Grants & residencies: Sally Smart - Art Collector

Issue 63, January - March 2013

This profile appeared in the Grants & residencies feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2013.

Sally Smart, Perform (Skirting Movement), 2011. Mixed media on paper, 76 x 56cm. Courtesy: the artist and Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

Grant: $120,000 Visual Arts Board fellowship, Australia Council.

Sally Smart knows how to work on a big scale. Back around 2005 she was creating eye-catching, vivacious collages of pirate galleons from fabric, felt, paper and paint that briskly commanded not just a single tall gallery wall but, in some installations in the United States and China, swept confidently across corners to circle the room on journeys seemingly as epic as a circumnavigation of the globe.

It’s no surprise to find her organising her Australia Council Visual Arts Board fellowship with similar vision and poise, and with an international scope. These days, VAB fellowships are awarded not only on career accomplishment – they always acknowledge peak professional achievement – but also to support a new artistic project conducted over the two years of the stipend. Smart was awarded hers in mid 2012, just in time for her to take up an artist residency at the University of Connecticut. At Connecticut she was working with that university’s internationally recognised museum and school of puppetry, the Ballard Institute. Immersed in this milieu, two streams of inspiration quickly manifested.

Firstly, Smart’s ongoing fascination with the sorts of collaged and constructed dolls, mannequins and marionettes that figure in so much 20th century art – notably among the dadaists such as Hannah Höch and the surrealists – became oriented toward movement, both as shadow-play and as video montages of dance. “I ended up making three-dimensional puppets which revolved, throwing their shadows across the wall,” she explains. “Basically, my idea was to turn Hannah Höch into the dance artist Martha Graham. So I started looking at choreographers’ drawings and I came across Rudolf Laban’s drawings and the notation he invented for scoring dance. He was a very influential modernist choreographer and a teacher of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, whose puppet designs I’ve loved. Laban was also associated with Rudolf Steiner and Steiner’s chalk drawings influenced Joseph Beuys’s blackboard works.”

This quirky genealogy was vividly embodied in Smart’s reconfiguration, for her exhibition at Melbourne’s Fehily Contemporary gallery toward the end of 2012, of some of the work produced and shown in the United States during the Connecticut residency. Appropriately for a show called
The Pedagogical Puppet, the immense back wall of the gallery was strikingly turned into a blackboard, assembling notes in chalk and sketches for the show in a mural-sized flowchart or emblematic mind map. As enigmatic as Steiner’s graffiti and as improbably instructional as Beuys’s diagrams, it looked like the mysterious relic of a marathon university lecture.

The second aspect of Smart’s project is even more idiosyncratic, in the alignment of her indisputably fluent techniques for collage and cut-out with the psychopathology of minor body modifications known as delicate cutting – practices often identified with femininity and which range from conventions of eyebrow plucking, ear or nose piercing, nail-biting and tattooing up to clan scarification or the cutting associated with repeated self-injury. The impulses for this kind of cutting become allegorically associated with her own artistry, sailing her animated shadow-plays into the tempests of romantic love. If sexual difference is mythologised as a primordial cut, love may be the art of collage.

Smart’s fellowship will take her on quite a journey deeper into the work of Rudolf Laban, at his archive in the United Kingdom’s University of Surrey; into Indonesia to explore its heritage of shadow theatre; and across China in search of an elusive provincial tradition of the travelling hand-puppeteer. Along the way, there’ll be shows in London at Purdy Hicks, and in New York at Postmaster. And bringing it all back home, in early 2014, exhibitions in Adelaide at Greenaway Art Gallery and Sydney at Breenspace. Watch this space.

Edward Colless

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