Sarah Sparkes is a British artist and curator whose work inhabits the threshold between the known and the unknown. Her interests and work are prolific, taking in early twentieth century Spiritualism, the cultural impact of colonialism, physics, the occult and time travel.
Since 2008 Sparkes has developed a visual arts and creative research project, GHost. The project takes its title from a work by Marcel Duchamp:
“A GUEST + A HOST = A GHOST” Marcel Duchamp (1953).
GHost aims to enable invited guests to visually and conceptually manifest and interrogate the idea of the ghost.
Sparkes’ current show, until 27 April at New Art Projects, East London, occupies the final room at the end of the gallery. Working in different mediums, her work spans performance, painting, sculpture and installation. For this show, it was decided to combine two of Sparkes’ international commissions with new work and it neatly brings together central concerns of her body of work.
To enter The GHost Parlour, we walk through Fergus Hare’s New Works, an atmospheric exhibition of pastel on paper that evoke the uncanny and magical time of English twilight. At the entry point of Sparkes’ show is a large, glowing picture by Hare of a full moon. We then step over the threshold into the parlour, into a world where things may not be what they seem. Night creatures abound.
“My show is called The GHost Parlour.” Sparkes says. “The idea of a parlour comes from both the space – making a piece of work in this more intimate space – and a reference to séances, which took place in Victorian parlours, and in the living room. This idea of bringing the spirit and spirit possession into your living room. So it’s a GHost parlour. I wanted it to feel familiar.”
This layering of the personal and the public runs through the exhibition. The circular works use Sparkes’ childhood wallpaper as the canvas, and her film, Time You Need, brings locations and people personally important to Sparkes together in a narrative about history, time and space. Time You Need plays during the exhibition, and forms a soundscape to the show. It draws on and features dominant themes in Sparkes’ work. We see the artists’ performance as a Seer on the shore of the Thames, where characters approach her, looking for something. They then go on separate journeys to find what they are searching for, traversing geography and time itself.
“The objects, everything in the film, apart from the locations, are all objects that were used in performances, or in installations that I made that explore the idea of the black hole, time travel, wormholes. I wanted to slow people down when they are watching it. And allow them to just drift away.”
There will be a special screening of the film, with Sarah Sparkes and narrator and astrophysics expert Dr Pietro M. Reviglioas, as well as the performers in the film, at New Art Projects 2-5pm on 27 April 2019.
‘Material Mediums’ is a series of circular works. Faces of spiritualist mediums from the 1920’s and 30’s have been printed onto wallpaper which was originally in Sparkes’ childhood home. But they are not straightforward prints – there is an element of photographic double exposure, so it takes a while to see what they are. The black ink appears to seep into the paper, like a Rorschach test, or, as artist Sarah Doyle describes them, ‘black mould on wallpaper’. The ink seems to stain, threatening to break through the bright happy veneer of domesticity to reveal the darkness underneath.
“I have the condition where you see faces in everything [pareidolia]”, Sparkes explains. “Wallpaper from the 70’s was a nightmare for anyone who had that. It always had big flowers. My childhood wallpaper terrified me. Especially when I was at home ill. My bed was in an alcove, created by cupboards in the room, and they were all wallpapered. They wallpapered everything, didn’t they? Inside cupboards, and drawers! Those big blue flowers. I could see faces, it used to really scare me. I love it now, actually, it’s such a lovely colour, slightly faded blue.”
The next series of circular works, ‘GHost Dance, David Soul’ feature images from Sparkes’ research into ghost culture.
Like the heavily patterned wallpaper, the actor David Soul also seems to haunt the ‘70’s. Sparkes noticed that in several of the Enfield Poltergeist photographs, the face of David Soul was everywhere in the house, on a poster in the girls bedroom, or on the front of magazines in the living room.
“I’m interested in ghosts as a force for cultural and political movements, how they are important within cultures that have been repressed. Either someone has invaded their culture, or they have had to move to another country, their ghosts travel with them and how important those ghosts are for culture and how those ghosts then enter our own culture. So spiritualism started in America. There’s an obvious link there to me to the Native American spirit based religion. And spiritualism and the fact spirit mediums, some today, still have Native American spirit guides. It’s all connected. And ghosts move across the different cultural groups. And I love that about them. “
The works bring together ancient north European burial rituals in portal dolmen – megalithic single chamber tombs – Native American ghost dances and the Enfield Poltergeist, as if some child’s nightmare plays out on her bedroom wall while she watches in horror from her sick bed or the narrator in 1920’s novella Charlotte Perkins’ The Yellow Wallpaper.
“These are people from different cultures, cultural roots, belief systems who all attempted to communicate with the dead.” She says, “these are characters that have come up in research that I’m very fond of.”
Horses have featured in artists works since cave drawings. “Every home needs wild horse energy running through it.” Sparkes says. The works vary in size and all feature an image of a running horse. But not just any horse. One that is missing its’ skin.
“It is fragile, because it is just bone. That makes it feel raw. Its’ nerves are there. Its’ got no skin. Its’ really feeling everything and to make it slightly beyond the normal. It’s not a normal horse.”
Horse motifs recur in folklore. Sparkes grew up near the Vale of the White Horse where a huge horse is imprinted on the hillside. Horror stories of ghostly headless horsemen run through British folklore, and the May Day tradition in Padstow, celebrates the ‘Obby ’Oss where the annual donning the costume of a horse allows the performer to cavort around the town in a hedonistic carnival embodying the spirit of the horse. All these come together in Crazy Horses.
“I thought we should unbolt the stable door,” Sparkes says, “The idea is that you have these horses in your home and you’ve unbolted the stable door and allowed wild horse energy to run through your living room!”
The series of eight horses work as a collection of several pieces – or as single cameos. The image is transferred using a technique of rubbing onto the paper, which introduces an element of chance into the final piece – each piece transfers differently.
“This is the last of this orange wallpaper,” Sparkes explains, “So these are the last crazy horses. It’s the same image, but each time you get a different configuration. There’s a lot of labour in my work. I make everything myself. So although a lot of my work is conceptual, I make it too. I like the alchemical thing of getting materials and transforming them.”
The centre point to the show is the sculptural installation, The GHost Tunnel which both begins and ends the exhibition and frames the circular theme of the show.
You catch sight of it at the entrance of the exhibition, past Hare’s full moon. It’s a circular, starry galaxy that pulls you towards it, like a black hole.
“You get to the end, but it’s not the end. It’s both metaphorical and literally you arrive at the end and it’s a tunnel of lights going into infinity.”
The star-studded circle could be a portal to another dimension, an entry to another world. The circle brings to mind the round table of the Séance, a ouija board, the formation of the ghost dance. Where we start and where we end. It’s cosmic and transcendental.
As we look in we confront our beginning and also our ending. Is this it? What happens next?
“Only one person can get close to it at a time. Like death. We can only enter that world on our own and this is very much about death. It’s about wondering what is there beyond life […] As you get closer to it you see one big eye looking at you. It’s a circular thing, you are reflected back at yourself. And in the end you are here. That’s what you are left with.”
The GHost Parlour runs to 27 April 2019 at New Art Projects London.
The launch of the catalogue for Sarah Sparkes most recent project for GHost, GHost Tide, at Thames Side Studios launches at New Art Projects on Saturday 27 April at 2.30pm
A special screening of Time You Need with a Q&A with director Sarah Sparkes and narrator, astrophysicist Dr Pietro M. Reviglio and the performers in the film will take place at 2-5pm at New Art Projects, 27 April 2019. Entry is free.