Some contemporary art exhibitions benefit from a simple, constrained premise, and ‘The Puppet Show’ was clearly one of them. No real confusion about what lies ahead as your mind scrolls through all the numerous puppet projects that you have seen over time. Curated by Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and Carin Kuoni, Director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, this quirky show explored the puppet as proxy, prosthetic, alibi and childhood bugbear.
Entering the exhibition, one traversed a theatrical ‘backstage’ wooden construction designed by Terence Gower, where Andy Warhol’s hand puppets of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon greeted visitors and introduced the rest of the puppet community, a smattering of which was displayed on shelves behind chicken wire. I couldn’t help but recall the terrifying delight that Punch and Judy shows provoke, with their rancorous childhood conflicts and traumas played out in cloth, wood and lots of stuffing. I was suddenly immersed in a world of small and large creatures alike (ants, monsters, large-lipped children, rickety Victorian crones, a dangling ostrich). One small video screen played Lotte Reiniger’s animation Prince Achmed (1926), while another showed the band Japanther playing in their marionette collaboration with Dan Graham and Tony Oursler, Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty (2004).
Clearly puppets come with a certain creepiness factor. Indeed, the creepy and the contemporary have been friends for a long time. The introductory wall text cited Alfred Jarry’s staging of Ubu Roi in 1896 as a signature moment, when a puppet for grown-ups danced around a Parisian theatre uttering the popular expletive ‘merde!’ Yes, excrement and childhood: no wonder Sigmund Freud found puppets so compelling. In much contemporary art the puppet continues to appear as surrogate, joker, childhood spectre and physical and psychological prosthetic.
In the main gallery space was Dennis Oppenheim’s Theme for a Major Hit (1974), a kinetic sculpture of five marionettes tapping their feet and rattling the floor in a percussive cacophony as their heads jiggled to the pulsing rhythm of the controlling strings being lifted and lowered by gears high above. Elsewhere, more sculptural works were on display, including examples by Anne Chu, Annette Messager, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Maurizio Cattelan and Nayland Blake. Chu’s clunky geological Landscape Marionette II (2003) was mesmerizing, as were Messager’s suspended pencil-pierced pillows in Faire Parade (1995). Mike Kelley’s sculpture Gussied Up (1992) – furniture with children’s clothes adorning bedposts and table legs – made particularly evident the curious corporeal confusion that puppets and dummies elicit and express as stand-ins for our own perplexing body-images.
The curators were clearly amenable to teasing out the sculptural and performative implications that puppetry and slapstick buffoonery provide, bringing a diverse range of contemporary artists into dialogue with one other. Many criss-crossing themes about behaviour and volition thus emerged, ranging from the hypnotized performances of Matt Mullican to Bruce Nauman’s Violent Incident (Man/Woman Segment) (1986), which recasts gender relationships as a series of sado-masochistic gestures. It became clear that, among its many uses, the puppet frequently serves in art as a surrogate for artistic frustration and self-reflection. Paul McCarthy’s video Painter (1995) depicts an obsessive artist visited by collectors who, equipped with oversized noses, grovel to sniff his proffered butt. In 2005 Rirkrit Tiravanija and Philippe Parreno produced marionette doppelgängers of themselves and of Liam Gillick and Hans Ulrich Obrist that were available for conferences. The video shows their diminutive selves discussing Obrist’s book of interviews. Although narcissistic, self-referential and a tad cloying, one can’t help but feel that these projects emerged out of the basic condition of helplessness and programmed behaviour.
Christian Jankowski’s Puppet Conference (2003) also defied certain expectations, re-enacting the conference atmosphere we all know and sometimes dread with a myriad of plushy muppet-like panel participants such as Lamb Chop, Grover and the bow-tied Fozzie Bear. Instead of opting for easy art-world satire, Jankowski inserted himself into the action as moderator and host, asking the attending puppets to describe their ‘work’ and indulge in a little soul-searching. Although seemingly pat and ready-made, ‘The Puppet Show’ proved surprisingly fresh and deeply enjoyable, suggesting multiple meanings for the proliferation of all these pint-sized proxies and surrogates, and tugging at the strings of our collective imagination.