Dead, Drunk, & Dreaming

The art of bringing dead things to life is how Kiki Smith, who was once a busker with a Punch and Judy show, relates her work as a sculptor to puppetry. Or half-life, since part of what makes puppets so compelling – and, to many minds, creepy – as objects is that they always appear to be as much dead as alive. Or drunk. Rirkrit Tiravanija was inspired to start using puppets after seeing a little performance in Germany at a men’s social club, where, by the time the show had began, everyone was inebriated, including, by extension, the puppets.1 But who wants to see a puppet that isn’t a little not in charge of itself? The puppet that opens its eyes after everyone has gone to sleep is best kept to fairytales, nightmares, and film. Now imagine waking up in a world full of puppets.

That’s one way of seeing “The Puppet Show,” as an exhibition that, when it first began to percolate more than ten years ago, looked to the margins of culture – to alternative performance venues, to the art history of Surrealism and the grotesque – to find its relatively idiosyncratic subject matter. Now puppets seem to be everywhere. Puppet theater flourishes onstage and in the streets, in countless productions on Broadway, and at Beck concerts, where four puppeteers perform at the front of the stage with a miniature version of the band.2 ‘Puppet Cam’ video footage is projected onto a giant screen behind the musicians, showing the puppets making the local scene, checking out the sights, having cheeky banter, trashing hotel rooms, getting trashed, and generally acting out the fantasy everyone has of rock stars on tour – including, no doubt, the hard-working musicians themselves. On the silver screen, puppets star in Hollywood films; in the special-effects studios, animatronic engineers are called “puppeteers.” Meanwhile, their impact across realms of popular culture is fortified by new scholarship and critical thinking: from Eileen Blumenthal’s sumptuous world history of puppetry to Victoria Nelson’s Secret Life of Puppets, in which puppets are conspicuously absent as subjects.3 Thus do they represent the supernatural, which is theorized as both a lack and the means of transcendence in a culture as material and secular as our own.

The current proliferation of puppets and thinking about them is intrinsic to “The Puppet Show.” Even as the ranks of the checklist swelled and closed, relevant new work was being made. Last summer Kerry James Marshall, an avid master of new techniques, took the opportunity of an artist’s residency sponsored by the Wexner Center for the Arts to study Bunraku puppetry in Japan. In this tradition, the puppeteers are both visible and not – appearing onstage in black, sometimes hooded, attire – while operating puppets that are as famous for their ability to change guises and expressions as for the legend of a lifetime it takes to master, or serve, their exquisite articulation. Marshall’s forthcoming exhibition of live performances at the Wexner will fuse the ongoing narrative of his Rhthm Mastr cycle of works, based on African American urban life, African myths, and comic-book superheroes, with one of the most refined images on earth of the puppet as avatar. That Marshall’s puppets will be operated by local youths trained by the artist himself only enhances the Bunraku concept. Indeed, everywhere lately, puppetry seems to be part of the canon of performance, animation, and craft techniques for an emerging generation’s do-it-yourself productions. Thu Tran’s all-puppet (including the food) cooking-show videos have, for instance, been described as Martha Stewart Living meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And though this work is not in “The Puppet Show,” it joins in amplifying the exhibition’s claim that puppets signify like never before.

So where does this imagery come from? What is it that has brought the metaphors of puppets so much life? A life that seems all the more vivid given that puppets, as objects, exist to be animated by the actions and meanings projected through them (puppets can perk things up). This is not to say that they are generic objects. Although in the minds of many, puppets are kept with childhood memories, locked and stowed in a chest to be opened only with anxiety or trepidation, in reality the specific imagery of puppets is dense and layered, historical and evolving, coded. This essay looks to the big picture of puppetry for sources and contexts called forth by the works in the exhibition, finding puppets to be far less peripheral than may have at first been supposed. Perhaps it is only we who have been asleep to their ever-watchful presence and meanings.

Shit, Shadows, & The Über-Marionette 

The source of the imagery of puppets in contemporary Western art starts with a geyser of images of puppets in modern European art. Spewing straight out of the bedrock of avant-gardism, Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi either gains or loses its transgressive power when you learn that this allegory of anarchy was originally conceived as a puppet show. Furthermore, by the time King Ubu dumped his scatological first line, “Merdre,” the shit had already his the puppet stage. Not the little guignol theaters that merrily still dot –and dash – with their punch and Judy violence – that parks of Paris, but the cabarets, where puppetry was once a popular “Adults Only” form of entertainment. The stage at the Chat Noir club was inaugurated on Christmas Day in 1885 with a puppet show set in a family-run public toilet. Shortly thereafter, Henri Rivière established himself at the club, entertaining for over a decade the bourgeois and bohemian with shadow-puppet shows.4

