The Pedagogical Puppet: Sally Smart explores time-based media

This fall Australian artist Sally Smart, known primarily for her large-scale collages, was the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Artist-in-Residence at the University of Connecticut where she worked with professors, students, and volunteers to create “The Pedagogical Puppet,” an installation of video, drawing, collaged puppets, and performance–her first foray into time-based media. Graduate students and faculty from the Department of Art + Art History (Anne D�Alleva, Barry Rosenberg, Kathleen Deep, Allison Footit, Talia Shabtay, Russell Shoemaker, Micah Sizemore, and Ally Walton) conducted the following interview in which Smart discusses her longstanding interest in puppetry, narrative, and her move to time-based media.

One of Sally Smart�s �artist dolls�

University of Connecticut Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG): You�ve worked mainly in wall installations for many years, so time-based media is new territory for you. How have you developed the idea of narrative in these new time-based works?

Sally Smart (SS): I don�t have much past experience in bringing in a narrative or a particular story. I never like it when people say I�m creating a narrative with the still cutouts. I�m always trying to subvert the narrative�the �narrative� really exists in what people bring to the work. There�s a backstory that is driving the work for me, but I don�t ever really see it as being something that I want you to read really specifically.

But the nature of this new video work does imply narrative, there�s no doubt about it�the cutouts� movement in space, the implication of relationships. In this project I actually incorporated narrative in a way I�ve never done before. But once I got into the idea of the voice and of the narrative, I still wanted there to be an abstraction. I still wanted the work to exist autonomously. I didn�t want to illustrate the texts the voice actors were reciting (for instance the one by Gertrude Stein)�I wanted to visually imply the text in a poetic and abstract way. It�ll be interesting how I deal with that moving forward, because this new work seemed to work quite well with text!

CAG: In terms of your background and interests, what got you thinking about the puppet-like aspect of your work?

SS: I have a good collection of Balinese puppets, and a good library of books around puppetry. It�s always been an influence�I�ve always been attracted to H�ch�s Dada dolls and what was it about why those women artists in that particular period made those constructions, and whether they had a relationship to gender or feminization in some way, or did it have the capacity to act out something for them. I think a lot of artists have been attracted to representations of dolls, which then has led through to puppets�the puppet is really about movement, and I move so much in the act of constructing my work that it seems to be a natural dimension.

Marie Boyette, assistant professor-in-residence, dramatic arts, rehearses a dance sequence for �The Pedagogical Puppet: Projects by Sally Smart.� (David Cool �12 (SFA)/UConn Photo)

I grew up in the south of Australia on a rather remote property, and I was at a school in the area where you worked in correspondence� One of the teachers, her husband had a ventriloquist doll in a suitcase, and when he visited the doll would come out of the suitcase, and it was the scariest thing I had ever experienced in my life as a young person. So I always had this weird connection between the idea of puppets and suitcases. I think it�s quite ironic that finally this work with puppetry at UConn is a coming-together of those ideas. But also because of that I�m interested in the performance of the suitcase and the works coming out of it, and the fact that it�s more pedagogical.

CAG: Looking at some of your past projects, one of the questions that arises is how some of the issues relevant in your earlier work informed your interests in puppetry and performance now in this new body of work.

SS: The closest would have to be the Dada Puppen works, which I made beginning in 1998 or 1999. Also, just thinking about stop motion animation in relation to the way I make the installation works, the various cutout elements and my filming them and documenting them [in my studio so that they can be reconstructed in the gallery]. It�s such a natural progression to want to activate that more into film. I guess it�s come through partly from the subject matter or the content of that work from the early constructivists, looking quite specifically at female artists and the Dada dolls, especially the work of Hannah H�ch.

CAG: Hannah H�ch is an important influence on your work; could you talk more about that, about the aspects of her work you really connect with?

SS: I knew her work years before you could even get a book on her in English. I remember in New York, I think the first time seeing her work in the flesh was actually in a Madison Avenue gallery where you could buy the work, and it wasn�t that expensive�I mean I couldn�t afford it, I was a young art student, but it was certainly out there and available. So that was the very first time I tracked her work down and I just really responded to it. Mainly, I think, that she was at last a woman artist who was in Dada�it was really that basic in the very beginning. But then her work is so brilliant, and was really such a precursor to many other artists of that period. Over the years that engagement with her work has sort of grown�it grew quite a bit through the use of collage in my own work. It�s what I call the �politics of cutting.�

Sally Smart, “The Pedagogical Puppet” 2012, video. Running time 15:51.

Sally Smart, “Instructions for Cutting,” 2012, video. Running time 6:42

CAG: That�s an intriguing idea, cutting as a political act.

