Sleepers Awake is ambitious in both concept and scale, engaging an expansive area of skyline above the Western Sydney region as well as transforming the site beneath it. Could you begin by talking me through the original concept for Sleepers Awake, when it was presented in Kent, UK and how it has been adapted for Western Sydney?
Heather: Originally we were asked to look at an area of post-industrial land on the outskirts of a town on the Thames estuary, outside of London. The site had been mined over hundreds of years for aggregate to build London, which was transported up the Thames in barges. Once the load had been emptied the barges returned with the city’s waste to fill the holes in the landscape. Dirty industries grew up around this site. In recent years the town’s council has been working to rejuvenate this area of land into a useable green recreation space, however, the town’s folk think of this area as a no- go zone, dangerous and dirty. Sleepers Awake was a work that would draw people down to this area of land, to see it afresh, to draw their attention to the potential of this landscape.
Ivan: The title Sleepers Awake comes from the novel by H. G. Wells titled The Sleeper Awakes in which a man wakes from a two hundred year-long sleep to find he is now the richest man on the planet. He sees a changed and unjust world in which he is cast as the tyrant. We liked the idea of a population of an entire town waking after a long, long sleep to finally see for the first time their surroundings, to recognise the potential and the problems of what lies around them.
In 2010-2011 you developed and presented your travelling puppet show Mr Clevver in Tasmania and you have recently exhibited at Sydney’s Anna Schwartz Gallery. Since we began working on this project in late 2012, Ivan you have visited Sydney several times. What are your impressions of Western Sydney and Western Sydney Parklands?
Ivan: I think the Parklands have huge potential. Their scale, and the scale of the vision of those who conceived them, is impressive. They have the potential to radically improve the environment for a future Western Sydney as it continues to expand and become more populated. There are areas within the Parklands that I have visited that still feel remarkably wild, even with pylons passing overhead, and if this characteristic can be retained then that will be a very special resource for the city.
Heather: The scale of Western Sydney was an initial surprise, it stretches on and on. But once you start to become familiar with it you see it is made up of distinct centres. You see it is an area where people live through both necessity and choice and that it is developing fast – it seems important that a human and neighbourhood scale and sensibility is retained and encouraged through this period of change.
You produce ambitious, grand installations. Apart from our current undertaking, I am thinking particularly of such works as Journée des Barricades presented in Wellington New Zealand (in 2008 for One Day Sculpture) in which you blocked off a city street with an imposing sculptural wall of industrial and domestic detritus. How do you manage logistical practicalities and artistic vision when developing such works for the public domain?
Heather: You have to be pragmatic whilst defining a core set of criteria that cannot be crossed.
Ivan: A good idea should have broad shoulders and be able to be pushed this way and that whilst staying on its feet. If it can’t it should be left for dead, perhaps even added to others like it to be composted down to allow stronger ideas to grow from them. A lot of it comes down to spreading an infectious enthusiasm for something you know will be great.
Your practice has three distinct strands: sculptural and architectural objects for the public domain, your gallery practice and your performative or theatrical works such as Mr Clevver and the puppet show Nuclear Family which recently toured Wales. How do these different facets of your practice relate to or inform each other?
Heather: Performance/writing and the large sculptural objects are the opposite sides to the same coin. For any circumstance or emotion we may wish to express we could build a building, make a sculpture or write a play about it. Sometimes we do all of these things, sometimes they sit one within the other like with Mr Clevver.
Ivan: Our gallery work, especially recently, pulls these two sides together. We have worked a lot lately with the idea of object theatre and this has helped us to understand how we can lay narrative over abstract forms and everyday objects.
Which leads me to ask, how do you make the collaborative process work? Do you have different roles in the creative process or are your methods more organic? Is there a lot of negotiation?
Heather: We are both strong willed and fiercely independent, which would make you think that a collaborative practice would be hard.
Ivan: Which it is, but rewarding and hugely beneficial.
Heather: We have a secret room we go to, only Ivan and I have the key. This is where we can share all our ideas freely and in total security. Here we are safe, here we can say anything, and that works both ways, good and bad. This is our room. This is where we really work together. Outside it the world goes on with all its complications and we rush on doing the things which catch each of our individual eyes.
The room is imaginary.
Bungarribee audiences will have the opportunity to see this lunar sculpture as it rises into the night sky and sinks back down at dawn and also to enjoy the community performance program accompanying the sculpture nightly 5.30 pm – 7.30 pm. What do you hope viewers will gain from this experience?
Heather: I look forward, for this outing of Sleepers Awake, to people finding opportunities to participate in the work. In Bungarribee Parklands we saw an opportunity to establish the parklands as open to everyone, a blank canvas to everyone’s ideas and needs. We want people to feel it is a place where they define their own uses, but it needs them to step forward, to say so, to do it. With the performance program we want to at least begin to instill that possibility.
Ivan: Bungarribee Parklands are a very beautiful piece of land, not often fully explored or recognized for its innate qualities. Hopefully people will look afresh at this place. The experience of going somewhere like this, in the middle of the night, is a powerful one. The work itself is mesmerizing, the light it casts across the landscape is ethereal, the silence can be encompassing. I hope people feel these things, and find a unique personal moment at the heart of it.
There’s something transcendent and poetic about the idea of creating an artwork that uses the sky and land to create a site-specific context. Do you deliberately, from the early stages of your working process, look at ways of realising particular values or ideas or do these evolve during the process?
Heather: I would say that the ideas for a site specific work are led by the values or ideas we wish to express, rather than evolving out of a more physical idea of what we want to do or make.
Ivan: In terms of what we should do in any particular place or in any set situation, I’ll tend to feel a strong leading emotional direction in which the work should go. Sometimes this is literally best expressed by identifying a theme tune for a developing work to which we can refer back to to maintain expressive bearing as an idea moves forward. For me works have an emotional core rather than a defining set of values. However, this doesn’t preclude them from embodying strong values or expressing a clear idea.
Sleepers Awake will run for nine nights from 17 -26 May 2014 at Bungarribee Park in Western Sydney and is the second collaboration between the MCA and Western Sydney Parklands under the C3West program.
C3West is a long-term MCA program which creates situations for artists to work strategically with business and non-arts government organisations.