Renowned for its elaborately constructed silhouettes and stages three screens deep, Rivière’s theater was a descendant of the popular eighteenth century Ombres Chinoises, named for the puppets that came, like porcelain (and later gunpowder), from China to delight the French, who especially loved to see the Séraphin theater’s paper guillotine chop heads. Cousin to this shadow puppetry was the Phantasmagoria, a gothic extravaganza in which magic lanterns pitched shadows directly into space, engulfing audiences in a thrilling sense of the beyond.5 Couple the two cousins to get the stock of early cinema and, among its most exquisite progeny, Prince Achmed. Considered the first animated feature, Lotte Reninger’s 1926 film is a shadow-puppet show. Long overshadowed by Disney cartoons on the one hand and modernist abstraction on the other, Reninger’s work is currently being revisited.6 To watch The Adventures of Prince Achmed is to be struck by the sensuality of the “alarming forward women” on the island of Waq Waq; by the magical metamorphoses of the magician into a bat, a kangaroo, and a man; and by the alchemical experiment of film shot through sand, smoke, and wax. To watch it today, when artists are advancing narrative forms of all kinds – from comic books to miniature painting – is to be struck that modernism would yield one of its radical episodes through the conventions of a puppet show.

Another artist to strategically deploy a fairy tale and puppet show was Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who, like Jarry, was a foundational figure of Dada, but of the Swiss stripe. In September 1918, Zurich’s Swiss Marionette Theater presented Taeuber’s production of The King Stag. With characters named Freud Analytikus, Dr. Komplex, and Urlibido, it was an allegory of contemporary psychology. And while much has been made formally of the totemic figures, relating them to Oceanic art and themes of primitivism, once again it is the imagery of puppets that is so arresting today.7 The miniature scale is the conceptual space of the mind that mints the unconscious and dreams. The craft is queerly charming, the costumes feminine, the sets decorative. All those attributes that once diminished the work’s standing now assert its authority. The same might be said of Hannah Höch’s Dada and Alexandra Exeter’s Constructivist puppets: long may they ruffle the modernist canon.

Fashioned from beads of wood turned on a lathe and cheerfully painted, Taeuber’s marionettes for The King Stag could be kernels for the abstracted human figures of the Bauhaus theater. Designs by Oskar Schlemmer, for instance, mask the body in armor of cones, cubes, and other geometric forms. Appropriately abstracted, performers become cogs in the “Mechanized Eccentric,” as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy expressed the Bauhaus ideal of a theater that dispensed with narrative, characters, and other literary encumbrances in favor of ‘a concentration of stage action in its purest form.”8 Man, he continued, “should no longer be permitted to represent himself as a phenomenon of spirit and mind through his intellectual and spiritual capacities.” And indeed, Bauhaus performers do resemble puppets, or at least puppets as they were being theorized in modern drama.

In his influential writings on the theater, Edward Gordon Craig disparaged naturalism and realism; he advised actors to accept puppets as their superiors and make them their ideal, then to strive to become the über-marionette, a term he coined around 1908. Such detachment also underlies Bertolt Brecht’s theory of epic theater, which he evolved contemporaneously with the Bauhaus in Germany (and which Jena Osman relates to puppet theater in her catalogue essay). Brecht satirized in futurism of the Bauhaus, which in its staged robotics probably would have given Craig, a puppeteer, the pip. For all three dramatists, puppetry epitomized the virtual in art, even then. Without the agency of the flesh or the distractions of feeling, the puppet’s artificial reality may be experienced all the more intensely. Ask any online gamer. The more objectified the experience, the more strings (or digital code) there are likely to be attached.

Even before he was a teacher at the Bauhaus, Paul Klee started making hand puppets as presents for his son, Felix. Based on the German Kasperl theater – a sort of über-Grimm Punch and Judy – they had soft fabric bodies and hard little heads. And what heads! Made mostly of painted plaster – with bone, nutshells, fur, a tin can lift, and two electric sockets among the bit parts – the heads comprise an assemblage assembly of archetypes and caricatures. Between 1916 and 1925, Klee created fifty of these puppets.8 After running through the traditional cast of a Kasperl play (adding a companion for Death, Mrs. Death), he invented a host of new characters: Pure Fool, Philistine, Eskimo, Electrical Spook, Buddhist Monk, German Nationalist. There is a self-portrait puppet, and others bear strong resemblances to Klee’s Bauhaus colleagues. Rendering the artist’s whole tribe, his folklore, politics, and other systems of belief onto ostensible playthings, Klee’s puppets perform parallel to his art’s abstraction into pictures that merely look like the imaginative world of childhood.

One wonders if playing with his father’s puppets left little Felix Klee behind or ahead of the adult game Baudelaire pondered in his Philosophy of Toys: “The toy is the child’s earliest initiation to art… and when mature age comes, the perfected examples will not five his mind the same feelings of warmth, nor the same enthusiasms, not the same sense of conviction.”10 To watch an adult artist grappling with this very dilemma, let your mind play through the well-worn footage of Calder’s Circus. The 1961 film of Alexander Calder animating his assemblage wire circus is filled with as much warmth and enthusiasm as the anxiety of compression. The sight of a big old bear of a man playing with tiny childish objects is a push through a keyhole in time back to 1927, when as a young American in Paris, Calder first performed the puppet show that would come to encapsulate a lifetime’s effort to make art as gratifying as a toy.

