Interview conducted with Sophie Sparham, author, writer, poet.
We’ll start at the beginning of things, when did you first become interested in art and decide that it was what you wanted to do?
The first kind of instant of that was a huge mistake really. I remember being in high school at parents evening. I’m a twin and we were both sat there with the art teacher and our parents and the teacher said ‘Oh Fred should carry on with art because he’s doing really well’. She actually mixed up the name, she meant Joe my brother. So for a year I had an unbridled love for whatever I was making, until I released that she meant my brother. It was quite apt looking at my practice as it is today really.
Then I went on to do art at college, but college A level art is never what you expect. Art Foundation is when you start to establish your own ideas of what art really is in a much wider scope, because you’re devoting your whole attention and whole life to it and that’s when it really opens out in all of it’s richness.
What do you first remember being exposed to that struck you about it?
Well, I remember our first fine art class , we had to transcribe a painting in the style of another artist and I found that quite a superficially dull task, until then I was still thinking I might go into illustration or graphics, fine art was still there, but I thought it was the most pretentious thing you could do. But we went on a London trip down to the galleries in Bermondsey and South Bank and there was an Anselm Kiefer exhibition and I remember being bowled over by the physicality’s of his paints and you could smell the fresh the fresh oil paint in there. They were massive, massive overwhelming things that really bowled you over to behold them.
Foundation, my final piece was so inspired by Anselm Kiefer and at the start of university there was a lot of that there too, but I took it apart, deconstructed my ways of painting, but it wasn’t the painting that fascinated me, it was the feeling of it, the essence of it that was interesting. So that lead me to conceptualism, dealing with ideas first and foremost. It’s nothing to do with physicality of paints, it’s something that kind of transcends that completely.
When you talk about that feeling, what really resided with you?
There was a feeling of awe, amazement and it being overwhelming, I think for myself, the language of feelings is extremely relevant in my own practice now. Emotional subjectivity it’s just one aspect, but it is an important one.
So let’s talk about your practice today, how would you describe it?
We start off with an idea of Romanticism. Now romanticism is a really tricky term, because it was never really a genre, it was just a way that critics could categorise works from another. So what I can say is that my practice revolves around fragmentary ideas. The philosopher John- Luc Nancy Who believes that in Romantic literature is created as fragmental pieces, the fragments exist in their own space, in their own being, but to put them together as a group would not constitute them as a whole. I take that into my own practice. To say there’s no one way to go about creating a work or there’s no one way of approaching what a work is. They each exist in their own moments. That’s the perfection of them, they don’t try and divide themselves from each other, in the same way they don’t try and force their ideas on other pieces of work.
It’s difficult really, I don’t know whether I create bodies of work, or if each idea should be considered as a separate thing. However, they do have a kind of entirety; in terms of thematically they may have similar themes that occur. That’s not necessarily a forced thing, which just comes through naturally. So that’s just myself coming across, but that’s not to say that my art practice is a confessional piece of artwork, I’m not trying to bare all for everyone, it’s merely using just a small fraction to try and elucidate a much wider universal truth.
I think describing anyone’s practice is a really complex thing. I know that you’ve been making a lot of different things at the moment, what are you currently working on?
I’m working on several different pieces of work in tandem. I know that it’s quite common practice, not just to work on one piece of work at a time, because, like I said the work is constantly divided from each other by they may inform aspects of each others making. At the moment, the most recent piece of work I made was sitting and eating a bowl of porridge with a homemade spoon. The spoon has a flawed quality to it and it even has a little glue mark, where I stuck it back together, after snapping it in half while I was making it. So there’s this inherited sadness in this little spoon.
And then of course there’s an association of wooden spoons being given to the loser, the losing team always gets the wooden spoon. So again, you have this idea of failure. The video is quite a simple piece, where I just eat a bowl of porridge until it’s over, not really ever looking into the camera, just looking off into space with the rain just on and off outside.
