The Puppet Show @ ICA
January 18 - March 30, 2008
The ICA opened a show entitled “The Puppet Show,” which is curated through a wide-angle lens to address the question of why do puppets matter now?
Perhaps I would have had a more satisfying experience with the show had I not had the curator’s supposed inquiry embedded in my brain before I went to see “The Puppet Show.” The proposed thesis of the show remained unanswered while it raised new questions regarding the definition of the words “puppet” and “now.” Can anything with strings be a puppet? How strongly tied to the cliché expression (however true) of a “puppet government” is the nature of the contemporary political puppet? Is everything miniature or remotely “controlled” a puppet? How does expanding the definition this broadly help create a distinct dialogue? Even the history is diffused haphazardly in this show, with major omissions and confusing explicitly NON-contemporary work. Even more diffuse still is the translation of puppet into video, which in and of itself is another step removed from the question- why do puppets matter now?
Entering the show I was diverted through a Muetter Museum style display of puppet paraphernalia that is described as the discrete structure dubbed “Puppet Storage,” featuring a historic collection. This collection was displayed like an elementary history book that can sum up 200 years of history in a brief chapter. It confirms its existence yet lacks the proper space and exploration to give the relics respect.
Entering the main exhibit you start to calculate the amount of time you are able to watch per video piece as though your time were tokens to be spent wisely. Do I spend more time with the tested and familiar Paul McCarthy, William Kentridge, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Louise Bourgeois, Christian Jankowski, Mike Kelley, Laurie Simmons, Anne Chu, Doug Skinner, Michael Smith, Kiki Smith, Survival Research Laboratory, Handspring Puppet Company, Charlie White, and Kara Walker or do I look at a new animation by the Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg and work by Guy Ben-Ner?
I would normally not criticize a show in Philadelphia with such a strong cast, but I wonder if the artists were picked first and then puppets just became the thin string that connected everyone. While much of the indivdual work was strong and interesting on its own, the failure of the show falls directly on the curators’ choice to answer the question of why do puppets matter with so many thinly relevant video works. To include approximately 16 dramatically different videos makes me question the curators’ self-induced definition of puppets. Video's very nature is a choreographed representation of constructed realities. So to include video works as the crutch of a puppet show makes the viewer assume that very structure of video production is a puppet show. The actor becomes the puppet and the director / editor is the puppeteer. Why Paul McCarthy’s video and not clips of the Swedish Chef or Sloth from the Goonies, which included facial prosthetics. Why Survival Research Lab- does a remote controlled object now constitute a puppet?
How can you have a show about Puppets and not have artists like Jan Svankmeyer, the Brothers Quay or more importantly, anything that Shari Lewis (Lamb Chop), Velma Wayne Dawson, Jim Henson, “Winchell and Mahoney”, Mr. Rogers, or Faz Fazakas touched?
I would also like to point out that the curator’s own interest includes the adverb now that defines a moment in time, so to not address the technical nemesis of puppets in video being the use of CGI. Puppets still represent the real, but can’t compete with the physical restraints of a real camera’s speed and axial movements. A famous example of this is the 1970’s Star Wars with puppets and models vs. the newest Star Wars with CGI. Arguably, most people preferred the former. This could be because the technology is still transparent, and thus “fake” while the puppet characters, though imaginary were quite “real” in their presence.
This is a conversation someone could have if one is looking at the current relevance of puppet oriented video work. Puppets are objects, so to also not include live puppet work (puppet theatre) ignores the heart of what puppets represent.
As I write this I don’t wonder why do Puppets matter now, but whether the curators know what a puppet is and/or actually care?
[Tim Belknap is an adjunct professor at Tyler School of Art, as well as an artist who lives and works in Philadelphia (and, occasionally, makes robots-or puppets?). Amy Day is a graduate student at the Art Institute in Chicago]
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Sunday, January 27, 2008
The Puppet Show @ ICA