Harking back to pre-Columbian times, puppetry was one of a myriad of folk and indigenous traditions put to the forging of modernism in post-revolutionary Mexico. One of the iconic artists of this movement, and lately an icon in general, Frida Kahlo played with puppets. In a photograph taken around 1950 by Juan Guzman during one of the many prolonged periods of recuperation from the accident that regularly confined her to bed, she operates a group of marionettes while a child looks on. Kahlo is decked out in full Mexicanista. The puppets are both a distraction for this artist’s brutal imagination and part of an overall show of Kahlo’s fiercely crafted identity as a modern Mexican artist. The degree to which this identity was alloyed with radical outside forces is signified by another photographic depiction, this time a series of photographs of marionettes.

Taken in 1929 by the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, the series constitutes a portrait of the Russian-born puppeteer Lou Bunin’s adaptation of the American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.11 The play’s heavy-handed social commentary probably lends itself best to puppets, which could bring levity to the last scene, at the zoo. After an American named Yank realized he will never escape the political and class systems that hold him captive, he releases an ape that gratefully embraces him to death. In Modotti’s most famous photograph from the series, we see only the marionettes’ wooden controls, being operated by Bunin, his fingers tangled in strings. The metaphors of power, control, and manipulation by invisible hands of which puppets have been ever symbolic would become all the more personally and politically charged over time.12 Both Bunin and Modotti had been drawn to the Mexicanidad movement. Nationally sponsored, Bunin’s puppet theater was supported in a way that eluded his work after leaving Mexico and returning to the States. In Hollywood, his career suffered first under McCarthyism, then at the hands of Disney. The company enforced a ban on Bunin’s puppet film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to protect the release of their 1951 cartoon. As for Modotti, a year after photographing The Hands of the Puppeteer, she was deported from Mexico for her political affiliations. Continuing her work with the Communist Party, she moved to Moscow, then Spain, and eventually back to Mexico, where she died in 1942 under clouded circumstances. One might at this point even reflect back on the marionette as a signifier of the European culture that Mexico entertained and then rejected in the proves of becoming independent.

The impact of Mexican muralism on Abstract Expressionism, its scale and gestures, is one of the scriptures of the American art history: Jackson Pollock participated in David Siqueros’s experimental Fourteenth Street workshop, and there Pollock first flung paint on canvas tacked to the floor. You have to read between the lines to learn that among the things being made at the workshop were giant street puppets that Pollock himself joined in parading through Union Square in a communist demonstration. That was 1936, and though Pollock was never again so explicitly political in his work, there was another brush with puppets. The traces remain clearly cut from a 1948 canvas that Pollock used to make a marionette figure. “It was a figure about eighteen inches high,” the art dealer John Bernard Myers writes, “cut out of wood, one each side of which, canvas was glued. Both sides were gaily painted and the figure seemed to dance as it hung from a string and turned.”13 At the time, Myers was making a living as a puppeteer, performing with Tibor de Nagy. When the two opened their gallery in 1951, Myers and de Nagy joined the art world long dovetailed by their marionette theater. The first production was inspired by the Surrealist Max Ernst’s Kachina collection. “It was a Pueblo Indian fairy tale,” de Nagy later recounted, “charming, absolutely, charming, and very philosophical. John Myers played the witch. He may have sold the puppets, I don’t know… We stored all our marionettes at Larry Rivers’s studio on Second Avenue and they were stolen.”14 Pollock’s puppet was not part of the Larry Rivers studio heist, though it has subsequently vanished, lost or destroyed by the Rivers children.15

The Box, Bread, & Adult Theater

In the creation of art, it is the puppet one makes of oneself that is most important. – Harold Rosenberg

With Pollock’s lost marionette, the imagery of puppets careens into the postwar period and straight into Pop. So what about Andy Warhol? Besides the caricatures of him presiding over the factory like some evil puppeteer. (For that matter, speed up Hans Namuth’s film of Pollock painting if you want to see a puppet show.) Until his archival artwork of the Time Capsules have been fully processed at the Andy Warhol Museum, it remains to be ascertained if Warhol ever made a puppet. Or if his toy ventriloquist dummy survived beyond the artist’s memories of his invalid childhood: “I would spend all summer listening to the radio and lying in bed with my Charlie McCarthy doll and my uncut cut-out paper dolls.” Warhol definitely owned at least four puppets, a pair of which – his Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew hand puppets – are in this exhibition. And he depicted one.

Howdy Doody was the puppet namesake of the children’s television show that aired (in color) on NBC throughout the 1950s.16 In Warhol’s work, Howdy Doody is one of the American icons in the Myths suite.17 Superman, Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, Mammy, Uncle Sam, the Wicked Witch of the West, Dracula, and, finally, Warhol himself make up the rest of the gang, whose silk-screened portraits scroll repetitively down the canvas like strips of film. It’s a timely work. Just plain “Howdy Doody,” one could say. By 1981, Warhol was seeing himself as more that just an icon of pop culture; he was a marketable commodity, too. In his day, Howdy Doody had endorsed brands of bread, juice, and margarine for a generation of child consumers who, now grown up, were probably more familiar with Warhol as a brand item or celebrity model than as an artist. Nor was Howdy Doody a puppet in the traditional sense, since Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy’s voice and presumably his operator, was neither a puppeteer nor a ventriloquist. Howdy’s dialogue was pre-recorded, then played back on the air; his handling was a job for professional puppeteers, of whom there were plenty working in television during the 1950s.

