Published  17/09/2014

Sally Smart: interview

Sally Smart: interview

Sally Smart, known for her large-scale installations, talks about her recent project, The Pedagogical Puppet (2012), made during a residency at the University of Connecticut. Her Bauhaus-inspired work represents an independent artistic spirit in Australia, where she lives and works


Janet McKenzie: Sally, you grew up in an extremely remote part of South Australia and were educated through the Correspondence School (as I was in Victoria). Can you tell me about how the isolation and landscape played a part in your development as an artist, very much of the European tradition?

Sally Smart: I grew up in the Flinders Ranges and was home-schooled via correspondence school and school of the air. Then, with my sisters, I went to the local area school – it was more than a 48km round trip daily by school bus and car over rough, unsealed, white gravel roads with huge creeks, which invariably flooded in the wet weather. Life was always dominated by dramatic weather: rain, or the lack of it, and extreme heat: it was a dynamic environment and breathtakingly beautiful, a semi-arid region, but with unique and rare wildlife and spectacular rock formations: magnificent wedge-tailed eagles and yellow-footed rock-wallabies, which were elsewhere close to extinction, but were in abundance there. Parrots, cockatoos, emus and kangaroos, then reptiles such as geckos and lizards, were all variously pets. The isolation ensured a rich, imaginative life.

JMcK: Art in Australia has been predominantly characterised by the land. Instead, you chose a theatrical, Dada-inspired, puppet form of art.

SS: My training in Adelaide was Bauhaus-based, so that period has always been influential. Dada-inspired works began with my Die Dada Puppen (1996), a series looking at the performance objects of the early avant-garde artists, especially the female artists Hannah Höch and Sophie Taeuber, and their early modernist puppet and sculptural works. In 2012, I revisited this work and made the Artists Dollsseries. These works are based on fragments of costumes from the Ballets Russes and Bauhaus dance works, cut up and reconstructed as artefacts of performance. Most recently, The Pedagogical Puppet (2012)series grew from my residency as the 2012 Sackler Fellow at the University of Connecticut, where I worked with the renowned Puppet Arts Program and the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry.

I had a strange early experience of the puppet. With the school of the air programme, our teacher visited all the students annually, and, on one occasion, she came with her husband, who had a ventriloquist doll in a suitcase. So I have this weird memory and connection between the idea of puppets and suitcases. The work with puppets at the University of Connecticut is informed by this experience. I am also interested in performance in connection with the traveller, hence the suitcase, and the history of the travelling puppeteers and their relationship to the pedagogical, with storytelling and picture recitation boards.

In relation to the landscape of Australia, my works Family Tree House (Shadows and Symptoms)(1999-2003) and Decoy Nest(2008)are relevant. The complex installation assemblages explore the literal and psychological representations of a personal and social family tree. The tree/house is used as a model representing interior and exterior space simultaneously, and engaging with ideas around this family tree/tree of knowledge/tree of life idea … It was a work also commenting on the space of women and their representation in the Australian art landscape, often inside the garden fence, on the veranda/porch. I built the large, 11 metre-high work from cut-out painted elements (felt and fabric) – an assemblage of hybridised tree elements pinned to the gallery wall –including imagery depicting household objects, along with silhouettes of heads and various body parts, mapping the tree/house structure. Constructing the work was like climbing a tree. Now, 10 years later, this work is being reimagined into a public artwork 12 metres x 19 metres for the edge of a public park in Melbourne and titled Shadow Trees.

JMcK: Puppets can be sculptural and also performative. How does your work explore and interrogate this, a liminal space.

SS: I think that my practice of constructing cut-out elements through pinning [them] to the wall is performative, engaged with liminal space, that place of transition not always knowing – a space in between. This unease has been made manifest from political and cultural ideas. I have a good collection of Balinese puppets, and a good library of books around puppetry. It’s always been an influence – I’ve been interested in Dada dolls and how artists, especially women, used puppets in their art as models to perform with, and how they used them to discuss or represent their ideas about gender and feminisation, and in some way the puppet acted out something for them. Many artists have been attracted to the representations of dolls and puppets. It might be said now that my cut-outs (the actual elements) themselves are puppets; this is becoming increasingly obvious as I work with video and animation. The liminal space – embodied in moving a puppet – or a cut-out element has become integral to my practice.

JMcK: Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet is one of my favourites, and I think of it when I look at your work, the spatial nature of your installations, movement in space, choreography.

SS: Yes, it is one of my favourites, too, and is relevant to the work I have done in relation to “cutting”, central to The Pedagogical Puppet project.

JMcK: Shadows are created as part of your work, and they are a strong visual and psychological presence: replete with reference. How great is chance in such works?

SS: How the shadows are manifested and how they move is dynamic, and I am interested in that. In making the Artists Dollsassemblages, I consider their elements with shadow projection in mind. My use of shadow puppetry in video is more recent and I am working through the various ways to manipulate this shadow space. Of course, I have for many years represented constructed shadows through the installation wall work, with various gradations of colour in the cut-outs to simulate layers of shadow.

JMcK: Höch has been an important and stated influence. When did you first see her work, and what inspired you?

