Sarah Smuts Kennedy’s most recent installation Shape Analysis (2013) consists of a network of suspended brass frames arranged at varying heights through out the gallery. Stainless steel wires drop seamlessly from the ceiling to catch the corners of the frames to form a series of transparent and formal stalactites. First shown at RM, an artist run space in central Auckland, the schema of Shape Analysis was informed by the process of mapping the gallery’s internal electro-magnetic fields such as telluric currents, man-made electrical currents and electromagnetic radiation, ley lines, and geopathic stresses, a process that has been developed further in Breenspace to form a new configuration. The resulting geometric form and terraced formation maps boundaries and points to provide a site-specific tool in thinking through space and testing the nature of perception – a reading of the unseen.
From a distance individual frames have a neutrality and apparent stillness that is both captivating and calming. The polished edges and lines of Shape Analysis could be interpreted as an architectural intervention or formal exercise; however, there are gestural moments in the work exposed through direct interaction and time given. Together the metallic frames float as if they were the surface of a clear pond shimmering in the sunlight, casting deep shadows and reverberating when you near their edge. Interaction with the frames’s open form by moving around, under and within the columns created by their suspension provides a reflection of ones grounded mass and an awareness of how individual bodily presence can influence ripples of movement in the structure of the work.
The kitset components of Shape Analysis are arranged through methodical instruction; however, characteristically of Smuts Kennedy’s new work it resists seriality. Just as literature and poetry are gestural triumphs over the bureaucratic use of solid language1, in recent years Smuts Kennedy has been working towards her own visual language through the prescription of structures for process, and material restrictions. After the parameters of a work are set, Smuts Kennedy tests the system for potential gesture. The artist refers to her parameters as ‘Problem Events’. Featuring alongside Shape Analysis is Thoughts on equilibrium (2013), which also tests the possibilities of gesture within the set material restrictions. Predrilled holes in a framed glass panel provide a prescribed volume in which the artist can push modelling material through. Additional restrictions on the process, volume, and rhythm of pushing are also imposed. The resulting mass is a line drawing that plays on the end perspective of a line being a dot. The dot being the hole in the glass, Thoughts on equilibrium humorously compresses the extruded lines’ depth of field to render it into a squiggly heap. A series of six – each work repeats the problem and produces a subjective result.
Dualities – the seen/unseen, seriousness/humour, structure/gesture – pervade these new works as evident in another series of line drawings entitled Problem Event. Three building blocks projecting on end from the wall are made out of increasing ratios of polyurethane to wood, from left to right. The gradual increase in composition from hard base to soft end tests the tipping point of their perceived rigid forms – the last work in the series ever so slightly flexing out of line with its peers. Minimalist in form Problem Event utilises gravity as a material-given to make its gesture. Like Shape Analysis and Thoughts on Equilibrium, Problem Event is a simple form that manages to create gesture through a dichotomy – hard meets soft.
The playfulness, abstraction and processes of Smuts Kennedy’s current works on first glance seem drastically different from previous bodies of works that traverse the diverse mediums of photography, film, painting, and sculpture with aesthetic references to, Dutch masters, Renaissance painters, and Baroque embellishment. Smuts Kennedy has recently completed a Masters of Fine Arts (first class honours) at Elam School of Fine Arts and her time in this programme has un-doubtedly seen the intense interrogation and workshopping of her practice – to which this recent work has been shaped. Smuts Kennedy’s aptitude to take up and run with new mediums and aesthetic references could seem non-committal, however, there is a constant stream of enquiry that is prevalent throughout her oeuvre to date – the interrogation of systems that define and impact on our present reality.
Previous bodies of works point to economic and environmental systems where extensive damage has already been done, for example Rubbish Paintings (2006) depict the pollution of forest landscapes in India and Cliff Hanger (2008) addresses coal mining in New South Wales. These earlier bodies of work attempt to challenge our faith in economic and material value systems that we are both interconnected to, but individually insignificant within. Similarly, Shape Analysis engages with faith based on unseen forces and/or principles. Faith, not in a sense of scripture or religion, but in a positing of and delight in phenomenology that can be measured yet little understood on an empirical level. In doing so, Shape Analysis challenges and plays with the perception of accepted truths and constructions of knowing.
Shape Analysis positions the gallery as an arena in which Smuts-Kennedy physically maps and plays with unseen forces. However, is Smuts Kennedy a voyant –‘someone who sees something not seen’?2 Indeed, the processes towards the production of Shape Analysis position the role of the artist playfully and sincerely within the realm of mapping and materialising phenomena for an audience. However, perhaps a more conservative role for Smuts-Kennedy would be that of the boarder crosser – someone with intellectual vision, criticality toward social structures and a sensibility for challenging boundaries.3 While, large terms such as globalisation, capitalism and religion have been attached to her work, Smuts Kennedy’s agenda in serving society is not necessarily as a ‘cultural worker’ and her work does not speak purely to social education and resonance.4 Moreover, recent practice has revealed a dominant self-reforming component in her work, where by processes are a means to understand more about her own force and will in the material world she engages with.
It is this immediacy of ‘cause and effect’ that dominates her new work and signals a departure from previous bodies of work. The views of display and process are no longer separated. Smuts Kennedy is now commentating while playing the game, as opposed to her previous works where she operated like a historian rendering a ‘given historical process comprehensible by the kind of tracking operation carried out by sport writers after a given game has been concluded’5 all the while being helpless to change the result. This change into the here and now sees Smuts Kennedy problematize larger systems through simple materials that are immediately tangible.