The industrial age of puppetry was well advanced, having dawned on Thanksgiving Day in 1927, when Tony Sarg’s puppet zeppelins joined the Macy’s Parade. A pop-cultural phenomenon in his own right, Sarg is described by fellow puppeteer and former apprentice Bil Baird as follows: “Tony by 1927 was America’s most prolific puppeteer, designer of children’s barber shops and restaurants, bon vivant and lavish party-giver.”18 Dubbed by Baird “simply upside-down marionettes,” the floats were made of rubberized silk, filled with helium, and handled with ropes by groundling puppeteers. The first characters were mainly Sarg’s inventions, except for Fritz the Cat, a harbinger of hosts of future inflated personalities. Last year, the artist Jeff Koons’s Bunny joined the parade.

The parade’s puppet superstar is Kermit the Frog. The creation, nay, alter ego of Jim Henson, Kermit started life as a tadpole purveyor of Wilkin’s brand coffee in a series of television sports that promoted a cup of joe with a dose of violence – guillotines, guns, and existential crisis were all dispatched – that only a puppet could make palatable. Barely. Even before that, Kermit, not yet a frog, was a green sock-shaped character on Henson’s late-night puppet television show Sam and Francis, which ran from 1955 to 1961 and is credited with turning the television screen into a puppet stage. Since Kermit morphed into a Muppet in 1958, he can be seen to have spawned an empire that encompasses everything most readily associated with puppets in popular culture: children’s education (Sesame Street), family entertainment (The Muppet Show), and fantasy films (Dark Star), along with the franchising and licensing that has translated the Muppet idea into a global product.19 And in case time (or Elmo) had overly sweetened your sense of Helgen’s work, take a hit of the vintage 1970s stuff to get how true to puppetry’s origins in ribald, populist theater the Muppets are.

A completely other puppet establishment is Bread and Puppet Theater. Coming out of an art-world context of Happenings and performance art, Bread and Puppet has deeply European roots. As does Peter Schumann, who founded the theater in 1963 shortly after arriving in New York from Germany. Tapping into puppetry’s origins in medieval pageants and mystery plays, Bread and Puppet spreads the faith of the counter culture. It’s signature puppets are larger-than-life in scale, with expressive faces and hands molded from clay; they are borne aloft by puppeteers who, with rods and stilts, use their whole bodies to perform with the figures in staged tableaux and narratives, in street parades and demonstrations. On tour in its 1963 school bus emblazoned with sunbursts and angels, Bread and Puppet Theater arrives like a blast from the past, conveying a whole other set of associations that puppetry holds with humanist culture and leftist politics – associations that might seem to make it too naïve or old-fashioned to be anything more than passing fun at the fair.

To disabuse us of these clichés, please call on stage “Amy.” Tammy Faye Bakker’s proselytizing Christian puppet, whose uplifting repertoire includes such songs as “God’s Not Dead.” On a far more sinister note, witness the Nazi’s Kasperle plays adapted to indulge German soldiers in their deepest anti-Semitism. Granted, these are extremes, acts to bring on to make the point that puppets don’t stand by a single creed. Though for Schumann, the puppet that fails to rebel against some party line may as well be a person. “People exist as citizens, and puppets are insurrectionists and therefore shunned by correct citizens – unless they pretend to be something other than what they are, like: fluffy, lovely, or digestible.”20 If this sounds naïve, note that Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater is as much an institution as Henson’s “Muppet Mansion” – so the company’s New York headquarters are known.

Operating as a commune based on an old farmstead in Vermont, Bread and Puppet was a pilgrimage site throughout the 1970s and 80s into the 90s, when thousands convened every summer for The Domestic Resurrection Circus, a two-day festival in which extravagant allegories of protest – initially against the Vietnam War, and later against capitalist culture in general – were performed to apocalyptic ends and beyond. The Circus is over, but the insurrectionist theater continues.21 Bread and Puppet even has its own museum. Filled with objects and ephemera of past performances, the barn is dedicated to the Art of Impermanence. As for digestible, Schumann keeps a daily ritual of baking rye bread in the outdoor oven. All are welcome to a piece.

