Artist Sarah Sparkes takes time out to discuss creativity, and what makes her the artist she is.
What are you doing today?
Most days I am running around between various teaching commitments, balancing this with studio time, research visits and meetings. Today is a bit exceptional, almost a day off, with mainly social events planned.
I’ve just had a meeting about a talk I’ve been invited to give at Shoreditch House on my recent residences, where I was researching and making work about ghosts in Liverpool and Taiwan. Next, I’m going to a birthday party of a good friend, who is also a brilliant curator. He curated a recent exhibition that I have been part of and has some very interesting friends, so this will be a stimulating and entertaining party.
Tell us about your creative process.
I don’t feel that I separate the process of making art from the rest of my life. To me, the creative process is part of everyday life, it’s not a separate thing. I don’t have a system, as such, to trigger my creativity, I don’t have rituals that I need to perform before making work. It’s not separate. It’s an integrated part of my life and way of thinking. Or maybe it is just that I am thinking about current and future work all the time. Is that a process?
I make work that I guess many describe as conceptual – ideas led. This means that I make work that manifests in all sorts of sizes, materials and spaces and so I am often taking a very practical approach to work out how to materialise the ‘things’ I have visualised, often within a limited budget and to a tight deadline.
Describe where you do most of your creative work.
A lot of my work is research led, though not in the formal academic sense. Though I have had academic papers published on the GHost project, my research is currently not part of an academic framework such as a PHD. I’m interested in exchanging ideas with people, so a lot of my initial creative work will be happening in all kinds of different places.
I’m currently very engaged with my project GHost, a visual arts and creative research project, which manifests and interrogates the idea of the ghost and its cultural uses. GHost has centred around a series of visual arts exhibitions and interdisciplinary research seminars – the GHost Hostings – of which there have been 18 to date. Therefore, a lot of my creative research happens through exchange of ideas with other people who are interested in the subject of ghosts. These may be both artists and/or others from across all fields of ghost research.
For example for The GHost Formula, my recent commission for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and NTMoFA (the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts), I was able to develop my creative work with help from, amongst many others: recording the insights of of Professor Chris French, Anomalistic psychologist at Goldsmiths University; attending a paranormal investigation with investigator Stephen White of Merseyside Paranormal; meeting and interviewing Pei Pei, a spirit medium at her temple in Taipei and visiting a ghost money warehouse and ghost house manufacturers in Taiwan to purchase and borrow objects for my installation.
Then, from this research, there’s formulating and processing ideas which is also happening all the time – the ‘so-called’ creative process that is happening everywhere and all the time. At it’s most intense this finds its way into my dreams, late at night my mind isn’t turning off because it’s time to bring all the ideas together and think about how to visualise and make something.
Travelling is also a good time for creative work. I might be sitting on a bus, or walking, yet I’m thinking, interrogating ideas about the work I could make. I might sit and sketch ideas and make notes too, in a sketch book, my phone, a computer or or any materials that come to hand. So again, it’s an ongoing thing. And some of it might be very boringly practical, like, now the idea has happened how am I going to realise it? Where am I going to get the materials from? Finding people who can supply those things. I often make site responsive work and am generally very good at working out logistics of working in non gallery spaces. I’ve also been lucky to have worked with some brilliant gallery technicians recently. The intervention I made at Williamson Tunnels Heritage centre created an optical portal/wormhole within a waterlogged tunnel.
I had to source the right materials to survive in this environment and to ensure that the installation fitted the space exactly without damaging it. Once the work is installed, if it’s successful, then all of these practical considerations will be forgotten and the work will have its own presence, beyond it’s material structure and my labour.
And then there is making the work at my studio. I think of the studio as a laboratory or a shed. The studio is somewhere I can go into to disappear from the world for a bit to invent things. At my studio I unpack all my ideas and gather the materials I need to make something. I can leave it all lying around and return to finish assembling the work at any time, often into the early hours of the morning or beyond. At the studio, making the ideas into something tangible, it’s such an exciting time. The adrenaline is there driving me on, as often I am working to get something finished to a deadline and also I often only know that the work is successful, once it is installed in the space for which I made it.
