"If you like Kermit the Frog, this ain’t the place for you" could be the tagline for The Puppet Show, currently on view at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The exhibition, which runs through March 30, 2008, features the work of 28 artists from around the world. The exhibition is not about puppet history or theater but about the puppet as a conceptual metaphor readily associated with manipulation and control. It also considers the resurgence of puppets in contemporary art—in other words: Why puppets now?
After walking through heavy, black velvet curtains, a visitor to The Puppet Show enters a small area dubbed “Puppet Storage.” Conceived as a backstage or storage area, Puppet Storage is a small wooden room that houses the majority of the puppets in the exhibition. Inside, you find a microcosm of the exhibition as a whole: hand puppets of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon from the Andy Warhol Museum; photographs of Hollywood Squares star Madame (without her puppeteer Wayland Flowers); and monitors screening episodes of the 1960s British television show Thunderbirds. Withholding a conventional display, the puppets in “storage” rest on shelves behind a thin wire screen; silent and inanimate, they can not entertain or inform an audience.
For The Puppet Show, the normally open and brightly lit space of the ICA has been transformed into a De Chirico-esque landscape: tall buildings, long shadows and solitary figures abound. The central focus is a structure created by the exhibition’s designer Terence Gowers—a mini-theater with viewing booths for video works by four artists. On either side of this building stand a series of wooden storage crates that visually recall Puppet Storage. These crates serve as kiosks that contain monitors screening video projects, one of which is Doug Skinner and Austin-based artist Michael Smith’s collaboration Doug and Mike’s Adult Entertainment (1992-1996), a video performance that uses obscenity-laced jokes to discuss quotidian subjects like job interviews and resumes.
Moving through the shadowy exhibition hall one encounters a brightly lit low stage full of sculptural pieces suspended by string, wire and metal. Louise Bourgeois’s Untitled (1996) consists of four separate pieces each suspended from different sections of a tall, rotating metal post. The pieces, clothed and nude, dangle like headless puppets suspended from their extremities or the fabric of their costumes. Kiki Smith’s Nuit (1992) suspends plaster casts of a woman’s arms and legs from white string. Like marionettes, these works are proxies for humans but can not be animated without human manipulation. Set in a surreal landscape, the sight of lifeless bodies and disembodied limbs raises thoughts of violence. Yet the only work that use discernibly human figures is Dennis Oppenheim’s Theme for a Major Hit (1974). This work features five identical motor-driven marionettes that are sporadically manipulated and dance in unison. Oppenheim created these figures to explore the possibility of developing performance art from which he himself is absent, a theme well suited to the carnivalesque atmosphere that pervades the exhibition.
Ultimately, The Puppet Show seems most interested in exploring puppetry’s ability to comment on violence, uninhibited sexuality and the grotesque. Kara Walker’s 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005) is one of the best cases in point. Here, Walker turns her silhouette figures into shadow puppets presenting scenes of lynching and same-sex slave-master sexual encounters that result in the birth of cotton. The Puppet Show’s strategy seems rather astute: The light-heartedness typically associated with puppets allows the serious ideas they address to be diffused, making these complicated subjects more approachable for a general and university audience. Moreover The Puppet Show demonstrates how puppets can serve as economical and mobile stand-ins for humans, an advantageous quality given that the works included in this exhibition are contributed by an international group of artists who, obviously, cannot remain on site. The Puppet Show can be viewed as an act of reclamation and renewal. While reminding us of the importance of puppetry as an historic entertainment and craft, it also suggests that ideas brought into art by Surrealism are still viable subjects for artists working today.
Catrina Hill is a native of Detroit. She is currently completing a Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania.