17 Tillis. “Towards an Aesthetics of the Puppet.” 1990.
18 Phillips. Modelling Life. 2006.
19 Tillis, p138.
20 Zamir. “Puppets.” 2010, p409.
To resolve the ambivalence of puppets’ status, Steve Tillis describes the perception of them as a ‘double vision’.17 This doubling re-casts the typical estrangement between animate and inanimate as a unified experience of object and ‘imagined life’. If puppets are behaving as they ought, they will simultaneously maintain their ontologies as inanimate objects and inspire the knowledge and faith that they supersede their objecthood. Malfunction in either case would be distressing. I recall seeing, when I was a boy, a disturbing behind-the-scenes photo of Kermit the Frog, alone and laid awkwardly on a backstage crate. To see the puppet functioning as an inanimate object but severed completely from its ‘imagined life’ was shocking. In life drawing, however, the double vision is an oblique fantasy because the audience only ever sees the drawing/artefact/object (equivalent to seeing what the television screen shows). Presumptive fantasies about the imagined life of artists and models are intrinsic to the life studio, but locating the active constituents in that process is far more difficult and dependent on assumptions about agency and autonomy. Questions about subjectivity and agency that encircle the life model’s body are analogous to the persistent questions provoked by puppets about their own (semi-)autonomies.18 But, again, a facile exchange of model and puppet, as Méliès has illustrated, is an inconsequential and retrograde novelty. The puppet method I am pursuing seeks a total estrangement of models and artists from the life studio, leaving the puppets to themselves. Puppets, mannequins, lay figures, statues and dolls have always been lurking in the life studio, mashed up into an uneasy mob of surrogates, effigies, cult objects and devices. This project invites them to make pictures. The difficulty is devising a methodology to empower them.
As a practical puppet studio methodology, it is tempting to follow suit with other artists and deploy performance and puppet theatre. I'm fatigued, however, with the current fashion for performance in all disciplines (although I am also guilty of fertilising that particular garden). Performance is the most elementary manner of delineating puppets from their close relatives (dolls, mannequins), and, in the words of Peter Arnott, ‘puppetry is fatally easy’.19 But, again, this is not a puppet theatre project, and so the puppets will not perform. They will work (semi-)autonomously in the private cloister of the studio and only be seen through the artworks they produce. Autonomy works for puppets. An autonomous doll signals horror and triggers revulsion. Puppets, however, can function more or less on their own. Tzachi Zamir describes this rudiment of puppets:
Puppets exhibit fragments of action that are dissociated from a center or some whole to which they refer or are causally connected to. My point in saying this is not to link puppetry with various rejections of the subject but to highlight puppetry’s exhibition of the freedom of partial manifestation, its capacity to develop and dissociate itself from an internal author, touching in us the unease that accompanies the perception of the growing autonomy of one’s role or roles, the capacity of a role to become autonomous and to even usurp the self by determining its identity as this or that.20
I have taken advantage of puppets' (semi-)autonomy and the ability of the artist-engine to be easily estranged from the puppet-body to defer control and hierarchy in the life drawing exchange. I am confident that puppets will re-invest the life studio with delirium and disrupt the sturdy contrivances of artists and models.
21 Nelson. The Secret Life of Puppets. 2001.
22 Puppet Master. Full Moon Features. 1989.
23 Hoffmann, Kent and Wright. Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. 1969.
25 Rushdie. Fury. 2001, 96.
From Pygmalion, Pinocchio and ‘The Sandman’ to the Puppet Master-franchise and Metropolis, fugitive puppets have been creeping, scheming and upsetting our notions of the stable and differentiated human individual for centuries.21 Why shouldn’t they also invade the life studio? In the opening scene of the 1989 film Puppet Master, the puppeteer André Toulon finishes painting his latest magic-sentient-animate puppet and hides it in a puppet chest before putting a gun in his mouth and destroying himself. The rest of the film follows standard killer-toy horror formulas.22 Although the Puppet Master-franchise currently boasts twelve sequels, the first film is defined by its decision to immediately dispatch the puppeteer and cast the puppets adrift. The function of these puppets is never clear, but their malfunctions as ‘innocent’ objects quickly turn bloody. Puppets and matters of control, mastery and rebellion are inextricable. In the infamous E.T.A. Hoffmann story ‘The Sandman’ from which this exposition steals its title (‘Spin, puppet, spin!’), the most disturbing scene — among several — describes the protagonist Nathaniel entering the clandestine puppeteer Spalanzani’s studio to see him wrestling with the man who made the automaton Olimpia’s eyes.23 The optician, named Coppelius, wrests free her inanimate body and escapes with her, leaving her eyes behind on the floor. At the story’s climax, Nathaniel, unable to distinguish human from puppet, screams at his betrothed Clara, ‘Spin, puppet, spin!’ before crashing from a tower to his death, while the sandman Coppelius looks on. Although Olimpia malfunctions by betraying the first aspect of a puppet’s double vision, it is Nathaniel who loses his Self in his inability to recognise her nature, and his death is the price of that estrangement.
Hoffmann’s Olimpia is conjured again in a haunting photograph of Gustave Courbet’s Ornans studio from 1864. Amongst the unfinished paintings and furnishings is a female lay figure sitting naturally and comfortably in the background, looking as if she has just finished some task, perhaps posing, and is enjoying a short respite.24 After spying her, the repetition of her likeness in the portraits scattered about the scene becomes more and more apparent. The right edge of the photograph crops out the head of Courbet’s statue Pecheur de Chavots, but the young fisherman also bears a striking resemblance to her. Is it too eccentric to imagine Courbet’s puppet creating and penetrating the works that surround her? For the Realist painter it would be a heresy, but ceding control to these mercenary creatures will force a reckoning with the processes of voyeurism, malfunction and estrangement that infect the life studio. In Salman Rushdie’s novel Fury, a fallen academic and risen puppeteer with an obsession for his global-sensation-puppet Little Brain describes her: ‘Little Brain: first a doll, later a puppet, then an animated cartoon, and afterward an actress, or, at various other times, a talk-show host, gymnast, ballerina, or supermodel…’25 Little Brain is a performing object but she also inhabits and is inhabited by many. It may be most accurate to describe her relationship to her human ‘hosts’ as invasive and parasitical. She is (semi-)autonomous and she moves up the evolutionary ladder from doll to puppet and from talk-show host to supermodel. She infects rather than entertains, and she consumes bodies as well as sheds them. The puppets that have created all the works reproduced in this exposition are similarly infectious and hungry. Together, they are called ‘the Six’. Fitting into traditions of humanette and ‘hybrid’ puppets, the Six are also parasitical, assimilating the puppeteer/artist/model body into their own.
top to bottom:
Puppets with Charcoal, 2017
ink, charcoal and pastel primer
on cast carbon fibre.
Puppet study, 2019
ink and gouache
on stained Kozo paper.
Puppet in studio, 2018.