Valerie Sparks

It takes a special type of person to sit in front of a computer carefully deep-etching and digitally working on a tree for days, only for it to be one small element of a giant work. Valerie Sparks is that person. With patience in spades, even she admits, “I do go a little bit crazy on a regular basis.” Sparks, a photomedia artist, uses contemporary digital photography to create her large-format prints. Her work is influenced by French 18th-century panoramic wallpapers and sees her travel the world researching and photographing flora, fauna, landscapes and buildings, to rework and reimagine, into her hybrid dreamscapes. Sparks’ environments compile elements from different locations, times of the day and seasons, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood script or on the walls of an old-timey powder room. Part scientific observation, part romanticism, they sweep the viewer up in their calmness and immersive detail, and make a utopian world that is at once attractive and deceptive. The beauty of the work plays on colonial ideas of the ‘exotic’, while also reconfiguring spaces and galleries. Currently part of the ‘Bowness Photographic Prize’ exhibition and the ‘Fremantle Arts Centre Print Award’ exhibition (on until 8 November), Sparks is also working on a commission for an exhibition at Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for mid 2016.


Do you remember where you first came across the French scenic wallpapers that have influenced your work?
Yes I do. I was in the bookshop of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and found a book about the Dufour wallpaper, ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’. I clearly remember how everything kind of slowed down and went very quiet. I bought the book. You know when you come across something that is very significant even though you are yet to know why.

What appeals about them?
Many things, including the fact that they depict scenes such as the 1830 French revolution, the story of Psyche, as well as utopian fantasies such as El Dorado and the Garden of Eden, and that people cover their domestic spaces with them. Immersing themselves in grand narratives and mythical themes, juxtaposed with everyday objects and mundane domestic rituals. I love that they were destined for the home. In situ they are like dreamscapes to me.

Where have you travelled to photograph flora and fauna?
Photographs are taken pretty much anywhere I have travelled, here in Australia and overseas, from far north Queensland to Bruny Island, the UK, France, Austria, Portugal and Spain. Most recently I have been making trips to Tasmania to photograph landscapes, flora and the birds in the collections of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

How regularly do you photograph new elements for your work?
Photography happens on an ongoing basis. These days I have the camera in the car with me at all times, but there are also dedicated photo shoots at times for specific projects, such as the shoots in Tasmania. I have had two trips there this year. The first was for five weeks, three of which were spent camping in amazing locations. The fragile but extreme natural environment of Tasmania, with its dramatic and varied ecosystems existing in such close proximity, has a visual intensity that is just amazing. It is so complex and inspiring, and so rich to work with.


Is it tricky getting access to taxidermy and museums?
Access to collections in European museums has been unexpectedly easy. When I discovered the bird collection in the Vienna Natural History Museum I emailed the curator to explain my project and request access. He got back to me in three hours to say I was welcome to come and stay for as long as I wanted. In Australia that would have taken a lot longer. I have always been amazed at how accessible the collections in European museums are, and how this ease of access brings you into contact with unexpected things. It really does create the opportunity for research and discovery.

Do you have a favourite plant or animal you’ve photographed?
My favourite bird was a kingfisher collected by Forster on Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific. I remember the curator in Vienna placing it in my hand. It was so still and weightless. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful or exotic specimen, but it felt amazing to hold something that was connected to that history.

Monash Gallery of Art (MGA)
Until 22 November, 2015

Valerie Sparks is represented by THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery

Le Vol 1, 2014, from the series Le Vol, pigment ink-jet print, 140 x 229cm
Reproduction courtesy of the artist and THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery, Melbourne

Le Vol, part 2 (detail), 2014, inkjet print on wallpaper, 103 x 280cm
Reproduction courtesy of the artist and THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery, Melbourne