Finally, my creative work often continues on site, as I adapt the components of my work to the space in which I install it. I love making work for unusual space, such as the piece FLUE that I made for Other Rooms exhibition, curated by Saturation Point for Basement Arts Project in Leeds. I made an infinity illusion to fit in a hollow in a wall in a basement, visually it looked a little like a coal fire twinkling. I often work on projects where the installation evolves and grows over the duration of the exhibition. I like my work to extend beyond the exhibition space and into the wider community. For instance, I collected and archived ghost stories from people in Liverpool, throughout the two months of the exhibition at FACT. These stories were displayed via a website, in the gallery. The exhibition has finished, but the website and the ghost stories persist beyond the gallery infrastructure.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
They‘re all exciting! The next thing, or whatever thing I’m working on.
I only work on something I find exciting, interesting, or stimulating. Here’s a few of the most recent projects I have worked on, as they are all interconnected. Since 2015, have been involved in several exciting and diverse projects which have led me to work with wonderful artists, curators, gallerists and researchers from many fields.
In 2015, I was part of the inaugural exhibition English Magic at Fred Mann’s New Art Projects and made a new series of my NEVER AFRAID paintings which were exhibited along with paintings by Geraldine Swain, James E Crowther and Feargus Hare.
This was a surprise as, up to this point, I was not a film maker. However, the judges were enthusiastic about my work and wanted to give me the opportunity to make my first film. The whole experience was extraordinary and the film was exhibited at GAMeC (Gallery d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea) as part of the Bergamo Science Festival. The film has now entered GAMeC’s permanent collection, the archives of the Fondazione Meru and the Association BergamoScienza.
Later, I was invited to introduce and screen my film at KOSMICA festival in Mexico city, curated by Nahum Mantra. In 2016 – 17 I was part the group exhibition No Such Thing As Gravity, curated by Rob la Frenais. I was commissioned by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and also received Arts Council funding to create a new work – The Ghost Formula for this exhibition. This was so exciting as it enabled me to synthesise my own work with my curatorial research project GHost.
The commissions gave me time and resources to develop a rich body of work and to undertake a residency in Liverpool, where I collected ghost stories and researched ghost cultures in the city. I also organised three GHost Hostings at both FACT and at Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre. The exhibition toured to Taiwan in the spring of 2017 and I was invited to undertake a residency at the NTMoFA (National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts), where I researched Taiwan ghost culture and used this research as part of my work The GHost Formula. Shortly after returning from Taiwan, I travelled to Venice for the opening of a collateral event as part of the Venice Biennalle , EMPIRE II, curated by Vanya Balog, which featured 100 three minute films on the theme of anxiety. I made my first collaborative film, Peninsula, with sound artist Ian Thompson for EMPIRE II.
EMPIRE II has been in Venice for the whole duration of the Biennalle and has toured to Berlin, the Lake District and Brussels and is coming to London this December.
Credit: ‘The GHost Formula’, Sarah Sparkes talks about her residency and installation for ‘No Such Thing As Gravity’ at FACT(Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and Willianmson’s Tunnels Heritage Centre. ‘The GHost Formula’ is a commission by Sarah Sparkes for FACT and the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre, in association with National Museums Liverpool. The project has been supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Film copyright of FACT Liverpool and Sarah Sparkes.
Credit: ‘The GHost Machine’ robot inducing FoP (feeling of presence). The robot was part of the installation, ‘The GHost Formula’, by Sarah Sparkes. The work is shown here at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Artsin Taichung, Taiwan. Robot fabrication by Sarah Angliss. Film is copyright of Sarah Sparkes.
What made you decide to become an artist?
I didn’t really decide. I just realised I was one. The memory of this is very clear, it took place in my first term of my first year at art college. Before that, at school, art was a subject that I really enjoyed, my mum always encouraged me and my sister to be creative. I was always drawing or painting under my own initiative. However, I wasn’t sure where I would go with it in terms of a career. I had some memorable art teachers at school, particularly Mrs Figg who wore purple tights and green dresses, told ghost stories and brought her owl to school. A little out of the ordinary for a suburban comprehensive school.
At school I also really loved history and did really well in this subject. So, I also wanted to study archaeology. I was a bit torn between going to university to study archeology or to go to art college. In fact after I’d finished my MA in fine art I did an archaeology diploma at Birkbeck.
