Dennis Oppenheim. Theme for a Major Hit, 1974. “The Puppet Show.” Installation view.
Institute of Contemporary Art
. University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler

Puppets, Mortality, Humor and Suffering;
Three States, Three Venues Explored

AOA correspondent: Artist Eva Mantell

The Puppet Show, Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pa, from January 18 to March 30, 2008; traveling to the Santa Monica Museum of Art; the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu; The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Frye Art Museum, Seattle.

Bianca Neve, Teatro del Carretto, LaMama E.T.C., NY, NY,
January 10 – 27, 2008; Teatro Araldo, Torino, Italy, April 18-19

Argonautika, The Voyage of Jason and the Argonaut
directed by Mary Zimmerman, McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ,
March 20 – April 6, 2008

Puppets look easy, child-like and direct. They are obviously about the body, about power, about imagination, about the self, about comedy and about mortality.

Any artist can drop in on this art form and give it a try. A puppet could be made from anything: your hands (Cindy Loehr gives us a video with talking fists which quickly reminds me of “The In-Laws” with Alan Arkin); your genitals (Guy Ben-Ner’s video gives a sometimes shy body part a star singing role); your whole body as you act like a puppet (Paul McCarthy, scary clown slopping paint around for us).

Puppets are about drawing and about sculpting too. Film, video, computer animation too. Robotics (Survival Research Laboratory lavishly blows up robots, which is certainly one approach). I think the thing vacuuming my neighbor’s home right now is a puppet. I’m pretty sure some of my children’s pets are puppets, that “live and die” by various digital reenactments of nurturing. And this month I had my first sighting of a Baby Think It Over Doll at, where else, the mall! A teenage girl, right out of an after-school special, is dutifully carrying her puppet baby, waiting for its electronic wail, her cue to turn a key in its back while it digitally records her mothering skills. Looking at her a little more closely: does she or doesn’t she? Is she also wearing a strap-on empathy belly?

Where, America, can you get a brain to strap on?

Memories can be strapped on or strung up: by Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, or by Dennis Oppenheim with his mini-me’s. Playing with dolls can transport you to the realm of fear. Natalie Djurberg’s romps in a cardboard world are kinda sick, kinda cruel, kinda cool. Kara Walker’s shadows time-travel into a conflicted, messed-up American history. Her elegant lines are an ironic pleasure, a facade for the crude sadism that is the real story.

“The Puppet Show.” Installation view. Left to right: Anne Chu, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith,
Annette Messager and Maurizio Cattelan in the background. Institute of Contemporary Art.
University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler

Take a break with someone else’s problems: Bruce Nauman’s dinner date gone yucky. Doug Skinner and Michael Smith’s potty mouths. The body and the world are about failure. Things regre ss then fall apart. Chaos was a greek proto-god who got in at the ground floor. Ubu Roi, an early expression of things gone ape-shit almost gives a classical feeling to stuff going beserk.

Ubu Roi and the Truth Commission, a play from South Africa, with William Kentridge on visuals, riffs on this little archaic psycho-policeman. The brutality of the regime, the document-shredding, the erasing of crimes, create, warp and envelop the testimony of the citizens’ suffering. This stuff is real and the art is just mediating the experience. Being good or bad art doesn’t matter so much as that it just is art, and art helps me be human in the face of unbearable absences of humanity.

Just do art, and keep it coming. Teatro del Carretto’s Bianca Neve (Snow White) at LaMaMa E.T.C. feels Medieval, distilled, sorrowful. A velvet lined box opens up in different ways to reveal shifts of scale, humor and suffering…from the miniature 7 dwarves to the terrifying full-scale actress portraying the witch/queen with an unmoving mask.

The mask that doesn’t move and the strings that don’t work are the stuff of nightmares. What we most need is agency in the world, connection, love, action and reaction. In the play Argonautika at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, early on, a marionette puppet of a baby wiggles its arms and legs making eager clicking sounds. I laugh at the repetitive, silly motions, but laugh too soon because now the king’s henchmen cut the strings, and leave it dead, noiseless, still on the stage.

Any fool knows that plaster, wood, screws and glue don’t add up to life, but puppet that I am, my heartstrings are pulled and here come the waterworks.

#permalink posted by Eva Mantell: 4/23/08 07:38:00 AM


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