SS: I�ve often been interested in cutting as a process around transformation�my very earliest cutout works were in 1989-1990, and they were all about Mis- : �Mis-fit,� �Mis-match.� They were based on the idea that these constructions were constructions of identity�they were like the pedagogical paper dolls where you change the shirt and skirt or et cetera�around that in the very beginning, my first cutouts came from that. Then I began to use it as a model for taking things apart and pinning them and putting them back together�it progressed through that. But the politics of cutting were really around this idea of cutting something off and changing it and then reconstructing it, and then dismantling it and reconstructing it again, and using the pin as a fusative element, so everything is just one pin away from changing. Unlike H�ch, who tended to glue everything down. Everything was unpinnable and dismantleable in many fragments.

Sally Smart, Stick Figure (old one), 2008,
synthetic polymer paint and ink on linen and fabric with collage elements
71 x 26 inches

And then I also connected that to the psychological condition called �delicate cutting,� which mainly afflicts women�it�s a psychosis. (There�s also a �coarse cutting.�) Delicate cutting is the cutting of flesh, usually on the wrists or plucking eyelashes or eyebrows�it�s usually a part of the body that�s visible, and it�s apparently a very cathartic process for an individual. It�s about showing and revealing the marks rather than concealing them. In a way that�s related to my collage, in that it�s about concealing rather than revealing. So thereby reinforcing the instability of things, or their capacity for change or remodification or transformation.
CAG: I wanted to follow up on this neurosis of �delicate cutting� that you�ve mentioned, and how it�s a particular form of self-harm that is found almost exclusively in young women. How do you feel about the cutting of paper and cloth as a gendered activity? How are the politics of your own cutting distinctively female?

SS: The methodology of the cutouts, which I cut and assemble and pin to the gallery wall�this started off many years ago as an idea about identity, way back in the 90s, the idea that identity is fragile�that if you take one pin away, the whole thing can be reconstructed. This idea manifested itself increasingly over the years, especially looking at the psychological dimensions in my work.

Especially originating in Dada, to cut is to transform, to cut is to change, to cut is to radicalize. So from a feminist point of view I was interested in making cuts that are dramatic, sometimes small, sometimes large�but always being in control of the cutting. To control and reconstruct, whether what you�re reconstructing is history or culture or psychology.

I started looking into this psychosis called �delicate cutting� mainly afflicting young women at that transitional point around adolescence. It�s self-harm, the scarification of the body�a tangent from body modification like tattooing in some ways. For someone who has this psychosis, who is a �cutter,� the act of cutting the body is very cathartic. Often the marks are on a part of the body which is quite visible, and that�s part of it�showing the marks. Because my work has always been interested in showing the marks of repair, showing the marks of darning, it was almost like an unconscious wish. So it�s there, simultaneously present and absent�

When I arrived at UConn I was interested in images of hands, especially working with dance. We focused on the cutting and the hands, and me cutting something out with scissors�but there�s also this whole discourse around cutting, and a poem text around it as well. Cutting so nothing ever stays the same. It�s been really wonderful to explore this notion of cutting through this body of work.

CAG: Your work interacts very potently with historical influences�Hannah H�ch, as we�ve mentioned, and Martha Graham, among others. On the one hand there�s something very tactile about the works you�ve created here, but in a way that isn�t at all mutually exclusive with being conceptual. How do you work to integrate tradition and innovation?

SS: I think I�ve talked about that just with regard to history and the elements I use�but there is also that very strong aspect of the psychological as a link, with this embodiment� when I�m making these particular works, they have a really strong connection to drawing in the way they�re made and conceived. They�re rudimentary, quite immediate�the scoping out of various elements to make form.

When I�ve researched the idea of pedagogical puppets, I found information on Steiner, for whom puppetry was a really major part of his philosophy around how to make connection, how to reveal certain aspects of human discourse, and in a way that�s sort of what we�re talking about here. I think he had a very specific, very particular repertoire. His idea was, it was very much a way to teach and link with history and innovation and contemporary thought.

I also have been thinking about the choreographer Lavin, and the idea of drawing as a way to follow movement, a theoretical system around that� I mainly came to Lavin through the drawings and the ideas of how to image movement and how choreographers might image dance.

CAG: Regarding your collages, I was curious on your process�if you start with drawings or if you start from the materials themselves.

SS: The materials are generally constructed. I usually have models�there�s some collation of imagery firstly around the ideas, and then from the imagery I build up and might need more specific detail, some models, some drawing. But mainly a raft of materials that then get gathered together and then get worked on. Once that�s all brought together I start to create the assemblage and collage from that, and the direction comes once it starts to be made. Sketches probably before and during for holding ideas, but not necessarily saying �I�ll make this.� It�s more process oriented.

For “The Pedagogical Puppet” there is a sense of play, of not everything being as it seems, of engagement with the material, a definite engagement with objects. There is a surprise element.

CAG: How do you think shadow and the idea of performance are in dialog in your work? One thing that I am thinking of is how the viewers of the hanging puppets, how their shadows will interact with the shadows of your work, and that could be a great surprise.