Schumann and Henson are almost exact contemporaries, yet it would be silly, as far as the imagery of puppets is concerned, to put in opposition work that is more productively seen within a totality. The general puppet assembly sued to convene biannually in New York for The International Festival of Puppet Theater: a month of performances, films, lectures, exhibitions, and cabarets at venues throughout the city.[footnotes=22] And every time, the Festival played to the same (old) news: Puppets aren’t just kid stuff. Listings were often rated for parents who could probably figure out that Theodora Skipitares’ “A Harlot’s Progress” was not a puppet show for children but might not anticipate the adult subject matter of “Tinka’s New Dress,” performed by the Ronne Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.23 Under the auspices of the Jim Henson Foundation, the Festival ran from 1992 to 2000, having been inaugurated in honor of Kermit’s creator, who died in 1990, and his lifelong commitment to preserving and advancing puppetry in all its diverse, traditional, and innovative forms.24

Grace, Jerks, & Faith

Contemporary puppet theater thrives. But it’s not what came up in speaking with the artists about their work in “The Puppet Show.” There were exceptions, of course. In the annotated checklist that follows, those references are observed and specific connections are drawn. Significantly, a number of the artists had performed as amateur puppeteers. A few still kept puppets they played with during childhood. And in every case, sometimes when least expected, the imagery of puppets proved engaging subject matter. Paradoxically, it seemed that those artists who had commissioned professional puppeteers in the making of a piece were often the least interested in puppetry per se. Puppets were simply what was needed to convey the ideas and realize the vision of a particular work. It’s interesting to note, in this regard, how much contemporary art has become more analogous to filmmaking than, say, traditional easel painting, and that directors readily take recourse in the imagery of puppets. Ingmar Bergman noted that his whole life’s work started when eh was a child, playing with puppets and a magic-lantern show “(I) created a reality all around me the way I wanted.”25 Fellini affectionately regarded the faces in his films as puppets.26 More malevolent-sounding is Lars von Trier speaking of the set as “Trier’s puppet show.”27 What one might extrapolate here is that no matter what kind of studio you’re working in, metaphors of control loom large when it comes to the art of making a picture.

In terms of actual sources, one came up fairly consistently: Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater.” Written in 1810 by a young German Romantic who shot himself in the following year, the essay explains the intellectual impossibility of a return to grace, which, Kleist observes, “appears most purely in that human form which either had no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.” 28 However, it is less this Kantian conundrum that Kleist’s deconstruction of the human body that puts “On the Marionette Theater” in the (unofficial) reader for “The Puppet Show.”29 The essay begins with Kleist’s astonishment at a friend’s interest in the “marionette theater, which had been put up in the market-place to entertain the public with dramatic burlesques interspersed with song and dance.” Or as Kleist later puts it more succinctly, “this vulgar species of an art form.” The friend, a dancer, proceeds to describe the parabolic movements and prosthetic mechanisms of the marionette – its “lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity” – in terms that conjure cyborgs, on the one hand, and mannequins on the other. In short, Kleist’s essay anticipates the figurative modes that appear to predominate in art today, of which an important anatomy lesson was demonstrated in a 1993 exhibition called “The Uncanny.”30

The show was conceived by the artist Mike Kelley as an “examination of a current trend, jumping on the bandwagon, if you will,” of a phenomenon he dubbed “mannequin art.” It showed the work of his peers (including Robert Gober, Bruce Nauman, Charles Ray, and Cindy Sherman) alongside that of historic artists (Hands Bellmer’s Surrealist “poupées,” for instance), with folk, funeral and medical artifacts, printed matter, and documentation. Collectively, these objects were charged to transmit Kelley’s equation of Freud’s uncanny and the experience of art itself. As formulated in the catalogue essay, this is “a somewhat muted sense of horror: horror tinged with confusion… (a feeling) provoked by an object a dead object that has a life of its own, a life that is somehow dependent on you and is intimately connected in some secret manner to your life.”31 Puppets were not part of Kelley’s examination, though there is a reference to Max von Boehn’s Dolls and Puppets, published in the 1930s, which remains a classic history on the subject. Puppets’ miniature proportions disqualified them from the artist’s response to works that were directly human in scale or presence. Nevertheless, reading Kelley’s essay in relation to “The Puppet Show” is like wandering with a map to the wrong landscape with similar terrain. The correspondences are uncanny.

Along the way, Kelley’s essay takes us to the Hollywood Hills, where 30,000 horror, science fiction, and special-effect items were once displayed in the home of Forest J. Ackerman. The collection, along with the intense sense of displacement, scale, and memory that Kelley experienced there, also came up in reference to puppets. It’s a subject Kelley has considered at length. Like Kleist’s interlocutor, he finds the movements of puppets fascinating, if far from graceful. The jerkiness of Jerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, the 1960s British television show done in “supermarionation,” is characteristic. To master away that excess motion is to forfeit the hold puppets have on the grotesque imagination, a hold that is contiguous with the fear of watching the marionette’s precipitous movements lapse into an awesome fit.

