SALLY SMART with a new wall-work, at her studio in Melbourne, 2010. Photo by Kirstin Gollings for ArtAsiaPacific.

Where I Work

Sally Smart


For an artist who has attempted for three decades to systemize the amorphous characteristics of the body and the subjective, Sally Smart’s studio is an appropriate shape. A squat brick building hunched low on an inner city street in Melbourne, Smart’s studio is a former factory with a neat recessed door, punctuated by a head-like circular window.

As a feminist of the movement’s sweeping, uncompromising 1970s second wave, Smart has watched subsequent generations pick and choose their politics, but she has held fast to her ideals, and her expectations. In the studio, spread across three large white walls, are collaged assemblages of velvet, felt and screen-printed fabrics. Destined for June’s Art Basel fair, this series of pinned, tucked and patched materials unifies in the form of reaching, tiptoeing and extended women, weaving in and around similarly fragmented tree trunks. Seemingly incomplete, these life-size, collaged figures are uncomfortable and aspirational, reaching up and out of the frames. One of them has cutout letters that spell “Radical Feminist” pinned to her underskirt, and screen-printed branches in her photocopied hands. It is unclear if she is reaching for them or hanging from them for support.

Trees and branches thread a common course through Smart’s work. To the artist the tree embodies an alternative to the linear course of conventional time and society—it presents a winding way of looking at progress. Her most recent series to feature the tree, the rambling assemblage “Decoy Nest” (2008), was exhibited in New York at Postmasters Gallery, and is currently on show at Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide.

This desire to understand herself and her work through the idea of systems, both theoretical and natural, is a clear constant in the studio. The agitation of ideas and ephemera is alive and electric in her mobile, purposefully meandering processes. Just as the words that are scattered down the notebook page on her studio wall seem to have been pinned in place, caught quickly and permanently anchored before evaporating, so it is with her work. She layers and pins, detaches and attaches, adhering a mélange of tactile and palpable materials to a surface, whether it is an expansive gallery wall or the contained, more conventional confines of a rectangular canvas.

Smart shows me “The Exquisite Pirate” (2004–09) series, which has been shown at Amelia Johnson Contemporary and OV Gallery in Shanghai, made up of collaged heroines of the high seas, compiled from an unlikely collection of glossy magazine cutouts, felt, fabric and screen-printed glimpses of the figure. We begin to talk about a forthcoming project to be shown in Melbourne and Beijing, “No Name Station,” for which she will spend ten days living with the Gija people at Warmun, an Indigenous community in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Before parting, we discuss earlier strategies that artists have used to deconstruct patriarchal systems, in particular Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s seminal feminist art film Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). Constructed entirely in slow 360-degree pans, this film is an attempt to tell a woman’s story by drawing on the circular, cyclical, biological imperative of the female body. Outside the studio we study a bird’s nest that Smart found in her garden. It now rests on an upended plinth. Tenderly she turns it about and we admire the instinct that tells birds to build robust structures from the random detritus in their environment. Out on the street, I happen to look back at the studio. There it is again, the perfect circular window that punctuates the entrance to Sally Smart’s working world.