University of Melbourne Magazine

Forging an artistic path

  • By Andrew Stephens

    Professor Sally Smart standing in front of a textile artwork.

    Professor Sally Smart

    As one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, Professor Sally Smart (MA (Fine Art) 1991, PGDipFineArt 1988) is deeply familiar with both the delight that is intrinsic to making her large-scale assemblages, paintings and performance-video works, but also the committed labour that underpins art-making as a profession.

    For much of her 35-year career exhibiting here and internationally, Professor Smart has been cutting things out — felt, fabrics and other materials — and re-assembling them in new, arresting forms that deal with identity politics, alternative cultural histories and the relationships between the body and the world. Likewise, as an art professional, she combines and adapts many skills and experiences. These were forged, she says, during her student years at the Victorian College of the Arts.

    The first woman artist to be appointed a Trustee for the National Gallery of Victoria (2001–08), Professor Smart was this year appointed to the council of the National Gallery of Australia; and, as well as being on the board of the National Association of Visual Arts, she is now a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music. In this one-year, full-time role — which she has taken quarter-time over four years (beginning at the end of 2016) — she brings her own practice into focus as part of her mentorship in the Faculty.

    The skills she shares, she says, flow directly from her VCA days when she learnt that there is “nothing like the lived experience of practising artists” to discuss those turning points and challenges with which all artists must grapple.

    “Critical thinking, and a commitment to the relationship of theory and practice, is an approach that was strongly embedded, and formative during that period,” she says. “To this day, it still informs the way I will discuss work with younger artists. I will always be referring to texts and focusing on their work in context with the history of art and contemporary thought.”

    “[There’s] nothing like the lived experience of practising artists.”

    Developing a strong relationship with Indonesian art and artists through her work in the past decade, Professor Smart’s dramatic inclusion of shadow puppetry, especially in her most recent body of work, The Violet Ballet, speaks eloquently. A mix of video projections, textiles, costume, performance and large-scale installation, The Violet Ballet has its roots in the dynamic, avant-garde Paris-based dance company the Ballets Russes (1909–29). Having realised how much hybridisation and multiple discourses were involved in the challenging Ballets Russes performances — they collaborated with visual artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Sonia Delaunay — Professor Smart also crossed many disciplines, with stunning, richly coloured results. She describes her own process as “digital cutting”.

    “For a long time, I have had an interest in the costumes visual artists created for the Ballets Russes, and I was interested to re-imagine the performance, presenting an opportunity to combine my increasingly cross-disciplinary practice. What was also extraordinary was that most of my collaborating artists are graduates of the VCA. The filming was also done on campus at the Martin Myer Arena.” The installation featured at the Adelaide Festival last March-April.

    More recently, she has been working with a publisher on a coming book about her career and, as a result of reviewing her decades of practice, she has noted various consistent threads running throughout. “Often, you are moving through work and one body of work will come out of another body of work,” she says. “But there will be something residual, so it is interesting to see how those strands have come together — over such a long time you don’t set out, of course, to do that, but eventually there seems to be something created that appears decisive, manifest.”