Sarah Sparkes is a London-based artist and curator. Her work explores magical or mythical narratives, the visualisation of anomalous phenomena and liminality through the metaphor of the portal. Sarah will be on the panel of expert judges for the Jackson’s Open Art Prize.
Julie: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Sarah Sparkes: I have a BA and MA in Fine Art from Kingston University and Chelsea College of Art and Design respectively. I also have a diploma in Field Archaeology and the Pre-history of Southern England. Research is important to my own practice and often informs my work – I was a research Fellow at School of Advanced Study, University of London from 2009 – 2012. My research centred on The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature and I ran the visual arts and creative research project GHost from UOL with Ricarda Vidal during this period.
Julie: How would you describe your practice?
Sarah Sparkes: I am primarily concerned with concepts of immateriality and how this might be visualised. My work often interrogates the presence of magic in the domestic and everyday, both as supernatural force and as legerdemain and is an investigation into the belief systems and material symbols we adopt to mediate with the unknowable. Research is an important part of my practice and this is disseminated into both academic and non academic writing as well as into the development of my art. I am interested in exploring concepts in which science and magic intersect.
Julie: You recently won the MERU Art*Science Award. Tell us about that.
Sarah Sparkes: The MERU ART*SCIENCE AWARD, promoted in collaboration with the Fondazione MERU/Medolago-Ruggeri for biomedical research and the Associazione Bergamo Scienza is awarded to reward and support the work of an artist and aimed at underscoring the bond between art and science.
Curator Rob La Frenais nominated me for this award to make an artist film. I was up against five other artists, each nominated by a curator and was unanimously awarded the prize. So, I was able to make my first film and this was shown at the GAMeC in Bergamo, Italy this autumn. My film, ‘Time You Need’ explores the potential for consciousness to time-travel within the material limits of the human body. Using the symbolism of portals and black holes, as they are conceptualized in both science and science fiction, the film presents a montage of narratives and documentation of performances and installations, which together with sonic and visual disruptions, create a liminal experience for the spectator. The idea is that, here, each of us can find the time we need. The film is now part of the permanent collections of GAMeC, MERU and Associazione BergamoScienza.
Julie: GHost is a project that you began in 2008 that explores the nature of ghosts both metaphorically and practically. The exhibitions are always interesting. What can visitors to a GHost event expect to see/experience?
Sarah Sparkes: GHost hosts both visual arts exhibitions and interdisciplinary seminars, so a visitor to a GHost event might hear an academic lecture from an anthropologist on spirit possession, a talk from a barrister on how ghosts have changed the law or witness a performance, projection, sound work, film screening or installation, each exhibition showcasing the work of internationally acclaimed and up and coming artists. The experience will make you think about why and how we manifest ghosts and what use they serve for us on many levels.
Julie: Do you consider most of your work to be site-specific?
Sarah Sparkes: Not especially. Although sense of place, spirit of place if you like, is probably one of the influences behind my NEVER AFRAID paintings. If I am making new work for a specific location, then I will research that place thoroughly and stay there as much as possible, until something of the place and the people there becomes familiar to me. I prefer to get to know a site by its apocryphal histories and so spend a lot of time talking to local people and collecting stories. I undertook a curatorial residency with the Ghost project in Folkestone Triennial 2011 and to this day, when I visit Folkestone people stop me for a chat with a cry of ‘it’s the ghost lady’.
Julie: Most of your work is 3D, installation or performance. But you sometimes paint. Can you tell us about the Never Afraid paintings?
Sarah Sparkes: NEVER AFRAID is a maxim that crops up a lot in my work and has its roots in an oral history, told to me by my mother and grandmother.
I grew up in the suburbs, right on the messy edges, where the new build advanced into the ruins of abandoned farms, patches of damp looking small holdings and rusting barns. The neat suburban gardens ended abruptly at a line of ancient woodland; sheds were the last outposts between the lawns and the undergrowth. The NEVER AFRAID paintings are part of an on-going series in which I revisit these old haunts. The paintings are made with acrylic paint on wallpaper. The wallpapers are either those that were used in my childhood home or reminiscent of these and the wallpapers found in many suburban houses. Each painting carries the maxim NEVER AFRAID in gold leaf, which I see as being simultaneously both and invocation and protection against forces beyond our control.
The NEVER AFRAID paintings were shown recently at Fred Mann’s New Art Projects in the show English Magic and also at the London Art Fair.
Julie: What is your favourite artwork that you have ever done?
Sarah Sparkes: I don’t have a favourite. My most exhibited and influential work is ‘You Are Here’ 2006. This work consists of a coffin that I built to to fit me, resting on two trestle legs. At the foot of the coffin is a peephole, through which the viewer has a glimpse of a tunnel of lights disappearing into infinity. I have a fondness for this work.
Julie: Who are your influences?
Sarah Sparkes: My Great Uncle Tom, who, with his one blind blue eye and one piercing brown eye, was something of the village wizard. He had little to say, lived on bread and honey and spent his days growing rows upon rows of chrysanthemums.
Julie: Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Sarah Sparkes: It would be impossible to list them all and I am sorry to have to leave so many great artists out, however here are some of my favs: Geraldine Swayne’s exquisite enamel paintings, Ben Wodeson’s elegant, sexy and dangerous sculptures, Layla Curtis’ adventurous spirit and participatory use of technology, David Leapman’s psychedelic visionary paintings, the constantly brilliant curating and art work of Patrick Morrissey & Hanz Hancock and Nahum All for his hypnotic performances.
Julie: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh and on-line?
Sarah Sparkes: I have some paintings in a group show, ‘Into the Woods’ at St Anne’s Gallery, Lewes in Feb – March.
I have been commissioned to create a new work for the exhibition ‘No Such Thing As Gravity’ at FACT in Liverpool, curated by Rob La Frenais and opening in November 2016 – details to follow.
My website/ blog: http://www.sarahsparkes.com/blog
Julie: What will you be looking for as a judge of the JOAP? What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the competition?
Sarah Sparkes: I will try to go into the judging process with an open mind and without expectations of what I would like to see. However, my attention is generally drawn to works that have an intense presence with a self contained quality – I like to feel that something is transmitted and is provoking me to look harder.
My personal experience of entering competitions or putting forward proposals is that I seem to be successful when I least expect it and unsuccessful when I least expect it – I now try to withhold any expectations, not to hold my breath waiting and to get on with other things! My advice would be to make sure you submit good quality images of your best work – look at the images on a variety of screens to check for the impact – if submitting digitally. Submit the work you really want to exhibit and bring to a wider audience. If submitting more than one image, consider continuity – how the pieces work when viewed. Check everything many times before sending and say a little spell as you send the final images.