When I started art college I was very uneducated about contemporary art and even what an artist is, I really had no idea and thought that I might design greetings cards. I got a place on the art and design foundation course at Middlesex University and in the first term of the course we were introduced to different practitioners, both designers and fine artists, and were given briefs from these practitioners with different fields, and different experiences of the arts. Many of my peers at college had so much more practical and cultural creative experience in the arts and this opened my mind to more possibilities. It was then that I realised that actually I just wanted to be an artist, I wanted to make my own work, I was and artist and I hadn’t realised before.
I was from ‘a single parent family’ and this was back in the 1980s so I got a full grant and full maintenance grant to study at Kingston University. Later I was awarded the Herbert Read scholarship to fund my MA at Chelsea. I’m not sure I would have made it without the funding available back then.
Looking back at this period of my life, I wonder if my seeming vagueness about what I wanted to do wasn’t a symptom of my state of mind at that time of my life. My father committed suicide when I was 16 and my mum and my sister and me were in shock from this for a long time. The shock waves are always there, but in the years close to my fathers suicide, I felt that I was removed from the rest of the world. Being an artist made me feel connected again.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently processing and archiving all the material I collected from my recent residencies in Liverpool and Taiwan and thinking about where I would like to take this work, to develop this work in the future.
I have started making other small scale paper based paintings recently too, maybe because it makes a refreshing change of scale and process from the big installation pieces I have been making over the past two years. I’m in talks with Fred Mann of New Art Projects about how we could show these works in the gallery space.
I’m one of the commissioned artists working on Charlie Foxes InSpiral London project. We devised a walk that leads out of the centre of London to Gravesend in an anti clockwise spiral. The project recently received arts council funding which means that we now have some funds to develop research material linked to this project. I am also editing drone film footage of part of this walk, recorded by my friend Ben Foong. Artist curator friend Rebecca Feiner is in planning stages of another large scale exhibition and I have been developing ideas for this. I’m thinking ahead, with much excitement, to what I will make for a solo show as part of a series of exhibitions curated by Richard Ducker at Coffee is my Cup of Tea. Watch this space!
I’m gradually getting all my various websites updated and sorting out my studio space. I just had a mezzanine built in my studio and therefore I’m currently spending a lot of time organising my working space and all the stuff in it.
What are the key themes in your work?
I have some key themes, but it has taken many years of making work to excavate them and to identify them.
Visual and conceptual metaphors of the portal, the threshold, occur through all of the different elements of my work. I make installations, paintings, curate exhibitions and perform, and the portal is a common thread. The idea of creating a threshold space, a liminal space, a portal and allow people to either imagine, or in some kind of psychological sense, cross that space.
In 2014, I was part of the wonderful Overtime project, curated by Anne Robinson. I was one of ten artists invited to spend five hours, with out time pieces, on the foreshore of the Thames, between tides and to develop a work from this. I developed a performances and installation exploring liminality of space and time.
This and other performances and installations were later recreated for my film Time You Need, which was recipient of the MERU ART*SCIENCE award.
Another big element is ghosts. A lot of my work explores the question of ‘how do we make ghosts?’ ‘how do artists make ghosts?’ ‘how are ghosts visualised and conceptualised?’
Another theme, which kind of goes along with ghosts, is death, the condition you’ve got to be in to achieve the status of a ghost. My curatorial work with GHost has investigated how artists, scientists, theorists and others make ghosts, and the cultural uses of ghosts.
I often make work that suggests it has another function other than as an artwork, that it may be used for something else, such as a puppet, coffin, or a clock or a banner, bunting, table setting, dream catchers, the list goes on.
When I paint, the subject is often drawn from memory of places etched deep in my subconscious. Edgelands, rural urban fringes and the suburbs where I grew up- the wilderness beyond the shed as I like to call it.
Time You Need, Sarah Sparkes 2015, film still
What would you like people to notice in your work?
A feeling of presence. That which is beyond what is materially there. That it is a labour of love.