I knew about Höch’s work years before you could even find a book on her in English. I remember the first time I saw her work in the flesh. I was in New York – I think it was actually in a Madison Avenue gallery for sale. I had tracked her work down because a German art theory lecturer in the late 1980s had recommended that I look at her work.  I really responded to it – initially, that she was a woman artist, a model, but also that her work is so brilliant, and she was such a precursor to many other artists of that period. Over the years, that engagement with her work has sort of grown through the use of collage in my own work. Her work embodies what I call the “politics of cutting”.

JMcK:The Pedagogical Puppet was the product of an important residency in America. Can you describe the ideas that it addresses?

SS: I was invited to the University of Connecticut, as its 2012 Raymond and Beverly Sackler artist in residence. I was to work specifically with the Puppet Arts Program at the university, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry and the School of Animation in the production of new work, with a solo exhibition in the university’s Contemporary Art Galleries (CAG) in 2012. My work based on women pirates had already been shown at CAG, as the director, Professor Barry Rosenberg, knew of my work from solo exhibitions – Flaubert’s Puppets(2011), Decoy Nest(2008)and The Exquisite Pirate(2006) – he had seen at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea, New York. During the residency, I produced new works, which included an exploration with time-based media and performance, titled The Pedagogical Puppet (Projects), and continued my research into choreographers’drawings, looking at how dance movement might be described and documented. It was a way of visually connecting the performative processes involved in making my work that led to me thinking about showing the process of my thinking/mapping/planning through diagrams and notes.

The works I made during this influential residency include: Choreographing Collage, a single-channel video, working with Marie Boyette, a choreographer trained in Laban techniques; she developed and performed a choreography based on her response to my cut-out works, which I made in response to Martha Graham’s choreography, costume and set design for the performance/ballet Appalachian Spring. There was voice from [University of Connecticut professor] Karen Ryker, reading from a Gertrude Stein text,Orta or One Dancing (a text portrait of Isadora Duncan.) The video combined my cut-out elements in a stop-motion animated sequence with dancers performing the choreography. I Build My Time was a blackboard installation wall work using chalk drawing, puppet elements, cut-outs and video screens.

The Pedagogical Puppet Instructions for Cutting and Tearing, a seven-minute, single-channel video combining shadow puppetry with chalkboard drawing and a reading from a text by Melbourne-based writer and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin, was commissioned to focus on cutting and, in particular, my interest in the neurosis described as “delicate cutting”. I worked with a group of puppeteers to produce a series of self-portraits, The Pedagogical Puppet,whichincludeda marionette of myself, a puppet performance, and a life-sized photographic work.

The works for Politics of Cutting addressed the idea of cutting something up and changing it, then reconstructing it, and then dismantling it and reconstructing it again, using the pin as an element, so everything is just one pin away from changing and being dismantled. Eventually, extending this work using medical metaphors to cut and dissect meaning, I became interested in the psychological condition called “delicate cutting” – the psychosis mainly afflicting young people, women in particular, at that transitional point around adolescence – in a way, that related to my collage – that it’s about revealing, not concealing. I am obvious about the cutting process I use; it’s not seamless [so it is] reinforcing the cut process as a capacity for change or transformation. As a feminist artist, this is political.

JMcK:The female roles of nurturing and teaching include puppets to enable the dissemination of ideas that perhaps don’t have a more public outlet. Are there implied or secretive ideas invested in your work?

SS: I am interested in early modernism and subjectivity. However, I wouldn't say secretive ideas are invested in my work. I am more interested in using the puppet to perhaps reveal things not said or seen – this is also part of their power and tradition.

Along with the sculptural works, the large-scale assemblages and wall tableaux (made of felt, canvas, silk-screened elements and everyday fabric), I combine a process-oriented practice of cutting, collage, photo-montage, staining and pinning as methodologies integral to the conceptual unfolding of my work, and relating to “femmage”, a term created by the American-based Canadian feminist and theorist Miriam Schapiro in the late 1970sto describe her collage works and derived for her politically as a term to discuss women’s historical connection to making and their multitude of techniques, including collage, photomontage and embroidery. I first referenced “femmage”in my workand linking to these political feminist origins in the series Femmage (Shadows and Symptoms)in 1996.

JMcK: Puppets from Mexican death figures to Punch and Judy can be confrontational and cruel respectively; Torres Strait Islander headdresses (“dancing machines”) are an essential part of indigenous ritual in Australia. What do your puppets personify?

SS: I like the idea of the artist body as performer and I am also interested in the importance of the body in relation to the movement and the masks – the fact that the artist and theatre were one; that the body was a mechanism for movement and art. My puppets – they are assemblages, artefacts and processes of performance (cultural, psychological and political), developed from my interest in the early avant-garde, and identified with the art practices of Cubism, Dada and Surrealism (Sonia Delaunay, Höch, Lyubov Popova and Taeuber), all great exponents of work with performance and puppets. I am exploring my process of making, drawing and cutting and how it might align to choreography, to image thinking in movement. I am interested in how a dancer’s movement at its extreme can transform emotional and psychological intensities, almost simultaneously.


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