When Sparks speaks about her practice she often refers to the idea beginning with a journey through the landscape, one that merges a physical journey with a psychological one. Her compositions are often a series of landscapes that run parallel to her personal narrative.
Sparks composes her work in a manner akin to a painter, layering different elements on top of the other to create an impossibly perfect landscape – a fantastical world that exists in Sparks' mind-scape. Through this technique she combines multiple landscapes and populates the scene with animals taken from museum collections. It is a scene that cannot exist in nature and is without a key focal point which imbues her work with a sense of dislocated place.
The ‘Le Vol’ series plays with this otherworldly concept. Sparks draws inspiration from many sources in particular French scenic wallpapers from the late 18th and early 19th century, as well as tromp l'oeils, panoramic pavilions, contemporary light installations and stereoscopic photography. These are steeped in the tradition of illusion and immersion. By layering photographs of different landscapes and taxidermied birds one on top of the other, she removes a single point of focus, disorientating the viewer and encouraging them to question the veracity of what they are seeing. These composite images shift the viewer’s perception to 'open up new ways of seeing'.
The ‘Le Vol’ series was inspired by Desfosse's 'Le Bresil', a 19th century wallpaper now housed at Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Sparks was intrigued by the representation of a jungle scene with birds from all over the world dotted across the exoticised French, cool blue landscape. Included among the specimens was an Australian lyrebird. These early wallpapers depicting the 'exotic other' was the documentation of the conquered and the colonized. It reflected a thirst within European society to be seen as fashionable and well travelled, which was a luxury few could afford. However, many of these wallpapers no longer exist as they were often replaced as soon as the latest fashion changed, and their ephemeral nature meant they were easily damaged and difficult to conserve.
Sparks has said that she 'created 'Le Vol' to be on first impression a lush, light filled landscape at the edge of a luminous body of water. It is intentionally aiming for the beautiful in a traditional romantic way. At the same time there is an alternative reading that can be made, through the underlying presence of death and ecological loss in a landscape that includes over 120 dead birds. Not subversive so much as disturbing and macabre.' (Sparks 2014)
Sparks incorporated specimens dating back hundreds of years into this contemporary reimagining of a hybrid scenic wallpaper. To create 'Le Vol', Sparks photographed over 100 specimens from Australia, the Pacific, Africa, Europe and South America during residencies at the Vienna and La Rochelle Natural History Museums. This includes specimens collected on Cook’s second and third voyages to the southern hemisphere, Matthew Flinders trips to Australia, the first fleet to Australia, as well as many from Brazil and other South and Central American locations.
Two separate installation spaces accompanied 'Le Vol' in its first iteration which included 'Flock' and 'Little Bird History'. 'Flock' was a mirrored box containing 3D scanned and printed Arctic Terns from the Melbourne Museum collection. 'Little Bird Big History' was series of portraits of the individual birds included in 'Le Vol'. The presentation of the birds in line with a traditional portrait which Sparks has commented provides, 'significance to the individual specimens, each with their own story of place of origin and movement through various collections. The unnatural migrations they undergo often run parallel to better known histories of colonialism and exploration'.
‘Le Vol’ translates as flight, flying, theft, robbery and burglary. This title draws attention to the theft of life of these birds, strangely reanimated in their current resurrection, and also highlights the problematic nature of early collecting practices. Many of these specimens were brought together during colonial expansion. Colonisers thought of these birds as curiosities and took them back to their homelands to display as the exotic other, in the same manner as they did the people, flora, fauna and landscape. These specimens were available to artists who incorporated aspects of the Southern Hemisphere into strange compositions, transplanting foreign animals into an alien landscape.
Sparks speaks of these as an early representation of globalisation, with these collecting practices creating a 'strange traffic in birds, an unnatural migration.' In particular she highlights the biological diversity that results from migration and cross pollination. The sharing of these specimens and the way they are used generates new meanings and provides opportunities for scientific discovery. This belief and perpetual desire for discovering the new, to open up new possibilities for innovation through creativity, is felt throughout Sparks's practice, perhaps even more in her latest experimental 3D light works.