Lisa Sammut

In Artist Profile 57, Lisa Sammut shared with Erin McFadyen her quest – generative, careful, and tenacious all at once – to find feeling and meaning amongst the gestures of the cosmos. Celebrating the opening of Sammut's FULL CIRCLE, at Mosman Art Gallery, we share the conversation as it wandered between ideas of choreography, chance, and the liveliness of matter.

I speak with Lisa Sammut from her Canberra studio. She tells me that the leaves of paper surrounding her in the space come mainly from the illustrated books which she has been sourcing and collecting, and then painting over, creating a kind of solution out of making and research. “I have a lot of these old books,” she says, “dating from the 50s to the 70s, that time pre-internet where if you wanted to learn about the world, you did so through these illustrated volumes. I’ve been using them to think about representational relationships, thinking about how to access really large concepts through tangible things.”

Sammut’s media are not usually paper and paint, as audiences familiar with recent works from The National: New Australian Art 2021, and the 2021 Ramsay Art Prize exhibition will know. Her large-scale installations, often incorporating animated video components, take movement as their definitive medium. “Movement is my primary tool for working,” Sammut says: “I see it as a material that I work with.” HIGH LOOM, 2019, which was installed at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, sees timber panels and planes gesticulating through the ceiling space of the gallery. The movement here is choreographed in part by kinetic motors, but also relies on momentum, happenstance, and the liveliness of objects themselves. Sammut “create[s] a situation where the parts move, but once it’s installed it takes on a mind of its own.” She “encourage[s] the movement, and then let[s] them live their lives.”

The timber bodies moving across HIGH LOOM feel celestial in their silent, orbital wanderings. They seem to “mean” – but this meaning that they do is intransitive, without any harshly prescribed or proscribed content. Sammut thinks, and often works, to the scale of the cosmic – which she understands as a “poetic, and optimistic, space.” Optimism in her work is a kind of promise that meaning can be found or generated from the terrestrial and extraterrestrial material around us without limit. 

Radical Sign, 2021, for instance, uses blue screening on a shot of the daytime sky to show two clouds – which Sammut refers to as the “protagonists” of the work – moving in communicative interaction with each other. Inspired in this instance by research into the Augsburg Book of Miracles, Sammut quite literally “grappled” with the relations between objects, movement, and meaning, using her hands and her humanness to do something on the border between finding and creating intelligibility amongst the cosmos. 

This quest for meaning amongst the cosmic – “a symbol of the unknown and the powerful” in the artist’s words – is one to which Sammut feels she can devote her whole practice, and indeed, as she tells me, her life. “I’m interested in using the cosmic as a way of pulling us out of the myopic tendency we have as humans,” she says: “to move myself and the viewer to a different space.” 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist and Mosman Art Gallery.

Lisa Sammut: FULL CIRCLE
4 January – 20 March 2022
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney

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