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Satirical ‘handmade theatre’ or sculpture in motion? Matthew Isaac Cohen muses on the many uses and abuses of puppets within contemporary fine art practice

In July 2006, London’s Tate Modern gallery screened two puppet films by contemporary artists, Laurie Simmons’ The Music of Regret (2006) and Pierre Huyghe’s This Is Not a Time for Dreaming (2004). In the same month and city, British conceptual artist Gavin Turk and his partner Deborah Curtis staged Waiting for Gavo, their puppet roast of Samuel Beckett and modern art icons Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol at the Hackney Empire. A mile south, the Fred gallery was showing a solo exhibition by Nayland Blake, an African-American conceptual artist who implicates puppets and garden gnomes in gay culture. Can this clustering of puppet-related contemporary art be written off as coincidence? Not really. Puppets are ubiquitous in contemporary art today. A major ‘puppet revival’ is underway.

Puppets and Modernism

The first wave of puppet modernism coincided with the colonialist appropriation of masks and other artefacts of exotic and folk art. Java-born symbolist artist Jan Toorop borrowed wayang kulit iconography for his 1893 drawing De Drie Bruiden (The Three Brides, 1893) to achieve an effect of ethereal flowing and other-worldliness. The artists of De Stijl likewise abstracted wayang kulit principles in paintings, animated sculptures and performances. Paul Klee constructed some fifty rough puppets inspired by European traditions of glove puppetry for his son Felix. Bauhaus and Futurist artists created abstract puppet spectacles using geometric figures. Picasso, Cocteau and Satie joyfully animated full-body puppets in their surrealist pageant Parade (1917) in stubborn disregard to the trench horrors of the Great War. Alexander Calder created mobile sculptures and performed his nostalgic, and only half ironic, Circus (1926-31) with small figures fashioned from wire.

Death to the Bogeyman

A late product of this first wave of modernism was Death to the Bogeyman (Mori el Merma, 1978), a collaboration between the Catalan-Spanish artist Joan Miró and Teatre de la Claca, a Barcelona experimental theatre and puppet company directed by Joan Baxias. This landmark production used monstrous, brightly painted body puppets and characters and situations drawn from Ubu Roi (1896) by Alfred Jarry, the French playwright, puppeteer, artist, novelist and theorist who was a major force behind the historic avant garde’s interest in puppetry. The play was intended as a collective act of exorcism of Spain’s long repression under the dictator Francisco Franco, a rite of reversal told through gibberish, squeals and knockabout comedy. Modern art lovers viewed it as a revelation: it was as if Miró’s surreal painted figures had sprung from the canvas to life, complete with six-foot-long arms, bloated torsos and grotesque snouts.

Though Miró died in 1983 at age 90, Baixas has occasionally revived Death to the Bogeyman with young performers. One such revival was presented by Baixas at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on 26 May 2006 under the title Merma Never Dies as a part of a long weekend of free public events dealing with the history of modern art. Despite the retitling, one did feel that this production, which used student actors from the European Theatre Arts programme of Rose Bruford College, was an historical remnant of an earlier artistic clime. An attempt at audience involvement was made with an opening parade through the crowded hall. (This parade was scheduled to begin by the outside footbridge, but inclement weather prevented this.) The performers then proceeded to a boxing ring stage erected in the hall’s centre, and performed a wordless farce of insurrection, prancing around and miming rude gestures. A documentary of the original 1978 production made by Francesc Català-Roca playing at the Starr Auditorium the same day showed Miró’s calculated spontaneity in the application of paint, the almost ritualistic reverence the young Catalan performers displayed for the master and the joyful sense of anarchy the performers took in appearing in public as animated figments of despair and desire. The revival, even though it faithfully reproduced a selection of figures, lacked a feel for the carnivalesque. The performers on the ground who surrounded the boxing-ring stage were more concerned with crowd management and safety than in bringing the audience into the action. A virile eruption of cruel theatre had been domesticated into a masterpiece for public consumption. The thrill of seeing resuscitated Miró figures quickly dissipated, and it was not long before my 8-year-old daughter and I were bored and restless.

