Sally Smart: The Pedagogical Puppet

On a blackboard wall scrawled with writing, arrows, drawings and diagrams, are pinned assemblages of disjointed body parts, cut textiles, painted velvet, and abandoned puppets. In amongst this residue of mind mapping and mark making which has brought these elements to life, playing on a screen is an animated choreography of these figures interwoven with acts of drawing and cutting, and set to a voice over describing a dance. Sally Smart’s ‘The Pedagogical Puppet’ is intriguing and profound, as it both pulls apart and re-builds preconceived notions of the body and allows for new interpretations to be formed.

Developed by Smart during her 2012 Raymond and Beverly Sackler residency at the University of Connecticut, this is her first foray into working with time-based media. Smart’s distinctive style of fragmentation of the body through the act of cutting is one that translates perfectly to the medium of stop-motion animation. The result is a series of works that engage the thought-process, creation, enlivenment, and de-construction of a conceptually rich assemblage of histories, material and ideas.

Titled I Build My Time, the blackboard installation brings the aspect of the process which usually sits behind the making of an artwork, forward as a predominant aspect of the finished piece. The title itself speaks of the creation of a time-based piece – the process of planning, drawing, and teasing out ideas, as well as the labour-intensive time taken to create a stop-motion animation. Erasure is an important aspect of this: to create movement with still images, and to portray the pedagogical process through blackboard mark-making to express a chain of thought.

The puppets, suspended in the space, are objects that could spring to life at any moment. They become symbols of performance or animation, inhibiting a space between stillness and liveliness and object and performance, and asking questions: who controls them? What are their characters? What has happened here before?
The accompanying video work is made of several different components, including drawing, cutting, and dancing which bring her figures and lines to life through disjointed movement. At one stage, a collage-style dress is attached to a dancer and performed through a choreography. The cut-out dress remains separate from the body, as if it is being controlled by the dancer like a puppet itself. Or, is the dress in control of the body? The accompanying voice-over to this piece, ‘One Dancing’, is an additional description of the performance, and with segmented language and word play, further engages the blurred boundary between performer, object, audience, choreography, and the assemblage of these elements cut up and put back together in movement through space.

Smart has always used feminine materials, processes and form, often in dislocated and re-constructed ways, to comment on gender politics and explore political, psychological and aesthetic dismantling of female identity. The dancer is an extension of this into performance and movement, extending her feminist framework into a more focused and intense played out version of the body. Animation allows Smart to re-address these concepts in a more tangible communication of power, process and control.

‘The Pedagogical Puppet’ is complex yet playful. It’s aesthetic, language and form shows the process of creating an artwork, where this process has become the artwork itself – a quality of time-based media which is often left out of the frame. Smart manages to capture the thought process behind her conceptual interests, and use the intrinsic qualities of animation to articulate and build on these through transforming the space between object and process.

Greenaway Art Gallery
3 April to 5 May, 2013

Perform (Hair Movement #1), 2012,
synthetic polymer paint on canvas fabric with various collage elements, 213 x 117cm

Choreographing Collage (from The Pedagogical Puppet series), 2012,
single channel HD digital video, audio, 2:36 minutes

Courtesy the artist, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, and BREENSPACE, Sydney