I made a pair of skis and decided to treat them with maple syrup. Normally they’d be treated with pine tar or bees wax to keep them slick, but I wanted to stick with the components of a tree itself; so maple syrup coming from the sap of a tree. That led me to create a ski rack, something that you would normally see on the side of the mountain, as a structure to house the skis as well as a structure on which to put a TV monitor, which was showing a video of trees and a forest; a cloud that makes its way over and through the trees. That plays with the perspective as though someone is sat on top of a mountain looking down. You have this kind of idea of longing in these roughly carved skis. They even have knotholes, from which parts of the wood have split in the making progress. So they’re completely imperfect and again, you have this absence in the video itself, it’s like a kind of unattainable thing, you can’t really grasp. So it’s a longing for a place or a longing for a feeling that’s never going to come.
This idea of hand crafted stuff and imperfection, I know that you set up a choir but where one could sing?
That was part of a Christmas commission piece that I was asked to do and that was “The Inaugural Performance of the Margret Street Crap Choir’, where I took a group of people who self-proclaimed that they could not sing. You get these BBC programs, where you take kids out of school to teach them to be great singers, but I never wanted to make them into great singers I just wanted them to be who they were. To make it extra crap I agreed a small orchestral section, like children’s instruments, so the triangle to the maraca. So they’d play along and eventually I’d introduce other rhythms of songs into various carols so they sang Little Donkey to the tune of Silent Night so it just ups the anti on the crap front, but it became about their inhibitions and just being happy in the moment of that kind of Christmas spirit. Looking back, all the work I made for that I called it ‘Affective Seasonal Disorder’ so it’s just a rearrangement of ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, weather inclination on mood and that time of year and the darkness taking over and effecting people. But in rearranging it, it divides it from its own context, so say looking at a Christmas choir performing in June would have a completely different context, if any at all. So again you get this idea of absence of a mood or a time of year. It adds even more to the pointless crap of it, because it’s not in the right time of year, nobodies in the right frame of mind.
Do you feel like absence, sense of place and imperfection are themes that run throughout your work?
I think so. It was never really apparent to me until it was pointed out a couple of months ago. I think these are just intrinsic parts of the work. So it was never forced. But I think they’re themes that run through people’s lives, we all get absence and loneliness. Then again, the work, in its hopelessness, there is a hope in there because you can’t have one without the other. So I don’t see my work as intrinsically very sad, I see it as sadness is part of life but you need it to appreciate the rest of it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have sadness and loneliness as they lead to better things like happiness for one and just a community in receiving and feeling the pieces.
How do you feel your practice stands now, how have you developed since those early stages?
It feels completely different, I feel a great sense of freedom and confidence in the work I’m making, but that’s simply because I feel like I could make work about anything happily. I say that with no sense of bravado or arrogance, it’s just the opportunity that making art gives you is that freedom of anything. It’s both the best part and the most terrifying. I read recently, the oncoming idea of art is like the anticipation of snow, especially in this country now, snow is such as rarity, and my own inner child loves snow. It’s all about that anticipation of waiting for it to come and a hope that it will come. That’s how I feel.
What shows are you really excited about that you have recently done or will do?
Last year I curated a show for 30 plus second year students, because we felt like not a lot of people got to see what was going on behind closed doors in the art school, with only the graduates getting a degree show. So we thought we’d put on lots of people’s work in progress and see where people’s practices develop in a year’s time. We were lucky enough to get the attention of New Art West Midlands and the Birmingham Mail and we had a good turnout. Five hundred people over a weekend, which is pretty good for us.
If you did have an overall message that you’d like to bring forward with your art, what would it be?
Overall, I’d like people to feel the emotion they feel, whether it’s anger, or sadness or happiness when they feel the work themselves. It’s far from me to try and force an emotion on someone. For me its staying true to that emotion sincerity in myself and try to remain humble in the work that I am creating, So if I can get people to think, to discover a truth about themselves, about life, about living, about the things that are around us, to create an understanding about things and to share thoughts and feelings.
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