A Los Angeles-based artist, Kelley asserts puppetry’s claims across film and television.32 For him Japanese “rubber suit” monster movies are nothing but puppet shows. Taken a step further or backwards toward puppetry’s sacred traditions, might Mothra and Godzilla be seen as the demons of nuclear holocaust and of industry run amok, performing in the mystery plays of secular culture? This is how Victoria Nelson would divine it: “In our officially postreligious intellectual culture, we miss the idols, too, and we have similarly aestheticized them… The repressed religious is also visible in representations of puppets, robots, cyborgs, and other artificial humans in literature and film.”33

But puppets have always been instruments for broaching subjects that might otherwise be impossible to fathom or address. A therapist, that priest of our time, may ask a patient to use the puppets to show what happened. And who has not seen a political cartoon in which an imbecilic puppet President George Bush is being manipulated by a Dick Cheney puppeteer? This is child’s play compared to French television’s Les Guignols de l’Info, the puppet-show satire of world news. Credited with having helped Jacques Chirac win the presidential election in 1995 (by turning him into a lovable rube with the slogan “Eat Apples”) only then to turn him into “Super Liar” (the caped crusader of impossible promises), the show depicts President Bush as a babyish bully who lives in his bedroom lobbing beer-can grenades.34 But puppet patriarchs can’t hold a candle in the wind of Austrian author Thomas Bernard’s screed against puppet matriarchs in the novel Extinction: “In Germany and Austria there are only puppet mothers, who spend all their lives relentlessly tugging at their puppet husbands and puppet children until these puppet husbands and puppet children have been tugged to death. In Central Europe there are no longer any natural mothers, only artificial mothers, puppet mothers who bring artificial children into the world.”35

In life as on television, puppets can say things that, for instance, a man with a rubber dog at the end of his arm could not. If you catch “Triumph the Insult Dog” doing his abrasive shtick on Late Night with David Letterman, note how completely the audience focuses their attention on the puppet, even though the puppeteer is obviously standing right there. Curious how puppets hold that power even over ironic hipsters – though perhaps this is the most susceptible target. If you consider Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s television cartoon South Park as a crude hand-puppet show, the all-marionette cast of their movie Team America makes perfect sense. Plus, what more wicked way to put down the Hollywood blockbuster than to reduce it to Thunderbirds, where, for starters, there is no expectation that the acting will be anything but wooden. Moving forward with a current generation, puppetry is technology. Invented by hackers, Machinima is a cross between online gaming and computer animation that is conducted in real time by players who refer to themselves as digital puppeteers. The first major example, Diary of a Camper, 1996, basically put the gore-fest of gaming into a 90-second narrative frame. Since then, Machinima has generated a whole new media in film, one of its characteristics being that without the real time to render the details of every frame, characters appear to have trouble crying, hugging, and sitting. How much like puppets they are.

Another online phenomenon is “sock-puppeting,” the assumption of a false identity to praise, criticize, or defend a person or position. Last year, an editor at The New Republic was fired when his sock-puppet “sprezzatura” was caught attacking bloggers who challenged his posts.36 Might we call on the sock-puppet police to reckon with the giant Levi’s puppet over Reykjavik?37 Creatively staged to look like random sightings captures on people’s telephone cameras, this viral ad campaign traveled the Internet as posts sent to personal computers by consumers themselves. Under the enchantment of a helicopter-scaled marionette in blue jeans, it’s easy to miss the corporate puppet plopped in front of the screen.

Pull the camera back even further to take in the big picture now surveyed. “The Puppet Show” would appear to represent puppets doing today what puppets have done everywhere all along: subverting and transgressing, entertaining and educating, being surrogates and metaphors, conducting rituals and mystery, selling stuff. Yet what is it about the contemporary context that calls puppets so much to life? In the Indonesian wayang tradition, the puppeteer “wakes up” his shadow puppets by knocking on the wooden box from which he removes them to perform. What knocking awakes us now? Or is it more a matter of faith? That most pre-modern of terms made a triumphant return to these postmodern times in 2003 with Modern Procession, a public artwork by Francis Alÿs featuring more than 150 costumed participants led by a 12-member Peruvian brass band.38 Like a traditional ritual procession, this one marked the way for pilgrims – pilgrims of culture that is, en route to MoMA Queens during the Museum of Modern Art’s renovation and temporary expulsion from midtown New York. Carrying in effigy modernism’s great reliquaries – reproductions of works by Picasso, Giacommetti, and Duchamp – the marchers were led by the contemporary artist Kiki Smith, who was carried through the streets on a litter like a religious idol.

Francis Alÿs’s Belgian heritage ties Modern Procession, by a string, to James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. This colossal canvas of a masked mob of carnival revelers who threaten like dehumanized puppets to crush the messiah in its midst marks another milestone in avant-garde art history. Painted in 1888, just a few years before Ubu Roi stomped onstage, Ensor’s work is packed with caricatures of political and religious figures – as well as the artist’s friends and family, with the artist himself playing the visionary Christ. It was banned from exhibition, not for its radically scurrilous style, but for its symbolism. And here is another connection to Modern Procession, which is part of a sphere of work Alÿs has been developing since he moved to Mexico City in 1987 that he refers to as social allegory. Within this sphere, art’s meanings are conveyed less through images than actions, or scripts read through particular contexts. Alÿs writes, “If the script answers the expectations and addressed the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself. At that moment it has the potential to become a fable or an urban myth.”39

