PILLOWS are such stuff as dreams are made on in London artist Susan Aldworth's exhibition The Dark Self at York St Mary's, Castlegate, York.

Suspended from the ceiling, a flotilla of 414 newly embroidered former hotel pillowcases from Bates of London fill the nave of the medieval church as the centrepiece to Aldworth's study of sleep and dreaming: the culmination of a three-year residency with the University of York, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Working with neuroscientist Professor Miles Whittington and art historian Professor Michael White, Aldworth’s investigation of the unconscious experience of sleep and subjective dreams has elicited responses ranging from the pillowcase installations to sculptures, 19 monoprints and a film, Dormez-Vous? that explores the different stages of sleep in dreamlike vignettes, accompanied by a soundtrack of recordings of a sleeping brain.

“We spend a third of our lives asleep and during that time – with the exception of transient periods of wakefulness and recalled dreaming – we are completely unaware of ourselves and our surroundings," says Susan. "Deep sleep is an experience of nothingness but one that is full of fundamental but hidden activity.

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Susan Aldworth with The Evidence Of Sleep pillow indentations at The Dark Self exhibition. Picture: Richard Doughty

“Sleep presents scientists, who deal in objective, repeatable facts, with a huge problem. Not only is being asleep a solitary act, even the person sleeping cannot give an account of it. What happens to the ‘self’ in this dark time of sleep when the brain is in a state of high function?

“Artists have long considered sleep a resource for their creativity but this has been primarily in connection to dreaming. However, I'm interested in exploring the unconscious, subjective experience of sleep and confronting the viewer with ideas about this absent, dark self.”

Prospero's "Such stuff as dreams are made on" line from Act IV, Scene 1 of The Tempest appears on more than one of the 414 pillowcases embroidered over 35,000 hours of hand-stitching by "people from all walks of life across the UK", loosely based the Arabian Nights' nocturnal tales of hidden treasure and magical powers.

A call for embroiderers was met with "an amazing response" from members of the public; craft groups, the Skills for Independent Living course; textile artists; prisoners; students; the Royal School of Needlework and more besides, and workshops were held at York Art Gallery, the Viking Loom and Aldworth's London studio.

Together they created One Thousand And One Nights: myriad "sleep testimonies and a cultural snapshot of our sleeping lives" in words and images using a colour scheme of blue, gold and silver, inspired by the WB Yeats poem The Cloths of Heaven: colours so strongly associated with churches, just as Aldworth wore gold trainers and ear rings at the press launch.

The pillowcases are assembled in four lines, with imagery on both sides on each white case, and the more you look, the more you see, as you crane your neck upwards. Indeed, you are recommended to make more than one visit to such a restful place associated with peace, not least on gravestones whose inscriptions say "here lies" or refer to death as a "little sleep".

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Here lies York Museums Trust's marketing and press co-ordinator, Lauren Masterman, at peace amid The Dark Self exhibition

Look out for the likes of Scunthorpe United; Escape; the chorus to The Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams; What Else Could This Mean; Cancer; Out Like A (an embroidered lightbulb) and And So To Sleep's restless journey through the night in a maze of curling words. Oh and the blunt Stop ****** Snoring. Point taken.

"You have to have a central installation in an exhibition like this, otherwise you don't make the church come alive, and I want the pillowcases to represent the congregation," says Susan. "All of them represent the thoughts of individual minds and if you think of the building as a place of contemplation, the pillows are the dreams hovering in there."

If not sleepless, the last two weeks leading up to the exhibition opening were "quite stressful", says Susan. "You can't will yourself to sleep; you have to fall asleep," she says. "It's not a conscious act, it just happens to you, and that's one of the strange things about it.

"I'm normally a heavy sleeper, the very heavy sleep when you're unconscious with no memory of it, and that's what The Dark Self title refers to."

Aldworth has chosen pillow cases as a metaphor for sleep, both in the cotton versions and the porcelain and plaster sculptures of indentations of sleepers' heads on pillows under the title of The Evidence Of Sleep. "As sleep is 'a nothingness', you have to think of how to reference it, so that's why I've used pillowcases as a symbol," concludes Susan.

The Dark Self is so beautiful, you won't rest until you have seen this exhibition.

Susan Aldworth's The Dark Self, at York St Mary's, Castlegate, York, opened as part of the York Festival of Ideas and will run until September 3.

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Rest assured: Artist Susan Aldworth surveys York St Mary's, newly replete with 414 embroidered pillowcases

Pillow talk: Five quick questions for Susan Aldworth

On which side do you prefer to sleep?

"On my right side."

What is your favourite pillow material? Cotton, silk, polyester or linen?

"The heaviest cotton, fresh and clean."

Favourite pillow filling?

"Feather, but it's more the pillow case that interests me because I would have fresh linen every night if I could. Who doesn't love fresh linen?! The bed is another country where we go every night. We're all vulnerable in our sleep; it's an act of faith to go to sleep as we might not wake up, and yet we go there willingly...and if we can't get to sleep, we could go mad! There's a case to be made for sleep deprivation being worse for us than food deprivation."

Have you done one of the 414 embroidered pillow cases?

"I did make one, but I'm not showing it. There was one left over and that was mine, because other embroiders were so much better than me, and while the exhibit was my idea, I prefer to show everyone else's work as each one stands up as an artwork in its own right. They put so much work into making them and their commitment blew me away."

How do you interpret nightmares?

"It's just part of dreaming, as we're emotional, insecure beings. Life is not a simple process, it's complex, and we're full of vulnerabilities. Maybe what nightmares show us makes life less frightening."