From Modernism to Contemporary Art

The modernists culminating in Miró used puppets as a subaltern road to the unconscious, a critique of the machinations of industrial society, a route for escape into other worlds and a means to flout the propriety of bourgeois culture. European and American modernist artists grew up on Punch, Kasper and Guignol, and could rely on their audiences being familiar with traditions of street and music hall puppetry and related forms of variety entertainment. Puppets allowed the modernists to speak directly to their viewers in a language of intimacy.

Puppets in contemporary Western society occupy a different place entirely, and as a result contemporary artists who integrate puppets into their work use them in ways distinct from their predecessors. Children are exposed to puppets primarily through television, and associate puppets with learning the ABCs and simple moral lessons. For all the efforts being made by contemporary puppet companies to overturn stereotypes, puppets remain stamped by naivety and sentimentalism in the Euro-American collective conscious. The dominant view of puppets (which is the bane of performers) has been mobilized effectively by contemporary artists to critique norms of artistic production, restrictive social categories and hegemonic structures of fantasy.

African-American conceptual artist Nayland Blake queers puppets as one available instance of juvenile and kitsch mass culture. Others include cartoon rabbits and bunny suits, fancy dress masks, dolls and comic strips. Blake’s subversive project is to unsettle dominant viewing structures by juxtaposing popular cultural icons with the trappings of gay sex. Dolls are sewn together and stringed to form polymorphously perverse assemblages. Bunny rabbits out of Beatrice Potter and Warner Brothers cartoons are framed to critique preconceptions of the promiscuity of gay men. Puppets are impaled on poles, hung by chains, decapitated and turned inside out to mock sentimentality for the lost world of children’s play. While Blake occasionally performs as puppeteer in live art performances and video (e.g., Inside Vinyl Distress, 1986), his art is not dependent on narrative motivations. There is no need to know the historical genealogy of Wayland Flowers’ puppet creation Madame, who appears in a broken suitcase overflowing with discoloured artificial flowers in Nayland Blake’s Magic (1990-91). We are instead invited to participate in a homoerotic orgy of sadomasochistic violence against the mass culture which would like to drain anthropomorphic beasts and the uncanny arts of masks and puppets of all ability to provoke thought, instigate horror and arouse desire.

gavin turk

Gavin Turk likewise turns to puppets as a form of ‘handmade theatre’ to critique the circulation of images and the economy of art in his satirical Waiting for Gavo (2006) (reviewed in this edition of Animations [link]). Turk explains that his interest in puppets began as a father performing for his children’s birthday parties. A chance invitation to devise a performance at Cornwall’s Port Eliot Literary Festival inspired him to create a puppet show for adults using iconic figures of modernism and the iconic modernist play Waiting for Godot. Turk places two of his own greatest influences, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp, in the wasteland of Beckett’s Godot, exchanging quips and jokes on modern art subjects, playing off Beckett’s minimalist text. One of the big jokes is that when Scratchi (a thinly disguised portrait of Turk’s former patron, Charles Saatchi) arrives with Andy Warhol, the formerly despondent artists fall over themselves trying to sell the art collector their paintings. Turk and four of his colleagues perform the puppetry themselves, hooded bunraku-style, dolly waggling to pre-recorded dialogue. By reducing his own great artistic influences to puppets, Turk symbolically deflates their authority and ridicules the philosophical impetus behind their work as mere posturing.

French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe displays a more cerebral understanding of puppetry in his puppet film This is Not a Time for Dreaming (2004), shown in London as part of the artist’s Tate Modern solo exhibition Celebration Park. The film and the puppet performance it represented were commissioned by Harvard University to celebrate the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, a building designed by Le Corbusier. Huyghe interweaves the story of Le Corbusier’s project with his own bureaucratic and historiographic frustrations in devising a performance to represent the building as an eight-character, wordless marionette play.

pierre huyghe

Puppets allow Huyghe to capture the likenesses of real people: Le Corbusier, Huyghe, the Harvard officials responsible for the commissions, the author of a book about the Carpenter Center which provided Huyghe’s primary source. Using puppets also creates room for the personification of bureaucracy in the spectral figure of Mr Harvard, the ‘dean of deans,’ who bears a strong resemblance to the mutant cockroaches of the horror film Mimic. This ominous figure haunts not only the figure of Pierre but all the characters. In one scene, the puppet representing Linda Norden, responsible for Huyghe’s commission, is flown up into the air by Mr Harvard and dropped from a height. As the horrified Pierre looks on, Linda collapses in a heap, her head askew, her hair out of place. She survives the fall, and I almost could read resignation in her puppet face: this is how bureaucracy treats you. The play of figures is mirrored by the play of set. In a ‘mannerist dream’ Le Corbusier imagines the building to take form with architectural elements of previous buildings flying around the stage. When Pierre goes to the archives, the papers he examines are lifted by the wind and swirl around him. When the building has been completed, a bird drops a seed and the entire structure is enveloped by blackberry vines. Puppets allow for the fantastic world of imagination to co-exist with very material architectural forms and stolid bureaucracy.

