REVIEW: Sarah Sparkes’ The GHost Parlour

This article is also available on Artlyst: https://www.artlyst.com/reviews/the-ghost-parlour-sarah-sparkes-at-new-art-projects/

The GHost Parlour, Sarah Sparkes’ solo exhibition at New Art Projects London, intimately explores the theme of ghosts and spirits, a subject which has fascinated Sparkes and been the centre of her artistic practice for many years. The exhibition comprises three sets of works: one film, numerous rounded collages and prints made on wallpaper and the GHost Tunnel, one of Sparkes’ most significant installations created for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and here exhibited for the first time in London.

Ghosts and spirits have fascinated Sparkes and been the centre of her artistic practice for many years

Sparkes’ film, Time You Need was the recipient of the MERU ART*SCIENCE Award and is now part of the permanent collection of GAMeC, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo, Italy. It recreates one of Sparkes’ performances where, through a hypnotic-like process, she encouraged people to get to the Time You Need, to re-visit, in their minds, a moment of their past in order to detach from the hustle of daily life. The film explores themes of time travelling as a journey into our own internal black hole and mixes scientific theories with popular representations. At the same time, the handmade special effects and dreamy aesthetics reconnect the film to the rest of Sparkes’ artistic practice.

Sarah Sparkes - Crazy Horses 2019
Sarah Sparkes – Crazy Horses 2019

Sarah Sparkes Ghost Tunnel
Sarah Sparkes – GHost Tunnel 2019 New Art Projects

The series GHost-dance – David Soul and Crazy Horses have been made by Sparkes using the remaining rolls of wallpaper that covered the walls of her childhood home, creating a powerful connection between her past and her present artistic practice. The subjects printed on these small circular panels include one of the most famous cases of possession in popular culture, The Enfield poltergeist case from the 1970s which involved a teenage girl, Janet, who was alleged to be possessed by the poltergeist of an old man. However, Sparkes also chose to include scenes from other cultures, such as Native Americans ghost dancers trying to bring back the victims of the western invaders, Neolithic field monuments and portraits of key figures from early 20th-century psychical research. Another series of circular works, Crazy Horses feature repeat motifs of skeletal horses. While the first set was made with digital prints, this series is more physical and involved cutting and embedding the images in the wallpaper, to have a more direct connection to the wildness of the subjects: ‘Everyone needs, every now and then, stampeding horses running through their living room’, Sparkes says.

The final artwork is the GHost Tunnel, an installation from 2016-17, part of No Such Thing A Gravity curated by Rob La Frenais, which toured to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. This seemingly never-ending tunnel questions the notion of space and depth, and also stands as a metaphor of life and death. It represents that same black hole we all have in ourselves, as while we look in the tunnel we also see our image reflected on the glass: as if trying to understand what is at the end of the tunnel would also make us understand better our own selves.

Interview with artist and curator Sarah Sparkes at New Art Projects, London

Hi everyone, sorry if I have been this absent from the blog but the past two weeks have been crazy because of university deadlines and other projects, but from now on the situation will go back to normal! The uploads will be more consistent, and sorry again for these weeks of absence 🙂

We go back on track with this interview I made to Sarah Sparkes, an artist and curator based in London and now having an exhibition called ‘The GHost Parlour’ at New Art Projects until April 27. This interview follows the video interview that you can find on YouTube here, go check it out if you haven’t already!

Here we talk more in depth about her works that are now exhibited at New Art Projects in London.

Still from Time You Need © Sarah Sparkes

V: Can you tell me a bit more about the film exhibited?

S: So, it is called ‘Time You Need’ (2015) and it was made for the MERU ART*SCIENCE Award. I was nominated for that award by a curator called Rob la Frenais, who also curated the exhibition ‘No Such Thing as Gravity’. I think there were about five or seven nominated artists, they were all nominated by different curators and I won. I put a proposal for a film, and the jury nominated me to win! That was really exciting, I have had to make the first film I have ever made, which was really hard and intense. Because I make things with my hands, I had to learn about it as a physical medium, so it has a lot of special effects, quite cheesy ones because I was thinking of a 60s 70s sci-fi aesthetics. The special effects are done with me spinning things with my hands and with very simple effects of overlaying. It’s a film that is about time travel, internal time travel, it’s about trying to find a way to slow down time and enter a time that you need. We are always rushing, we are always tearing through life and I was just thinking how wonderful it might be that we could find within ourselves a black hole, a little wormhole in which we could escape to any time, and it would always be the time that we love the most. So, I did a performance in which I explored these themes with people, I just said ‘go to the time you need’. I did this text that I read to them that was quite hypnotic, and then I sung them a little song, the one that is on the film.

Still from Time You Need © Sarah Sparkes

V: So, the one in the film is during that performance?

