“What can puppets do that humans can’t?” queries the stuffed-cat-with-movable-arms moderator of “Puppet Conference,” a film by Christian Jankowski, on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art. “The Puppet Show,” ICA’s current first-floor group exhibition, explores the range of puppet imagery and ability through puppet-inspired artwork, films of various forms of puppetry, and of course, actual puppets. It’s a quirky mesh of limbs and armature, sculpted heads and exaggerated expressions, which together take on a life of their own.
“Puppet Storage” opens the show, a backstage closet of historical and contemporary puppets, props and images. From traditional Indonesian shadow puppets used to enact epic Hindu stories to Andy Warhol’s hand-puppet models of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the selection of items points to a diverse world of puppetry, full of sarcasm and social commentary as well as careful handicraft and attention to detail. The collection of puppet paraphernalia sits on innocuous wooden shelves, inanimate objects so full of latent personalities that a viewer can’t help feeling watched. Many of the objects relate to the artwork in the main gallery, with artists providing preliminary sketches or actual props used to create their artwork. This self-reflective background information reveals the ubiquitous human behind every puppet and enhances the theatricality of the performances.
The main gallery space hosts a mix of video works and sculptural installations with occasional photographs and drawings. The various pieces embody both the movement and narrative of theater and the still abstraction of an art gallery, so that puppetry emerges as a mixed-up blend of visual and dramatic arts, a combination of the abstract and the representational. By using constructed, artificial characters, the stories remove themselves slightly from the realm of reality and yet, from that distance, comment so pointedly on human experience. Although Lambchop and the Muppets make occasional appearances, the exhibition has a decidedly adult spin, removing puppetry from mere childhood entertainment and using the medium to explore complex concepts.
In Cindy Loehr’s video installation “The Colloquy,” the most basic of hand-puppets – bare fists with rhinestone eyes and a thumb jaw-line – carry on a subdued lovers’ quarrel, with one hand doing all of the talking while the other emotionally withdraws. Shown on such a large scale, these simple characters take on surprisingly human characteristics in their enactment of a plausible conversation.
Guy Ben-Ner’s film “Elia: The Story of an Ostrich Chick” bizarrely merges puppet and actor, as humans dressed in ostrich costumes act out a coming-of-age story about an adolescent ostrich and her ostrich family. The costumes only cover the lower halves of the actors’ bodies, with the ostrich heads moved by sticks held in the actors’ hands, so human torsos and heads overlap with ostrich bodies and legs. Since the costumes face backwards – the actors walk in reverse to make the ostriches appear to go forward – the distinction between bird and person becomes even more distorted. Often, the human facial expressions, especially on the younger children, mimic the actions of the ostrich characters, further blurring the boundary lines between real and artificial.
Kiki Smith turns human into puppet in “Nuit” by dissembling the human figure and suspending arms and legs from the ceiling, stopping inches from the floor. The white plaster casts are empty of pulse or energy, unable to move unless someone would tug on the ropes. Even then, in the absence of body or face, the limbs resist anthropomorphizing, remaining devoid of the personalities typical to puppets. The effect is both elegant and faintly disturbing.
From Dennis Oppenheim’s mechanical puppet clones in “Theme for a Major Hit” (the suited men periodically jitter around the floor) to Kara Walker’s paper silhouette film confronting the history of racism and its lingering violence, the range of puppet-imagery is engaging and challenging, drifting from whimsical to disconcerting, simple to astoundingly complex.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, March 5, 2008