This script is useful to “The Puppet Show.” Not because the individual works in the exhibition necessarily function as social allegories, but because the term throws light, like a phantasmagoria, off the stage and into the audience, pitching into relief what draws us to the show in the first place. It points to certain social conditions – the diminished agency of individuals, the homogenization of mass media, the erosion of civil liberties, the government of corporate interests – that puppets seem instrumental in allegorizing, controlled as they are by unseen hands. Yet still, puppets? This imagery, which appears so antithetical to the complexities and ironies of contemporary life, what gives it such a pervasive hold? Perhaps it is the very directness of puppets as metaphors that signifies. This certainly seems to be a condition of “The Puppet Show”: the desire for allegory itself. With so many stories to tell, with sources accessible throughout time and place, puppets come to use readymade to abstract the dramas, mysteries, anxieties, and personas we might all project onto a shared stage. And in so doing, they affirm the relevant and liberating act of faith is takes artists and viewer alike to bring an image to life.


  1. Rirkrit Tiravanija, conversation with Carin Kuoni, March 23, 2007. The experience relates to Tiravanija's contribution to "Skulptor Projekte Münster 97," which involved building a pavilion to house a puppet theater and café. In his proposal, the artist downplays the puppet shows in favor of the many other activities that would take place in relation to them: "The structure should be a site for different levels of activities, i.e., a puppet theater, a still life set which the puppets perform in, a pavilion in which to rest and have a drink, a place to meet and have a drink and watch or look at the activity on stage... a place to rehearse the next day, a place to clean up after all the others above have done all they can to the place, a sculpture." See the artist's proposal online at
  2. Working with B.J. Guyer's company Puppetown Productions, Inc., the puppeteers were Frank Langley, Rob Saunders, Carla Rudy, and Guyer (who also, incidentally, produced the puppets that performed with comedians in Crank Yankers, the Comedy Central show based on prank phone calling).
  3. Eileen Blumenthal, Puppetry: A World History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005). Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  4. This history was explored in the exhibition "Counter Culture: Parisian Cabarets and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905," at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1999.
  5. The phantasmagoria recently appeared as the subject of an essay by Marina Warner ("Darkness Visible," Cabinet 24 {Winter 2006-7}: 75-88 and an exhibition and catalogue by Jose Roca, Phantasmagoria: Specters of Absence {New York: Independent Curators International, 2007}).
  6. In March 1931, Act II of Prince Achmed was screened as part of a program called "An Evening with the Art of the Future" at The New School, New York, in collaboration with Katherine Dreier. The film is currently being screened as part of the programming around the Yale University Art Gallery's traveling exhibition, organized by Jennifer Gross, about Dreier's collection, "The Société Anonyme: Modernism for American."
  7. Recently restored to pristine condition, Sophie Taeuber's puppets were included in the recent "Dada" exhibition, of which they seem to have been emblematic given how frequently they were reproduced in the media. Taeuber's puppets are currently the subject of an interdisciplinary research project being conducted by the Museum Bellerive, Zurich, which owns them. See also Leah Dickerson et al, Dada (Washington, DC: National Museum of Art; Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2006).
  8. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, The Theater of the Bauhaus (1924; reprint, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): 52.
  9. In 2005 the Zentrum Paul Klee opened in Bern with the artist's puppets integrated throughout the installation of the permanent collection. (And gift store, where you can purchase a kit for building your own Paul Klee puppet.) A year later, Klee's puppets appeared as the subject of a beautifully illustrated, scholarly book copublished with the museum: Paul Klee: Hand Puppets (Ostfildern, Germny: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006).
  10. Charles Baudelaire, "A Philosophy of Toys," in The Painters of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon, 1964): 199.
  11. This series of photographs is the subject of an excellent paper by Lara Tomaskzewska, "Marionettes and Metaphor: Political Satire in the Photographs of Tina Modotti" (master's thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, August 1998). It is also available through the National Library of Canada.
  12. For the 1929 New York World's Fair, Lou Bunin created Bury the Axis, the first known stop-action animation in America and a vehicle for the Leftist politics that got Bunin fired from Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
  13. John Bernard Myers, Tracking the Marvelous: A Life in the New York Art World (New York: Random House, 1981), 105.
  14. Tibor de Nagy, interview with Paul Cummings, March 29, 1976, Archives of American Art, 6. Here also de Nagy explains the decision to open a gallery and leave the world of puppets behind: "We had had enough of this - it was terrible, terrible physical work and no money, and misery."
  15. Myers, 105.
  16. To run opposite Howdy Doody, CBS introduced The Adventures of Lucky Pup. The puppeteer was Morey Bunin (brother of Lou), whose characters Foodini and Pinhead are part of the pantheon of puppet television stars.