S: Yes, so it’s kind of re-enacting the performance. I worked with three artists, two of them are performance artists because I wanted performance in the film to recreate the original I had done for a project called ‘Overtime’. I just told them ‘Come as if you were dressed to go time traveling’ so the clothes were entirely their own choice. I also worked with a scientist, an artist-scientist called Pietro Reviglio, he’s an astrophysicist and he has two PhDs in the study of black holes, so he was the science advisor since the film takes the concept, the idea of the black hole and plays with it in the narrative linking it to literature, science fiction, films and television programs in which there are portals or wormholes and they’re able to travel across time. I wanted to bring all of these things together with my own aesthetics and make a film that looked like the rest of my work. It was a challenge, very enjoyable, very frustrating sometimes, and I have had so many brilliant friends to help me, they’re all credited at the end of the film. Oh, it also features my great grandfather’s magic lantern’s lights. He was a magic lanternist, and I inherited his slides.

V: What do you mean by magic lanterns?

S: It is one of the earliest forms of projected images, it is glass slides with coloured pictures painted on them and then they would go in a big wooden box which once had fire behind it, now a lightbulb, that would project the images with a magnifier lens. This was an early form of entertainment and he used to go around south-east London entertaining people by projecting these things. And I inherited them, they’re so magical and beautiful that I wanted to insert them in the story.

Still from Time You Need © Sarah Sparkes
Material Mediums – Margery, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

V: That’s amazing! Please, tell us more about the works made with wallpaper.

S: That’s a series of works called David Soul, maybe a lot of people are too young to remember but he was a 1970s pop star, he was also in a tv show called Starsky and Hutch. I am interested in this poster of David Soul that appears in the background in a very famous photograph of a very famous poltergeist case of the 1970s that involved a young girl, a teenage girl called Janet. She alleged that she was possessed by the poltergeist of an old man, and the whole house in Enfield was haunted by this man. It made the news, there have been documentaries about it and more recently two films made about it [one of this is the second movie of The Conjuring series].

She’s still alive, she still claims all of this happened, and in the photographs of her possession she’s leaping up in the air in her tiny bedroom, with a really big poster of David Soul. It looks like she is leaping towards him in the poster! This iconography of David Soul and the poltergeist girl is jumbled up in my mind and in my memory with research I have done into psychics, parapsychology and animalistic psychology, all different fields of research that come from various levels of belief. Some of them are open minded and believe, and some of them are neutral, or claim to be neutral. Some of them come from the position of ‘it’s all in the mind and we can prove it’. I have worked with people from all these different fields because I guess I am the neutral person, I want to remain neutral about my belief in ghosts and just explore them as a cultural phenomenon.

Image 1: the Enfield poltergeist case

V: What do you mean by neutral?

S: I won’t say if I believe or not in ghosts. For me it’s not about that, for me as an artist it’s not about my belief or skepticism at all, I haven’t even investigated that. I’m exploring how ghosts are made, I am looking for a ghost formula. How to make a ghost. And then I am interested in people that research ghosts. So, the wallpaper I used for these images is actual 1970s wallpaper, the blue wallpaper was on my bedroom walls when I was growing up, and that explains a lot!

V: So it’s the actual wallpaper?!

S: Yes, my mum always kept a spare roll of wallpaper in case we needed to patch up, and when she was clearing up the attic she found it and I said ‘oh no don’t throw it away! I’ll do something with this’. For the past three years I have been making works on it. I have been painting on it, I have been collaging with it, and it is also featured in other things as well, like in digital collages. However, these are actual, physical collages with prints, and it’s the actual wallpaper so it’s kind of vintage, I guess. The blue one was on the bedroom wall, and the orange one on the kitchen wall. So these are kind of found objects that have a memory and an important significance to me, and the imagery on them are of people that have been involved with ghosts in a variety of ways. There is one with Janet leaping towards David Soul, another with Janet and her brother and sister. And in that photo, when you zoom behind them there is a little magazine that says David Soul – part of it is my own myth-making, of course.

Crazy Horses, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

I am also interested in how this myth of ghosts crosses cultures and borders and expands on. As it comes into a new culture it would be adapted into that, and that is what I am doing with the imagery. I am bringing ghosts from different cultures together and creating a new ghost story. Some artworks also feature native Americans: in an artwork a native American ghost dance is represented, which used to be performed in America at the same time as the spiritualist movement started in the States. I think it was no coincidence that spiritualism started in America, where the natives had a spirit based religion – then the invaders came, took the land and religions and massively killed and repressed the native Americans. They had developed a ghost dance, a religious practice where they would dance in a circle and try to bring back the past. It’s very moving: they’re trying to reconnect with the past, wipe away all the damage that had been done by the white people and bring back the buffalos and bring back all their dead relatives. I have brought them in as well along with this 1970s poltergeist possession.

So, everybody, or everything here is something that humans have used to try to contact the dead, that is their connection.

Material Mediums – Helen, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

V: Are they prints on the wallpaper?

