Christian Wagstaff, installation artist, House of Mirrors

The installation has its own strange and positive force. All aspects of its creation have been absolutely brilliant for us ...

Ever been to a travelling circus and ventured inside a house of mirrors? It can be a pretty bizarre experience – watching your reflection morphing and distending in wacky ways. The disorienting nature of mirrors is the focus of installation artist’s latest work, which can be best described as your typical house of mirrors on steroids. 40 tonnes of steel and 15 tonnes of mirrors have been precisely placed and arranged to create a mind-bending experience, where getting lost is part of the fun. After wowing attendees at this year’s Dark Mofo festival in Tasmania, Christian’s House of Mirrors is set to come to Wonderland at the Brisbane Powerhouse from November 18 to December 11. Before we all line-up to get lost within the maze-like, mirrored hallways of the installation, we had a chat with Christian about the work’s inspiration and what we can expect when we step foot inside. 

Can you remember what first sparked your interest in the world of art, particularly installation work?
I’m from Melbourne, and as a child I loved going to the National Gallery of Victoria – initially because I was so in awe of the imposing Roy Grounds building. It was groundbreaking for Australia at the time. Just by hanging around the various gallery spaces and courtyards, I was exposed to modern art. The theatre building and concert hall next door were completed in my teens, and John Truscott’s interiors and art collections throughout the lobbies and foyers fascinated me. Truscott selected bold and extravagant works.

You’ve worked in a variety of roles encompassing television set production and event installation ­– how has having those different experiences informed your current practices?
My first job after I completed college was to design the set for the Logie Awards in 1989. I was 19 and just a lackey in the art department at Channel Nine, but the art directors were generous with sharing their knowledge and loved throwing me into the deep end. They gave me absolute carte blanche in the design. Once I got a bit bored with television, which didn’t take long, I started to dabble in theatre set design. Event design came next when I shot up through the ranks at what was the newly launched Crown Casino in the 1990s. I have a good sense of emotion in everything I do, so there is for me a sense of theatre in each of the practices.

At this stage in your career, what do you look for in prospective projects to make it engaging for yourself and your studio CPS?
My good friend and collaborator Keith Courtney and I often talk about how we like to give anything a go. Our master plan for our practice is that we don’t have a plan. The only things we both look for are ideas that interest us, something that we are sure will affect people and projects that logistically terrify us. What I mean by that is it has to be something we have no idea how to do, but we jump in and somehow work it out. We believe that if the idea impresses us, then surely it has to intrigue others. If the nerves of not knowing don’t make us nauseous, it’s not worth doing. As soon as the nerves go and the project is easy, then it’s dead in the water. 

Tell us about House of Mirrors, which is coming to Brisbane in November for Wonderland! What was the inspiration behind the installation?
Our visit to Dark Mofo in 2015 blew us away. Keith and I were so inspired by the entire festival. We attended pretty much every programmed event for that year. We agreed then and there that we simply had to be a part of the festival in 2016. House of Mirrors was one of three things we were playing with. Keith and I talk everyday at great length about what we are working on and one day the mirror maze concept just stood out from the others and for many reasons became essential. 

You worked with 40 tonnes of steel and 15 tonnes of mirrors, all perfectly aligned using precise geometry – can you give us a little insight of what to expect when you walk inside the labyrinth?
There are various configurations to mirror mazes. We have used a formula that is the most potent. We created a CAD version first, then a scale model as a maquette and then we built a portion of the design as a 1:1 scale test in our workshop so that we could see what optical occurrences would happen. We don’t want to give too much away, but we like to call some of the optical effects an ‘out of body experience’. There are sections where you can’t work out why you are unable to see yourself, yet mirrors surround you. Try and work that out. 

What reaction are you hoping to draw out of those who enter the House of Mirrors?
People react in various ways. As we are touring this work, Keith and I love to think that we are now carnies. And a true carnie gets pretty excited when their customers get a thrill!

House of Mirrors debuted earlier this year at Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival. What were some of the most surprising ways people interacted with the house there?
The festival operations team was a bit nervous about people running and getting hurt. Keith and I were quietly confident that in fact the opposite would happen – and we were right. People slowed down and were cautious. What did surprise us was how everyone that came through loved getting lost. Even when the punter got a bit frustrated, they were still joyous about it.  

Do many people get lost … in their own reflection?
If you find the exit, it’s a fluke.

With such a massive portfolio of work it must be hard to pick to a favourite, but what projects would you say were the most fun to work on throughout your career?
Without sounding predictable, House of Mirrors is our favourite project for sure. The installation has its own strange and positive force. All aspects of its creation have been absolutely brilliant for us.

What has been a big source of inspiration for you lately?
Coney Island, which once included the original Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase back in the early 20th Century. It always comes back to play with my mind. Amusement parks and pleasure gardens fascinate us. We both went to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen last year and we were so inspired by its magic and charm. There is a genuine sense of pleasure there. It’s still very much intact, which is rare and outstanding.

Venture into the House of Mirrors at Wonderland, taking place at the Brisbane Powerhouse from November 18 to December 11.

Image: Keith Wagstaff


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