Smart's East-meets-West immersive puppetry exhibits delight in Bali

Richard Horstman

Artivist, observes and reports on developments in the Bali and Indonesian art scenes


Jakarta   /  Tue, June 26, 2018  /  12:08 pm

Puppets are suspended at the Tony Raka Art Gallery in Sally Smart's solo exhibit, 'The Choreography of Cutting'. (Honold Fine Art & Evelyn Pritt/File)

Australian contemporary artist Sally Smart has a long and enduring bond with Indonesia, having first exhibited in 2005 at the Jogja Biennale.

“I have a special fascination in shadow theater, and have had a collection of wayang kulit puppets for many years. This has inspired my interest in the representation of the shadow world, and its storytelling dimension, across cultures,” Smart said. “I visit Yogyakarta regularly, where I have formed relationships with artists and artisans who I continue to collaborate with and engage in immersive dialogue and practice, examining cultural history and the commonalities in the post-colonial world discourse.”

In 2012, as the Sackler Fellow at the University of Connecticut, United States, Smart worked with the School of Puppet Arts and in animation at the Digital Media and Design school, learning shadow puppet techniques and creating a series of works that also included moving images.

Her puppet creations are a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. The artist is also inspired by the seminal European avant-garde artists of the Dada movement, along with Constructivism philosophies. She positions early-20th century experimental choreography, costume and theater design alongside traditional Indonesian shadow puppet performances.

The "immediacy and simplicity" of collage as a potent contemporary art is often overlooked. The practice of cutting out and reassembling, taking from one source to complement another, is a disruptive, yet highly creative method with limitless potential. For Smart, it is the foundation of communication for her artistic ideas.

“The cutout methodology has been a strong part of my practice since the early nineties – the expression of a cutout – aligns silhouette and the shadow play conceptually and technically,” she said.

Honold Fine Art (HFA) presents Smart’s most recent offerings in parallel solo exhibitions at two different venues in Bali. From June 19, The Choreography of Cutting has been showing at the Tony Raka Art Gallery, Ubud, and P.A.R.A.D.E. at BIASA in Kerobokan.

Her work "speaks" about the human body as a vehicle of expression through movement, performance and gesture, revealing collective and individual anxieties while questioning the status quo.

At a glance, the two shows appear worlds apart, yet they are innately connected, with P.A.R.A.D.E. being the perfect synthesis of Smart’s two works exhibited in Ubud. On display at Tony Raka is Chout Ballet Curtain, (The Choreography of Cutting), 2018, an enormous 350-by-900 cm wall hanging, in which abstract organic forms and imaginary landscapes come alive upon Smart’s colourful textile curtain that includes dye-transfer photographic prints on satin and chiffon, with multiple collage elements. And Puppets (The Choreography of Cutting), 2016-18, is a mixed-media installation of over 30 abstract suspended puppets of varying dimensions with movable parts.

P.A.R.A.D.E. is inspired by Smart’s encounter with the immense stage curtain Pablo Picasso painted for the ballet Parade in 1917, which was on display in Rome in 2017. In Smart’s P.A.R.A.D.E., which features Parade (In Being Dancing), 2018, Staging the Studio (Blaubart &Pina), 2017-18, and Drama (Staging the Studio), 2018 – all floor-to-ceiling curtains with photographic dye transfers on textile with collage elements – a troupe of figures are represented on transparent textiles, intersecting and overlapping to create multiple images of performance.

While Chout Ballet Curtain is predominated by strong colors and dense, "heavy" fabrics, the illusory impact emphasizes the laws of gravity grounding the observer to the floor.

P.A.R.A.D.E., on the other hand, has the opposite impact. Its multiple see-through films are soft and delicate, soothing to the eye, while its transparent qualities with layered figures appear sensual, a most potent allure.

Air-conditioning choreographs gentle rhythmic waves of motion across the curtain’s surfaces that are seemingly engaged in a dance of their own, and we become captivated in the dynamic interplay of Smart’s layered translucent "performers". Our vision is then drawn upwards, allowing us to feel elevated and expansive. The beauty and simplicity of the material is seductive; our experience is potent and ethereal.

One of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, Smart is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. She is currently the Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and a board member of the National Association for the Visual Arts. She is represented in significant international public and private art collections. Recognized internationally for her large-scale cutout assemblage installations and, increasingly, performances, Smart’s artistic practice engages identity politics and the complex relationships between the body, thoughts and cultures.

The most delightful aspects of Smart’s work are the opportunities for audience interaction and personal art experiences. Her installations invite the observer to venture closer, to wander within and take part in a make-believe other world. In response, some people become animated in their own intimate performance, which has the potential to touch them deeply while being coded into their memories.

“I am interested to observe the audience physically engage with my work,” said the artist. “As performance and movement are embedded conceptually in the works, the feeling of movement and dance within the space becomes manifest with the puppets and the curtains, making it feel dynamic and engaging. I was excited to see this.”

Asked if she believed that society would gain greater benefits through contemporary art as artists sought out new avenues to create more positive opportunities for fresh and personal audience art experiences, Smart responded: “Yes, always, when something is triggered, even the slightest gesture, to reveal and present possibilities for news ways of thinking an engagement in all aspects of society. Art makes essential pathways.” (kes)

What & whereThe Choreography of Cutting, Tony Raka Art Gallery, Jl. Raya Mas 86, Mas, Ubud; P.A.R.A.D.E. at BIASA, Jl. Raya Kerobokan 51X, Kerobokan

When: From June 17-July 17, 2018