11 Geczy. The Artificial Body. 2016, 64.
12 Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art. Objects Do Things. 2016.
13 Schaffner, Kuoni, and Bell. The Puppet Show. 2008, p9.
14 Trimingham. “How to Think a Puppet.” 2011.
15 Bell. “Playing with the Eternal Uncanny.” 2014.
16 Bell. Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects. 2001.
My* drawings and photographs are made by puppets. Art, literature and puppets are well enmeshed, but examples of artists who defer to puppet-practitioners or are assimilated by puppets are far less common. Exceptions include cinematic and literary horror/science fiction characters; the clever tick-tock drawing automata built by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, Henri Maillardet and John Nevil Maskelyne; and the drawing machines of Jean Tinguely, Desmond Paul Henry, Cameron Robbins and other contemporary artists and tinkerers. In these cases, however, artists’ utopian, dystopian and whimsical pursuits are primarily contextualised by magic and technology. The more typical puppet/human confections in the visual arts are held in thrall of puppet theatre. The shadow puppets of Kara Walker and William Kentridge, David Shrigley’s misshapen animatronic models and Paula Rego’s studio puppets all fit within this rubric. Puppets, dolls and mannequins also converge in the works of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Giorgio DeChirico, Hans Bellmer, Nathalie Djurberg, Sarah Lucas and Paul McCarthy, often to disrupt academic conventions and damn reactionary politics, but they remain ensconced in theatrical, filmic and sculptural realms. Adam Geczy summarises artists’ abiding puppet preoccupations in an analysis of Rilke in which he describes puppets as ‘a kind of pure corporeality in which the quandary of masks and appearances is resolved.’11 Certainly, a model of ‘pure corporeality’ is seductive, but even more seductive is handing over to ‘pure corporeality’ a camera, a sharp chisel or a stick of charcoal. Whether or not they ought to be given such tools is less apparent.
The difficulty of extracting puppet theatre from puppet practice is evidenced in two puppet exhibitions: Objects Do Things at Warsaw's Ujazdowski Castle in 2016 used theatre and television to frame its innovative puppet-art exhibition.12 Previously, in 2008, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia staged an exhibition titled The Puppet Show. The curator Ingrid Schaffner warned that it was ‘not an exhibition of puppet theatre’; rather, the show intended to consider ‘the imagery of puppets in contemporary art’.13 Without getting mired in semantic arguments about ‘imagery’, I will subtly but definitively twist this position. My research also considers the imagery of puppets. However, I mean imagery by puppets — puppets making images to be exhibited. It is important that these little conscripts are puppets, but this designation isn't without problems. Inevitably, discourses on puppets devolve into categorisations. When is a puppet a doll? A mannequin? A machine? Is a mask a puppet? Are all performing objects puppets? Are robots puppets? Sex toys? Digital avatars? There exists sufficient puppet literature examining these ambiguities in forensic detail and charting terminologies such as the neologism ‘puppeteer’ and its lavish evolution into ‘manipulactor’.14 Further, puppets are constantly pursued along the spectra between animate/inanimate, living/dead, subject/object, self/other, and present/absent.15 I have chosen puppets because there is a correspondence between discourses in life drawing and portraiture concerning illusion and subject and those in puppet and theatre studies concerning the agency and role of the puppet. Like a life drawing, a puppet is a thing, a sign of someone that is not a thing, and a sanction to behave ‘as if’ the puppet is not a thing.16
*absurdity of the possessive noted.