I’m grateful if people just notice my work, however, I would like them to do much more than notice. I would like people to interact in some way, either by direct engagement, where appropriate, such as some of the ghost story archiving projects or the Blue Seven cloaks I made for Art in Romney Marsh churches or to interact in an imaginal sense.
What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
I work in many mediums. I’m attracted to the one which seems appropriate to use, to create a visualisation or aesthetic of the idea I’m exploring.
I also like mediums that I can transform into something that people can either imaginally or physically interact with. For instance, I was commissioned to make a work for Art in Romney Marsh Churches in 2014 and after research and much rumination, I developed the work, Blue 7. I decided to make seven blue cloaks for people to dress up in when visiting the church of St Peter and St Paul in Newchurch, Romney. I had just previously been commissioned by Tate Modern Public Programme to work on a project with the congregation of Giles Fraser’s church in Kennington. We designed and made a Chasuble for Giles and other vicars at the church to wear for everyday services. I spent time at the church learning about the colours of the chasubles and what these signified. Interestingly blue was not used for this traditionally male robe as it is the colour of the virgin Mary. At the time of the AIRM Church commission, woman had just been given the right to become bishops. These factors influenced my idea and my choice of medium.
I enjoy learning to use a new material, which is just as well, because I often have to work out how to work with various materials from scratch. One of the first structures I made was a work called You Are Here, 2006, which is a coffin, built to fit me, containing an illusion of infinity inside.
I lay on the floor and a friend drew a coffin shape around me. The coffin is built from plywood and sits on trestle legs. I bought the trestle legs and I guess I could have bought a cheap cardboard coffin for what I wanted to do, but something about making it myself was significant.
Sometimes my technical skills fall short of some of the components needed to realise my idea and then, like many artists, I work with a fabricator. However, I do prefer to have made my own version, it’s something to do with the magic of transforming the materials – a labour of love. I like working with materials that have been used in the creation of optical illusions and that are visually something magical or other worldly. I do have a liking or materials that have an aura, maybe this is through their previous history, i.e. they have a story around them. For instance, I made a series of works in which I used my great grandfathers magic lantern slides.
I often see my art works as mediums. I have a collection of objects, sculptures and small installations made for various exhibitions. I see them almost like props in that they can be assembled in various configurations to present different possible meanings.
I am attracted to painting, because it is the most close I get to making something that has become something other than object and it gives me the illusion of time travelling.
What equipment could you not do without?
Tea and biscuits
Who or what inspires you?
So many things. I can’t name particular individuals. Most of my inspiration might come from my fellow artists and friends, other creative people, writers, poets, theorists, psychologists, explorers, astro physicist, folklorists etc – people I meet and I’m inspired by. I might have admiration, and at a distance, inspiration from recorded historical figures, but I’m more inspired by people I’ve met and who I know. There’s so many of them. I think it would serve more use if I were to tell them each individually!
How does gender affect your work?
My grandmother and my mother told me lots of stories as a child. Those stories have stayed with me very much as something Alan Garner refers to, as ‘the voice in the shadows’ . This is a wise voice, the voice of the storyteller who imparts wisdom to you that is very personal, or that gives you the mythologies and the stories that you need to have a creative understanding of your world.
My series of paintings NEVER AFRAID are in part a response to my grandmother’s and mother’s story telling.
What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
I really enjoy seeing art outside of the gallery. I think most of the exhibitions that have inspired or had an influence on me haven’t taken place in a gallery space but have been site responsive. One of my favourite projects was The Chutney Preserves, which I curated for Camberwell Arts Week for 8 years. This one day event took place on Camberwell Green. I loved to see the artists interacting with the public in this space, most of visitors were just wondering across the Green on their way somewhere else, yet they often staying to become part of things. I organised a puppet wars on the Green with artists made fighting marionettes trying to cut each others strings. This turned in to a heated battle which went on for some time and drew large crowds. Chutney was a viseral experience of art beyond the gallery for both artist and spectator.
Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
Who decides who is important and who isn’t? You have to ask that question first of all. Where are the places, forums and arenas of representation, where are people represented, and why? If you’re not represented there, does it means you’re undervalued?
I’m interested in groups of people who are outside of official documented history. That’s probably why I find exhibitions out of the mainstream interesting.
What’s your favourite colour?
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