SS: Yes, exactly. I actually love that. When I�m making my works, I�ll often have somebody stand in the work�I love that relationship even in the still works in large installations. I really enjoy the work�s engagement with people in space, and think it�s sort of inherent. I�m extending the ideas around the performativity of that practice, but also the relationship of the figures in space. The shadows overlap as well�they�re a bit spooky, actually! (laughs) The works are set up to turn slowly, but there is also quite a nice amount of movement that just happens as people walk through the space. When people move through the space it helps activate the work�just the natural flow beyond what we might do by design.

CAG: Interactivity is obviously important.

SS: Yes, and also complexity and historical references. I keep thinking of the word �pedagogical,� and I�m looking at bringing in issues related to women as well� the tradition with puppetry is that it would be a way of delivering complex and difficult material to people, sometimes verbally and sometimes pictorially. I�m interested in that history of the puppet and pedagogy.

CAG: The pedagogical element is so powerful because puppetry is a dialog�it calls for both performer and audience. There�s so much inherent potential for chaos and improvisation embodied in the material form of the puppet.

SS: That�s very much what happened when I held a residency in a community in the far north of Australia, with some Chinese artists, working with children, and we ended up making these shadow puppets and this really improvisational performance. The kids had never seen anything like it in their life�we made this story about the kids playing football and the football turning into the moon, and from the moon came a magician out of a suitcase.

I quite liked this improvisation from things we found in the bush, and cardboard�the kids were really used to using cardboard, and they have these dances where they use dance boards. They already had a familiarity with that simple material�and the children just took their improvised puppets behind the screen and started to play with them. That was really wonderful�so much better than the play that we organized for them�of course it was!

CAG: It�s fascinating to see overt elements of interactivity and performance come into your work for “The Pedagogical Puppet”�especially as you engage with the idea of dance, and the places where the lines might blur between dance and puppetry.

SS: I like the idea of the artist as performer. There are these wonderful Torres Strait masks where a lot of elements on the mask move�on this island they call them �dancing machines��it�s a great title, isn�t it? I have actually not seen those particular ones performed, but it�s a very big part of indigenous Australia. I also like the idea of the dance machines being very economical, in a way�there�s lots of different versions of these masks, things open up and clap�I think they�re quite fascinating. I was interested in the importance of the body in relation to the movement and the headdresses�the fact that the artist and theatre were one; that the body was a mechanism.

I saw a Rich Tuttle show, and he was definitely making reference to the northwestern indigenous masks�the structures and parameters that he made reminded me of the skeletal structure of for instance a Punch and Judy. If you take away the cloth, the armature that�s left is quite interesting. I really responded very much to the materials and the abstractness and the drawing that was in there, but the armatures, I found them quite like little stages.

CAG: One of the things that interested us about your work is that of course there are these underlying themes of gender and the question of performance and subjectivity and all of these issues, but they are always married with an emphasis on materiality. It seems like you�re really invested in a sense of playfulness and sometimes a whimsical aspect. We saw those two things working together.

SS: I also think, around subjectivity and early modernism, there�s still a lot of territory still there. Modernism wasn�t strong on subjectivity, really�I think there�s been quite a lot of revisiting and revision around subjectivity, and especially its relationship to women artists. Just recently there is more writing and research around that, and more artists responding to that. As for the materiality, yes, I am interested in�whimsy is a word that often does get used, I think whimsy may be more humor�I think that sometimes color and everything like that is for a reason, it always has a conceptual base�nothing is done without it being considered.

CAG: Your work with CAG has involved a lot of collaboration with artists and technicians from across the university. Are you used to working collaboratively, or was this a new experience for you? How has your usual artistic practice adapted to the collaborative process?

SS: I�m not used to working in such an extensively collaborative way. I�m more used to directing people in terms of fabrication. I�ve worked with others in achieving exhibitions and visions, but in terms of scale and complexity and the time frame, this experience has been the most intense. For “The Pedagogical Puppet” there was certainly a collaboration of experience and technical skills�bringing forth ways of application of these skills, ways of experimentation, ways of invention even. It required working across a range of media that I�m actually not familiar with, so it was much riskier to find out what the outcomes would be. Ultimately I had to come up with the work and the concepts behind it�I was directing my conceptual framework and the methodology, and the ideas that I originated brought in ways of making and doing from those I was working with. It wasn�t a conceptual collaboration as such, but the collaborators brought something to the project in a big way�Marie [Boyette]�s dance and choreography, Karen [Ryker] in voice�and it allowed my vision to be realized.

I think it was the most collaborative with Barry [Rosenberg]�he had a vision, and I had a vision, and we worked together to achieve it.

CAG: He was the producer, you were the director.

Yes, that exactly!


“The Pedagogical Puppet” is scheduled to travel to New York, London and Hong Kong. Smart is represented by Postmasters in NYC.


Special thanks to Barry Rosenberg and the Contemporary Art Gallery for sharing this interview, which was edited by Micah Sizemore and Ally Walton. Transcribed by Micah Sizemore.


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