Cultural exchange, collaboration and historical research have shaped and formed the core of Sally Smart’s artistic practice over the last 30 years. Widely recognised for her innovative methods of collage and assemblage, Smart’s works bring a contemporary perspective to a range of visual traditions and ideas from art history. Amongst these are legacies of the European avant-garde, the ground-breaking work of the Ballets Russes, and the rich history of Wayang (Indonesian puppet theatre). Smart is also deeply engaged with tracing and acknowledging a feminist lineage in art, both through the act of cutting of historical materials, and also in her active search for and engagement with female predecessors to her practice.
‘The Violet Ballet’ is the artist’s latest exhibition and continues an engagement with these topics. Presented at ACE Open as part of the Adelaide Festival, ‘The Violet Ballet’ marks a new direction in Smart’s practice by moving towards video installation. The exhibition also represents Smart’s ongoing collaboration with writer Maria Tumarkin, who contributed text to the exhibition, and Billie Tumarkin and Brooke Stamp, who will both perform live as part of the opening of the show.
At the heart of ‘The Violet Ballet’ is a re-imagining and contemporary re-telling of ‘Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon)’, one of the most complex and divisive works from the Ballets Russes with original designs by artists Michel Larionov and Natalia Gontcharova and music by Sergei Prokofiev. The story of ‘Chout’ tells of the murder of seven wives by their Buffoon husbands under an eighth Buffoon’s false promise of bringing them back to life with a magic whip. When he fails to do so, he has to escape the wrath of the seven Buffoons by pretending to be a woman. The violence implicit in this ballet is referenced in the title of Smart’s exhibition, which is a play on alliterative words.
Smart was drawn to the narrative of ‘Chout’ for the ambiguous characterisation of the Buffoon as well as its nonsensical structure and hybridised story. There is certainly a feminist interrogation present in Smart’s re-telling of this ballet, which is clear through her use of female models and dancers to restage the work in the three-channel video. Confronting the problematic tale of ‘Chout’ can be further interpreted in the context of contemporary discussions around violence against women.
Another point of interest for Smart is the similarities between the Buffoon to the characterisation of Punakawan, the clown/servant who serves as ‘comic relief’ in Wayang. By her insertion of the Punakawan character into this work, Smart is acknowledging the long history of Indonesian shadow puppetry and the ways in which common narrative devices echo across cultures and time. This engagement with Indonesian visual history also reflects Smart’s ongoing relationship with artists and artisans from the region and her time spent there over the last seven years.
Through video, costume, performance and large-scale assemblages, ‘The Violet Ballet’ will transform the gallery space of ACE Open into an immersive installation that engages with theatre and the politics of performance. Smart refers to her large-scale textile installations as ‘curtains’, a terminology that reflects the language of theatre and how space is delineated on a stage. Rather than creating a firm boundary between audience and ‘stage’, Smart’s curtains are installed in a way so that the audience can walk around them and view them in different configurations and from different perspectives. They are also placed in front of one another to create a sense of depth and illusionistic space.
Several curtains are based on drawings of Larionov’s set designs for ‘Chout’, along with photographic images of the original costumes in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia digitally cut up, collaged, and re-constructed into curtains and costumes for Smart’s dancers. Other curtains are created from collaged archival images of contemporary dance and reconstructions of performance. Walking amongst these curtains, one could almost feel like they were engaging with real life-sized performers. It not only seeks to bring the story of the Ballet Russes to a new audience, but also to open the space for interpretation and analysis through the degradation of the source imagery.
The three-channel video work by Smart firmly brings this conversation around translation and the politics of theatre into the contemporary context. By working with performers and dancers to re-enact ‘Chout’ and incorporating text by Tumarkin, the video installation brings a fresh perspective to the source material. Similarly, it demonstrates a new direction in Smart’s artistic practice by combining digital technologies with collage and assemblage. Regarded in this manner, ‘The Violet Ballet’ points to the continuing influences that inspire Smart’s practice and also give a glimpse of what may yet be still to come.
Sophia Cai is a Melbourne-based curator, arts writer, public programmer and greyhound enthusiast.
2 March to 27 April, 2019