Artist profile: Sally Smart

Written by: Fiona Gruber
Feminism is at the heart of Sally Smart’s work. Her use of collage and assemblage in different mediums and materials, although resulting in large installations on public display, also explore the private world of pattern-cutting and home making and the crafts traditionally associated with women.
‘I use the technique of cutting and pinning to emphasise this’, she says, ’the unstable nature of identity’. Her feminism encompasses many other facets too, what she describes as the relationship between the body, thought and culture.
They’re part of a narrative of neglected women’s histories, she adds; and also part of a world of transcultural exploration, fairy tales and subversive narrative threads that she reimagines and reassembles in her work.
When I talk to Smart, she’s at work in her North Melbourne studio. She spends a lot of time on the road but right now she’s engaged in several projects at once.
‘One piece bleeds into the next then leads on to something else,’ she explains.
The one she’s most eager to talk about is her exploration over the past few years into the pioneering work of the early 20th century Ballets Russes.
The National Gallery of Australia holds a major collection of the company’s costumes and she’s been reimagining them, creating new narratives in a series of exhibitions.
The company drew its inspiration from Russian folk tales and was ground breaking in its collaborations with composers and artists.
They’ve led to several collaborations for Smart too; a residency in Yogyakarta in 2015 led to the use of Wayang shadow puppets and collaboration with Indonesian artisans to recreate costumes from the Ballet Russes ballet Chout or The Buffoon.
The costumes, originally designed by avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were stunning, she says but the Ballets Russes dancers went on strike because they were too heavy to dance in.
This wasn’t the case at her recent show at the Adelaide Festival, The Violet Ballet.
This uses the costumes from Chout and although there’s no choreography her exhibition became a performance piece with dancers, video and poetry.
‘I feel like I’ve been running a ballet school,’ she jokes.
Smart often uses analogies with other disciplines to explain how she works.
She compares herself to an architect – ‘my work’s all about building things, assembling’ – when talking about Assembly (Daughter Architect) a recent show at Melbourne gallery Sarah Scout Presents.
At another residency, in Connecticut, she studied the work of choreographer Martha Graham and dance theorist Rudolf Laban and that’s influenced the way she works, too.
‘I realised choreographers operate like me, assembling body parts, using space and documenting with drawings and photographs’, she explains.
So is this work with dancers, puppeteers and video-makers a radical departure?
Far from it, she says; ‘It’s all part of my practice. ‘I’m a product of my time, with an emphasis on diversity of practice’.
At times, she adds, her studio is like a rehearsal space and she feels like a puppet master; but running a three-ring circus is an aspect of her work that she thrives on. ‘I love collaborating; it opens things up for them and opens them for me.’