Fabric, helium, light rig
First commissioned by Artlands, North Kent, 2011. Re-staged by Museum of Modern Art, Sydney, Australia, 2014.
Works creating spectacular atmospheres aren't new in contemporary art. Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project made an illusory sun shine through mist in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall to huge popular acclaim in 2004. But Sleepers Awake, the work of Wales-based artist duo Heather and Ivan Morison, is a massively hubristic attempt to do something similar outside: to reverse the order of nature by raising a second sun at night over the north Kent badlands. And as we know, from classical mythology, hubris tends to be punished by disaster.
A mass of reeds and muddy creeks, dotted with industrial installations, some abandoned, some still working, the marshes north of Sittingbourne are in the process of being turned into a country park. But the Morisons, who specialise in fleeting works with implied and ambiguous narratives, aren't the most obvious artists to help revitalise this neglected area. If Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North, which kicked off the whole art-as-regeneration phenomenon, feels all too permanent, the Morisons' JournŽe des Barricades, a barricade across a street in New Zealand, lasted only a day.
Designed to draw people into the marshes as it moves slowly towards Sittingbourne, Sleepers Awake will have come and gone in a matter of weeks.
The first raising on October 3 was delayed by tidal factors - the iron barge carrying the helium-filled balloon couldn't make it round the coast - while a second attempt the following day was stymied by high winds. With the official launch, due to have taken place on October 8, indefinitely postponed due to damage to the plastic structure, Sleepers Awake appeared to have been an expensive flop. So having travelled to Sittingbourne for one of these abortive launches, I was sceptical when I was invited back for a 'special viewing' last Friday.
Yet as I hurried into the darkened country park, I was greeted by the rather magical sight of a great grey sphere hanging over the land - a dim, ghostly form that turned suddenly into a blazing white orb. The muddy reaches of the adjacent creek glowed silver, the miles of reed beds and stacks of discarded industrial plant irradiated by the plastic ball of light, tethered perhaps a hundred feet above the ground. The effect was like moving through intensely bright moonlight, tinted not silver but the yellow of daytime sunlight. While the London art cognoscenti were conspicuous by their absence, large numbers of local people had been drawn by the light over the marshes. Indeed from the first moment the 'sun' appeared two days before, people had been on the move towards it, jumping in their cars in their pyjamas to find out what was happening - which was exactly the effect the artists intended. Also present were crowds of youths. Ivan Morison told me that at first he feared the worst, 'but they seemed to have an odd respect for it'.
If Morison appeared rather pleased with his creation, he didn't actually make it himself. The work of leading balloon-makers Cameron, the great globe of light, its webbed structure filled with powerful lamps designed for use in film, has the appearance of some fantastical Jules Verne contraption. The effect of the light on the nocturnal wasteland, with industrial flares and flames flashing on the horizon, evokes a visionary sense of English pastoral: the feeling of night and day occurring simultaneously seen in the works of Samuel Palmer.
There has been a tendency for contemporary art to create lavish spectacles - such as Carsten Holler's spiralling slides at Tate Modern - in which entertainment value is as important as meaning. If Sleepers Awake edges into this category, it also provides something more: a sense of temporary magic that a fixed and lasting work of art could never emulate.
Mark Hudson, The Telegraph, 1 November 2011
Supported by the Homes and Communities Agency through Parklands, Arts Council England, Kent County Council, Swale Borough Council and Greening the Gateway Kent and Medway
Balloon fabrication: Cameron Balloons
Lighting design: Leelium
Photos 1, 2, 7, 9: Benedict Johnson