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Sleep and beauty

An all-night event at the Serpentine gallery, featuring experimental films and performance, proves anything but sleep-inducing

It is 9.45pm and I'm lost. I'm supposed to be heading from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London's museum district to the Serpentine gallery for a night-time event simply called Sleepover, a collaboration between the gallery and the museum focusing on the relationship between insomnia and art. But, on exiting the V&A, I have become detached from the rest of the group. Luckily I'm not completely alone: 24-year-old Becky Shirwan and her friend Mariam are with me. Shirwan got tickets to this event after her friend complained of suffering from a week of insomnia. She hopes this event will provide a cure – or, at least, an interesting distraction.

After a few wrong turns we make it to the gallery pavilion in the dark depths of Hyde Park, the place that will be our bed for the night. The pavilion, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, is a large structure with a sloped wall, bright-red and visible through the trees in Hyde Park even in the dead of night. The event has been partly inspired by Tilda Swinton, who famously slept in the gallery in 1995 for a piece of performance art created by Cornelia Parker. But I'm planning to stay awake: the event features experimental films, musical performances, workshops and food displays, based around the idea of sleep, insomnia, art and dreaming, and brings together a varied bunch of artists. Among other things, I'm looking forward to a musical performance by a group called Sending Letters to the Sea, and a film by artist Emilia Izquierdo, in which snoring blends with images of a body moving in bed.

But first I make a beeline for the hot water dispenser. I'll need tea and coffee to get me through the night. The floor is a sea of sleeping bags. There are more women than men here, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The corner of the room is bustling with activity: a printed book about the night is being made and a cluster of women are sewing the initials of everyone taking part on to pillowcases that also bear the repeated mantra "go to sleep". So far, so not a typical Friday night.

It's 11.30pm. Psychoanalyst Darian Leader, the first speaker, appears. He discusses the surrealist movement, the relationship artists have with dreams and Freud's work on dreams. Once he's finished, there's a loud marching sound, one side of the tent-like pavilion opens up and in walks a procession dressed in white, carrying one of their party on a huge serving plate. This elaborate display is the brainchild of Bompass and Parr, a company that makes artistic culinary delights. Two trifles are laid out, one containing a sedative and the other, a stimulant. I try the sedative option, which tastes deliciously sweet and contains valerian.

After the cacophony, German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, who has spent over 30 years sketching his dreams, steps up to speak. His sketches appear on the screen behind him, in black and white, often focusing on death – one on the execution of Mussolini, another featuring a coffin. He explains that he finds it easier to draw dreams than write them out. "I did that first sketch in the 1970s, ran out of the house and when I looked at it that night, it was surprising that I had remembered so much," he says. He adds that what started as a hobby, an aside to his filmmaking, has produced 700 sketches.

By 2.30am, only a few people are still up. The free snacks keep me awake for Laure Prouvost, an artist known for playing with sound and language (her film It, Heat, Hit was recently shown at Tate Britain). Prouvost's voice comes out the mic, her accent a mix of French and English. She coos "You want to sleep, don't you?" to the crowd, repeating the words, reminding us of everyone sleeping right now. The repetition has the desired effect of encouraging my eyelids to close briefly. Then suddenly there is a change in tone. Prouvost starts narrating a story about her grandfather, an insomniac, who dug a tunnel from his house in north London (not strictly legal) and has gone missing. Her voice is loud and frightening. Her words are translated into French by someone on stage. The effect is disorientating, but captivating. I catch up with Prouvost after her performance. Does she have trouble sleeping? "I like working into the night, but I sleep very well," she says. "I'm nothing like the romantic idea of the artist as the insomniac. I love sleeping, I love dreaming."

In between performances, there is time for everyone to have a go at being an artist. On a table in the corner of the room are headphones, a recording and piles of blank paper. The aim of this project, created by artist Cesare Pietroiusti, is to draw objects described in the recordings. They happen to be non-existent. The results are wacky interpretations, images that aren't easy to identify: some are buildings, others just wavy lines. Back in the main area, artist Dale Berning treats us to a lullaby, playing the instruments that hang from her clothes. By 4am, there's a lecture by Dr Angelica Ronald on how a lack of sleep affects us. Ironically, perhaps, most of the audience are slumbering blissfully.

By daybreak, people start stirring. I find Shirwan; she has been awake for most of the night, but her friend successfully fell asleep. We sit up watching a beautiful film made by Stuart Croft, featuring a woman in a car at night, telling the story of a man stranded on a desert island. My eyes are burning and I feel like I'm in a daze. The experience has been interesting: it's forced me to think about dreams and introduced me to artists I hadn't encountered. Most of all, though, it's made me grateful that I don't normally have any problems sleeping. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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