S: They are prints: these [the orange ones] are digital images, manipulated digitally and then printed directly on wallpaper – I’ve broken two printers doing this, it’s not advisable! While these [the blue ones] are actual physical collages, sometimes there’s a bit of paint in them. I made a bit of physical collages, a bit of painting on top, changing sizes, playing around the process of collage, and then I scanned them, they became digital images and then they were printed onto the wallpaper. I found that this wallpaper particularly takes the print really well, it’s a lovely surface! Sometimes I have also sanded them, I like how the wallpaper comes through the images. So this is a friend describing it, I am gonna quote her, she said ‘it looks like black mold on the wallpaper’ and I thought that was brilliant! I thought ‘perfect, that’s exactly what it is’! It’s like black mold on the wall of an old house, and then you see shapes in it. I also reprinted on top of some of them, so it’s quite a long process

V: How long did it take to make them?

S: I never time things! I’m quite a labor-intensive artist, I like to do everything myself: I built the infinity tunnel myself in my studio since I don’t like to send things out to fabricators. The horses are cuts in and a more physical collage: I had to cut them out and kind of embed them into the wallpaper. I think this was just an attempt to open the stable doors and let the spirits in, let the energy in, like the wild horse energy. They are like little charms to let the wild horse energy into your home, because I think that everyone needs every now and then stampeding horses running through their living room.

Crazy Horses, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

V: In the end it was sort of the same process, but you cut them and embedded them into the wallpaper.

S: Yeah, exactly the same process. The orange wallpaper cut down and then embedded into the other wallpaper. And each time they’re different, every time you have a different colour. By the way, this is the last roll of orange wallpaper, people should come just for that! This is the last work I can do on this wallpaper. The very last one is going to be at the Venice Biennale, two matchboxes with David Soul’s eyes on them. The David Soul’s eyes on this wallpaper are exhibited in a show called ‘Miniscule’. At the moment it’s in Cross Lane project in the Lake District, and then another version of the exhibition is going to the Venice Biennale from May through to July.

V: Is it in the Biennale…?

S: It’s a collateral event.

The GHost Tunnel, Sarah Sparkes © Stephen King

V: What about the tunnel?

S: This is the GHost Tunnel and is part of a much bigger installation that was made for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, for an exhibition called ‘No Such Thing as Gravity’, curated by Rob la Frenais. We visited Liverpool and he wanted me to do something about ghosts: he had the name of the exhibition and he knew he wanted to explore areas of science where a bit of magic comes in the practice. A science where there is not necessarily concrete material or answers but more unmaterial processes in order to find answers.

Science and magic combined, so ghosts: I am interested in how ghosts are made and I do research in this kind of element of psychology, parapsychology and neuroscience. The room was transformed in a ghost research area, it had this [the tunnel] in it, it had a robot that replicated a neuroscience experiment that created something called ‘feeling of presence’: you pushed one lever in front of you and you had to imagine you were poking someone in the back, and then behind you another robot poked you in the back corresponding your movements, so it was mirroring what you were doing with a slight delay. People have reported feeling as if there was really something behind them, they got spooked out! Even people that don’t believe in ghosts, they tested it with people that had neurological problems and people that did not have problems, and people equally went ‘Oh my god, there’s someone behind me!’. That was something I couldn’t make myself, I worked with a robotic artist called Sarah Angliss and she did the robotics for me.

Another room was a library, a whole library with books about ghost research from all different disciplines: there was an area with shelves that had an amateur ghost hunter’ equipment on it, there were all the gadgets that he used. Behind the shelves there was a little room, and in there a puppet that I had made, called the Host Ghost. It looks like a ghost of sheets, with its hands up, and people could point the equipment at the puppet and test all the ghost hunting readings on the puppet. There were also monitors on the shelves of the local group of ghost hunters ‘Mersey Paranormal’: I went on an investigation with them and there were footages of the investigation on the monitors.

Finally, there was another area where people could read ghost stories I had collected in Liverpool, it was a little office space with the screen and people could upload their ghost stories or read them. That element of the exhibition still exists, and we can still read the Liverpool ghost stories, they are on a website online called the ghostportal.co.uk. And when I went to Taiwan with the exhibition, the whole thing went in a ship! The ghost tunnel has been in a ship twice. So, this is the original one, it’s the first time it has been shown in London. If you look really closely you can see all the way to Taiwan!

V: That’s impressive! How is it made, can you say it?

S: No, it’s just magic! It is all smoked mirrors, it’s an old optical illusion, but I have my twist to that optical illusion that I can’t possibly reveal! It makes the tunnel go deeper than other infinity tunnels. It goes back a long way, but actually it doesn’t.

V: Yes, otherwise installing it would be a problem!

S: But I like the idea that you can imagine it goes to Liverpool and Taiwan, it’s like it has brought together all the people that have looked in it in those places. So yeah, it was part of this big installation and New Art Projects has always wanted to show it here, so they have built it into the wall. It was installed the same way in Liverpool and Taiwan, down a long corridor.