Each year, since its inception in 1990, Witte de With has invited an artist to curate an exhibition. To mark the 100th anniversary of cinema, Witte de With invited a guest curator from the world of film and television: Jef Cornelis, director for Flemish television (BRTN) since 1964.

Call It Sleep was part of Witte de With’s exploration of the complex correlation between cinema and the visual arts. Jef Cornelis (1941, lives in Antwerp) has directed some of the most talked about documentaries on art, architecture and literature. The major art events he has filmed include documenta 4 and documenta 5, Sonsbeek buiten de perken and Münster Skulpturenprojekte.

For Call it Sleep, Jef Cornelis choose works by the following artists: Lothar Baumgarten (1944), Rita McBride (1960), Thierry De Cordier (1954), Eugenio Dittborn (1943), James Ensor (1860-1949), Patrick Vanden Eynde (1964), Dianne Hagen (1964), Craigie Horsfield (1949), Henri Jacobs (1957), On Kawara (193-3), René Magritte (1898-1967), Reinhard Mucha (1950), Bruce Nauman (1941), Panamarenko (194-0), Michelangelo Pistoletto (1933), Hermann Pitz (1956), Julião Sarmento (19-48), Cindy Sherman (1954), Philippe Van Snick (1946), Tunga (1952), Jan Vercruysse (1948) and Stephen Wilks (1964).

The title of the exhibition, borrowed from the novel Call it Sleep by Henry Roth, referred to the moment between sleep and awakening. Cornelis is convinced that artists circle around language, yet avoid its truth, because truth would render all art forms superfluous. Artists safeguard the area preceding language, pursuing an empty space that is similar to the peace and quiet between awakening and dreaming. For Jef Cornelis, this state is a metaphor for the autonomy of art.

The themes of death and the erotic were present in all the works Cornelis selected. Pursuing Georges Bataille’s observation that “what designates passion is a halo of death”, Cornelis considers passion the thing for which people put their very existence at risk. Yet Hypnos, the god of sleep and dreams, is the true master of both Eros and Thanatos. With sleep, anguish and pain disappear. As an exhibition, Call it Sleep expressed the hope that art can provide an acquiescence similar to sleep and triumph over the violent passions that rule life.