»Dreaming with all Senses. Sensory Perception in Aesthetic Dream Representations«

International Conference hosted by the DFG-funded Research Training Group »European Dream Cultures« (GRK 2021)


10-12 February 2020, Villa Europa, Saarbrücken


In her memoirs (1903), deaf-blind author Helen Keller writes: »In my dreams I have sensations, odours, tastes, and ideas which I do not remember to have had in reality.« In fact, dreams cannot be reduced to their visual and verbal dimension but include other forms of perception and experience: Neuroscientific research shows that dreaming involves all our senses (Bulkeley 2009, Schredl 2008). Above all efforts in psychoanalysis, hermeneutics or the natural sciences to ascribe functions and meanings to dreams, they are an elementary body experience: From the weightlessness of flying to the experience of paralysing stillness, from erotic excitement to physical impulses of anger or fear – dreaming takes place on the dimension of bodily and sensory perception.


Sensory perception itself opens up a vast field of possibilities for the arts. From the allegorical representation of the five senses in Flemish painting in the seventeenth century to the clarinet concerto D’om le vrai sens (2011) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, from the late medieval tapestries La Dame à la licorne (sixteenth century) to Jeremy Podeswa’s episodic film The Five Senses (CAN 1999) or David Mackenzie’s science fiction drama film Perfect Sense (UK/DK/SE/IE 2011), the five sensory organs themselves often become the subject of aesthetic representation. Furthermore, synesthetic experiences – from Richard Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk to Wassily Kandinsky or installation art – have become a way for the arts to transcend their sensory and medial limitations. Finally, it seems fitting to point to the thesis of philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow, stating that the sensory organs only become »real human senses« through art, which affirms the pedagogical and political function of the interdependency between aesthetic artefacts and sensory perception (Bollnow 1988: 31).


Even though dreams and aesthetics are both rooted in bodily experience and sensory perception, there has been little research on this topic. Some disciplines, such as phenomenologically oriented film studies (Barker 2009, Casetti 2008) or interdisciplinary approaches like the so-called somaesthetics (Shusterman 2005, 2012) have recently tried to analyse the interrelation of aesthetic artefacts and their bodily dimension. The DFG-funded Research Training Group »European Dream Cultures« (»Europäische Traumkulturen«, GRK 2021) has already held a conference on dreams as liminal experiences related to birth and death. It has also dedicated an anthology to their representations in literature, art, music and film (Bertola/Solte-Gresser 2019). The questions raised here will be considered at the planned conference by extending the thematic scope to sensory perception in dreams but at the same time by focussing on the specific characteristics of the aesthetic representation of such experiences. We welcome contributions analysing the presence, modes of representation and functions of dreams in art. According to the concept of the »European Dream Cultures« (Oster/Reinstädler 2017), the conference will pursue its subject across different cultures, eras, media and disciplines.