research and I wanted to introduce water to my series of six as another idea of a boundary, a surface beneath which things are obscured.

I tried various treatments in rough form but settled on an direct overlay of the strings that follows the contours and structure of the trees.

I wanted to show something explicitly unreal, but an unreal element that maps harmoniously to the evening lake view. As mentioned above, I exaggerated the scenery with repetition and expansion to try to give it a sense of the more-than real. The heightened hyper-reality that one sometimes experiences in dreams.

I also wanted to produce an image in this series that is beautiful. Not all dreams are nightmares, not all psychological processes are attempts to heal what is broken. I chose this image to compliment the abbey image, which I was working on at the same time and that is darker visually as well as thematically.

The clouds

I shot this at the abbey location with a telephoto as a sequence of seven portrait aspect images that I was able to image merge into a super high-res panorama. There is no manipulation here just the reality in that moment of a keyhole opening in an otherwise occluded sky.

I was immediately drawn to making a playful treatment that suggests a kind of inescapable ubiquity of a latent, yet intrinsic structure woven into the fabric of observable reality.

Further development

I'm interested in trying to actually place physical installations into my scenery—quite beyond the scope of the achievable for this project, but I'm drawn to building a conjunction of motif and scene in a more tangible way.

If and when I come to print any of these at full scale, I'll probably need to do additional photoshop work to improve the texture and detail in the strings. They are the result of two images merged, and as a result there's a slight resolution discrepancy.

Having said that, one thing I've learned from this project is that it's the idea that is conveyed that is the important thing. It's easy to get obsessed with perfection in execution and deep focus, among other things, neither of which will make or break the meaning of the image as a whole.


This series was a substantial undertaking and I proved that the process I use can eventually lead to finished artwork—but I hope to use the lessons learned from this to make future projects more efficient both in terms of the path from research to creative concept and the practicalities of shooting each scene.

I would like to get better at identifying the starting point more quickly and avoid shovelling so much research and prior thought onto my plate before I can start shooting.

I would also hope to not have to return to a location unnecessarily and I think I'll refrain from chopping down any more trees.

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