In an ‘Epilogue as Prologue’ written and delivered by Liam Gillick, Huyghe’s bow-tied surrogate speaks of the puppet play as ‘a set of relation with no dialogue. A communication by proxy.’ The puppet functions for Huyghes much as it did for Kleist and Craig, as actors without ego, incapable of affectation or independent agency. Gillick speaks:

When you are invited to a place to make something that may or many not make a place better the question is not how well you can achieve the stated desires of those involved in that invitation but how to keep suppressing the self-consciousness of the act of thinking hard about what you might represent in terms of future content or past potentials.

Huyghe’s string puppets, like Craig’s über-marionette, give the illusion of action without desire, artistic mediation without sophistry.

Issues and Dilemmas

The problem for Huyghe, Turk and other contemporary artists who come anew to puppetry is that puppetry almost inevitably involves more rather than less ego. For a production to be successful, a director needs to take into account the (nearly always) unanticipated needs of uncomplaining figures (broken and tangled strings, cracked joints) and the concerns of manipulators, makers and the many ancillary personnel who bring life to puppets. Rolande Duprey, one of the manipulators of This is Not a Time for Dreaming, writes in an email how puppeteers were requested ‘to “rehearse” certain pieces, [but] when the actual filming came about, Pierre would re-direct and re-rehearse us, changing blocking.’ Huyghe stopped the first performance of the piece before a live audience and a film camera for half an hour to work ‘with the soundman to get the sound right. This would never have happened in real theatre,’ recounted Duprey. Without the good will of manipulators and audience alike, puppets cannot sustain an illusion of life.

An even more egregious instance of fetishising the puppet and forgetting the puppeteer occurred in Susan Hiller’s appropriation of Punch in her video installation An Entertainment (1990). The Punch and Judy College of Professors claim Hiller filmed Punch professors surreptitiously and included their work without their permission in order to indict Mr Punch as an agent of patriarchal violence. The claim was initially dismissed by Hiller and her representatives at the Tate initially claimed that as Punch was a ‘medieval ritual’ it was out of copyright and therefore could be excerpted at will. When legal action threatened, Hiller withdrew this claim and offered acknowledgment. Hiller admits to being traumatised by Punch, and aimed in her work to magnify the violence through an adjustment of scale, repetition and focus. In an interview with Stuart Morgan published at the artist’s website, Hiller states about An Entertainment that ‘We have to be in the centre of the action, and to be uncertain where the next images are coming from, to be confused.’ It seems this confusion extends to the artistic process as well. Hiller, who in other ways is a model of ethnographic artistic practice, egocentrically denies consciousness to the puppeteer. She forgets that Punch is a glove puppet, a costume for a human hand.

The moral challenges of puppeteers working with contemporary artists are clear, but the opportunities for redefining the practice and representation of puppetry are equally evident. Contemporary artists bring a new eye to old practices, and help puppeteers remember that their performance tools are also sculpture in motion.

Some contemporary art dealing with puppets, such as Paul McCarthy’s huge inflatable sculptures of Pinocchio displayed at the Tate Modern in 2003, is relatively easy to access. Much is not. DVD copies of This is Not a Time for Dreaming, The Music of Regret and or Mori el Merma are not available for purchase. Important puppet film and video work by contemporary artists such as Christian Boltanski’s Quelques Souvenirs de Jeunesse (1970), Christian Jankowski’s Puppet Conference (2003) and Kara Walker’s Testimony (2004) likewise cannot be viewed outside of rare exhibition contexts. An exhibition curated by Ingrid Schaffner and Carin Kuoni of contemporary art exploring imagery and metaphors of puppets will tour the United States starting in 2007. One can only hope it comes to Britain as well.

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