  17. Each of the Myth figures is also the subject of a series of individual portraits - a diamond-dust Howdy Doody among them.
  18. Bil Baird, The Art of the Puppet (New York: The Ridge Press Bonanza Books, 1973), 179. Baird and Sarg are part of the heyday of puppetry in America, where live puppet theater was popular entertainment for adults as well as children. Among the many famous names were Yoel Cutler, Dwiggins Marionettes, Rufus and Margo Rose, and The Yale Puppeteers. A nice history (with rare footage) is Stories of The American Puppet, a documentary produced by Mazzarela Media in 2001.
  19. In France, it's rue Sésame. In India Galli Galli Sim Sim broadcasts in Hindi to one of the largest population of children on earth. The Israel-Palestine coproduction for children in the Middle East, where everything on the streets is not always "A-Ok," is called Sesame Stories.
  20. Peter Schumann, "What, At the End of This Century, Is the Situation of Puppets and Performing Objects?" The Drama Review 42 (Fall 1999): 56.
  21. The Domestic Resurrection of Circus ended in 1998, after a man was killed in a brawl at a nearby campground. Recently, the critic Holland Cotter vividly recalled his 1982 experience at the Circus: "As fires burned, a half-dozen great white gulls or cranes - muslin kites carries on sticks by runners - soared up from the horizon.. (then) right to the flames and soared over them as if looking for signs of life. Then they circled back across the field, melting into darkness. It was fantastic." Holland Cotter, "Spectacle for the Heart and Soul," The New York Times, August 5, 2007. A wonderful history can be found in Ronald T. Simon and Mark Estrin, Rehearsing with Gods (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).
  22. Under the Auspices of the Festival in 1998, the exhibition "Puppets & Performing Objects in the 20th Century" was held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It presented the puppeteers' performance objects alongside modern works of art, and was accompanied by a brochure publication.
  23. To name a few of the illustrious many who performed over the years: Ping Chong, Drak Theater, El Periférico de Objetos, Faulty Optic, Janie Geiser & Co, Great Small Works, Handspring Puppet Company, Hystopolis Productions, Mitsuru Ishii, Green Ginger, Mabou Mines, Vera Ricarova & Frantisek Vitek, Stuffed Puppet Company, Hanne Tierney, Basil Twist, Teatro Hugo and Ines, Teatro Tinglada, I Wayan Wija and I Dewa Berata, and Paul Zaloom.
  24. Henson's commitment endures with Here Come the Puppets, a documentary he hosted and produced for PBS based on the 1980 World Puppetry Festival at Georgetown University. One of the resources at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta is a collection of tapes, the full outtakes for the program, documenting entire performances and interviews.
  25. Quoted in John Lahr, "The Demon Lover," The New Yorker (November 13, 2000): 68.
  26. William Norwich, "A Fellini Moment," The New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2002, p. 73.
  27. Karen Durbin, "Making the Waves," The New York Times Magazine, April 30, 2000, p. 44.
  28. Heinrich von Kleist, "On the Marionette Theatre," trans. Idris Parry, Southern Cross Review (October 7, 2005).
  29. The essay gained visibility within the context of cultural criticism of the 1990s, when it was reprinted (translated by Roman Paska) in a Zone edition in a section of the book well illustrated with puppets and automations. Michael Feher, ed, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One (New York: Zone, 1989): 415-420.
  30. Mike Kelley's "The Uncanny" was part of Sonsbeek 93, the eighth in the series of outdoor sculpture exhibitions founded in Arnhem, Holland, in 1949. Valerie Smith, the first American curator of the show, invited artists to select sites throughout the city for their work. Kelley chose the municipal museum to present an ambitious exhibition within the exhibition of over 400 objects.
  31. Mike Kelley, "Playing with Dead Things," in Christoph Grunenberg, ed., The Uncanny by Mike Kelley, Artist (Liverpool: Tate Liverpool, and Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 2004): 26. This is the artist's edited version of the text for the 1993 exhibition "The Uncanny."
  32. Mike Kelley, conversation with the curators, Los Angeles, September 27, 2006. Among others referenced were television's Davey and Goliath, Diver Dan, Shari Lewis and Lambchop, George Powell's Puppetoons, and the Ed Sullivan Show regulars Maris Perego's Topo Gigio and Señor Wence's Talking Box; the films Bluebeard (1944) and Lili (1953); and the work of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. Similarly for Paul McCarthy, who is also based in Los Angeles (and whose studio resembles a Hollywood studio for special effects), the references to puppets in television and film were primary. Both McCarthy and Kelley referred to puppets in relation to their collaborative work Heidi of 1992, in which sculptural figures are used as stand-ins and the action is performed in the manner of a puppet show.
  33. Nelson, 20.
  34. On the air since 1988, Les Guignols de l'Info is based on the British television puppet satire Spitting Image (1984-96); its ruthless take on contemporary figures seems to figure into the making of Team America.
  35. Thomas Bernhard, Extinction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986): 63.
  36. Maria Aspan, "New Republic Suspends an Editor for Attacks on Blog." The New York Times, September 4, 2006.
  37. For example, see "Levis Giant Puppet, Freedom to Move," Youtube, May 30, 2007,
  38. Modern Procession was produced by the Public Art Fund in collaboration with The Museum of Modern Art, New York, on June 23, 2002.
  39. Francis Alÿs with Saul Anton, "A Thousand Words Francis Alÿs Talks about When Faith Moves Mountains," Artforum (Summer 2002): 147.