My Friend Sparksburg in Columbia, SC

By February 18, 2022
a photograph of a flagpole on the side of a brick house, holding a large nail. full green trees are behind the flagpole
Thomas Wharton, Red Eye. Image courtesy Martin Lang.

Location/Address: Columbia, South Carolina.
Hours: Guided visits by appointment. Drive by visits during daytime hours.
Website: https://sparksburg.com/
Founded & Operated by: Martin Lang
Opened: 2021
Recent Exhibiting Artists: Thomas Wharton, Conor Murphy, Natalie Petroskyx, Peter Cotroneo, Tate Foley, Eric Cagley

Bryn Evans: An exhibition space located on a flagpole is an arcane concept that I see as also quite ingenious. It conjures ideas around protest and creative expression, while also staking claim to the nationalist treatment of the flag as this elevated, sacred symbol. There’s also the saying: ‘running something up the flagpole’ — which seems very fitting for a contemporary art space that values experimentation. And of course, there’s the public nature and proximity of it all — the space is an extension of a home. Where did the idea for My Friend Sparksburg come from and how has it evolved since its inception?

Frost Museum of Art: Disrupting Anti-Blackness on view through June 19
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Martin Lang: The origins for My Friend Sparksburg can be traced back to my time in graduate school. In my studio building, there was an extra empty open space used for critiques and installations. I was looking at Contemporary Art Daily at the time and thinking about how a gallery identity can be constructed through online install shots.

I’d thought about photographing my work, installed in this extra space, and putting it online as an exhibition with a gallery name without ever having an opening. The idea progressed in my head to this happening elsewhere, with the physical location and constraints of the ‘gallery’ being different for each exhibition. The viewer saying to themselves, ‘but wait I thought the floors were concrete not wood,’ ‘where’d that window come from?’ etc. From there I was able to see My Friend Sparksburg as a curatorial identity, an umbrella for that original idea and its current semi-permanent existence on the flagpole holder of my house.

With this current iteration, I’ve been careful to speak to the invited artists about the exhibition space being the empty space within the flagpole holder. Artists are invited to approach the space as flag-like or as nonconventional as they wish. Only a few exhibitions have resembled flags in the traditional sense, though they have formally and conceptually challenged the suburban expectations of college football allegiances or patriotic pride.

As for the name, my parents tell me that I had an imaginary friend named Sparksburg when I was quite young. I don’t remember Sparksburg, nor where I got their name.

Natalie Petroskyx, Nothing Underneath. Image courtesy Martin Lang.

BE: The ongoing pandemic has required many galleries, museums, art centers, and other exhibition spaces to put up their shutters. In a way, My Friend Sparksburg functions as an expanded platform for art viewing, one that provides a sense of intimacy while also allowing for a more accessible and socially distant experience. Was this due in part to the limited exhibiting opportunities resulting from the pandemic? What have you noticed about the local art scene in Columbia over the past two years in response to these extenuating circumstances?

ML: Absolutely. My Friend Sparksburg officially opened after a year of remote teaching. I was spending every day, more or less, at home but trying to spend as much time as possible outside in my yard. The flagpole holder had sat empty since I moved in a year earlier — it was the sort of thing I had walked past and known was there but had never contemplated filling. The original vision for My Friend Sparksburg was still stewing in my mind. The desire to run a space and put on exhibitions has been an ongoing ambition, but a traditional exhibition space was both cost-prohibitive and seemingly impractical given the circumstances. One afternoon in December 2020, I was outside in my yard and everything just sort of clicked. I scheduled the first show and created the website that same evening.

Frost Museum of Art: Disrupting Anti-Blackness on view through June 19
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It’s tough to say too much about the local art scene as I still feel quite new. I’d only spent a semester in Columbia before everything changed, so I was just getting my bearings. The Columbia Museum of Art has reopened and had some incredible shows in the last two years, namely an amazing collection of M.C. Escher prints and, most recently, the traveling exhibition 30 Americans. 701 Contemporary Art Center has also reopened recently with the SC Biennial. As far as I know, there isn’t a large local network of independent spaces, but I’m hoping that is something that can grow in the future.

Peter Cotroneo, Devilman From Memory. Image courtesy Martin Lang.

BE: First, I want to say that “Thinking of You” (2016) is an absolute gem. It’s my favorite Sister Sledge song. When I pressed play on the video and heard the OH!, my initial reaction was “Wait!……for real……yes…..I’m screaming: what is going on?”

You’re a professor at South Carolina State, as well as an exhibiting artist with your own practice. How have these three pursuits informed one another? I’d love to hear more about your teaching pedagogy and words of advice for folks curious about pursuing an MFA or running an art space.

ML: Hahah, I’m glad you enjoyed it. That’s still a fun one. It was quite a pivotal work for me in my practice. It usually produces laughter in the classroom when I’m introducing students to my work, and as John Cage said ‘laughter is preferable to tears.’

My teaching, my studio practice, and My Friend Sparksburg are constantly informing each other. As an artist, I’m always thinking about the work existing in an exhibition space. Not so much that it’s site-specific, but rather its ideal environment. I love to have class exhibitions and believe fully that the processes of organizing, curating, installing, and opening an exhibition are essential experiences for students.

As a graduate of a larger state university, I’m an advocate for the sort of support, funding, and opportunities public universities can offer to MFA candidates through assistantships. Often, these schools position students to be in an art conversation that is outside that of New York or Los Angeles, which offers a whole different set of opportunities. I’ve seen this distance produce interesting work and interesting spaces, several of which are also included on Burnaway. Advice for running a space would be simply to take the risk and do it. Reach out and invite someone you don’t know to have a show. Everyone likes to get new opportunities and having an exhibition space is a great ice breaker.

Conor Murphy, Flag Poles. Image courtesy Martin Lang.
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