Okay, for those of you poor, pathetic types who just aren’t in step, I’m With Stupid* is presently the avatar for the nearly universally beloved Whinybabyland. I’m hoping that I’m With Stupid will grow and flourish in ways that WBL never did, with these projections based solely on the hopes that I will actually get around to posting something. Oh, but it’s a new day! So until I burn out, break down, or throw a major hissy, let’s get all optimistic and shit.
After this weekend, I wondered for a few minutes why it took me so long to finally get over and see The Puppet Show at the CAM. Then I remembered: I grew up in the ’70’s, with a mom who loved arts & crafts and who just couldn’t stay away from her portable Singer sewing machine. Back then, if you weren’t being instructed by puppets on TV (Jim Hensen had recently birthed his Muppets ), you were being permanently, psychically damaged at the sight of grown men dressed as giant gay lizards in cowboy boots (or whatever it was that H.R. Pufnstuf was supposed to be) or by some other Sid and Marty Krofft creation that resembled a big puppet: some individual of clearly dubious moral character or perhaps an inanimate object covered up by a big cloth or some ill-fitting, puffy foam. And when you weren’t occupied with that, you were busy making puppets! With felt, or popsicle sticks and wire brads, or small brown luncheon bags, or even your hand, Senor Wences -style. The only thing weirder about that period was that if you weren’t sitting in a cardboard washing machine box with a hole cut out to make your own home puppet theater, you were thinking of all the different shapes you could make a bean-bag. Ah, Queen Bean-Bag, second only to King Puppet! When you think back that you probably spent half your childhood happily tossing about gingham sacks stuffed with dried legumes with one hand and with the other stuffed up the butt of a felt snowman, you can clearly see why you presently need a lot of therapy.
So, okay, I obviously have a few puppet issues, and one of the better things about the show at the CAM is that, clearly, a lot of artists out there have struggled enough with enough of their own puppet-issues to think it’d be cool to make art with them or about them.
As Dennis Oppenheim’s Theme for a Major Hit (1974) is the first thing one sees (and, on occasion, hears) in this show, it’s hard to ignore. And that’s a good thing. I saw this with a friend of mine, and as we stood there watching the band of mini-Dennis marionettes clatter about, she said something like, A bunch of middle-aged white guys trying to dance. I guess I’d never thought about it, but she was right. And as those big-headed, balding, middle-aged mini-men in sport coats jerked around for a few minutes, I thought that Oppenheim should not only be credited for employing a marionette puppet as a stand-in for himself, but that he should be proud that he so accurately depicted his “people”: the unsung Army of painfully square cocktail party-attending Caucasian professors and businessmen in corduroy sport jackets and penny loafers.
So many nice things can happen when you suspend your art from strings! Anne Chu’s Landscape Marionette II, (2003) and Louise Bourgeois’ constructions are simplistic yet clever, whilst Pierre Huyghe’s involved tribute to Corbusier, This is not a time for dreaming (2004), is serenely beautiful and intellectual without coming off too highbrow.
While I loved Huyghe’s you don’t have to be smart and art-world educated to fully appreciate this piece—but it helps!, however, I came out of Philippe Parreno’s untitled video portraying art-world and art-historical luminaries feeling like I could slap around a puppeteer or two. I don’t know; I think it might have been the Rikrit Tiranivija (sp) marionette. I just don’t like puppets reminding me how unenlightened and un-hip I am. I’ve got hamsters for that.
The most obvious thesis presented by co-curators Ingrid Schaffner, ICA Senior Curator, and Carin Kuoni, Director, The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, in this show—that the puppet becomes a removed mouthpiece for the artist—is an intriguing one. The idea that anything (or anyone), then, can be made into a puppet is, of course, a strong theme in the show, and there are quite a few interesting examples. Cindy Loehr’s tendency to employ her hands or any available inanimate object as a vehicle for human malaise is exemplified well in her piece, Colloquy, 2004.
But there’s obvious good, and there’s obvious bad. When we watch Guy Ben-Ner’s Karaoke, a video of, I presume, the tip of the artist’s cock “mouthing” a Connie Francis tune, I wonder if the arts might indeed be a tad over-funded. Who thinks that’s cute? I’ve got a friend at the dog park, David, who uses the line I had a date like that once… (used in the same manner as That’s what she said!) Oh, those lines amuse and delight almost every time, but you can imagine the pleasure I experienced when I turned to the woman I did not know in the video kiosk and used it! Ka-Ching!
I am terminally uncool and therefore have never had any use for Paul McCarthy, but I found his video particularly irritating. Watching this dude in a gross rubber mask with gross rubber hands sloppily “painting” with condiments might have amused me—even if it was Paul McCarthy—but you keep hearing the artist grunt “DeKooning”, and then I was art-school-bored. And I go on and off with Kara Walker. This time, I was definitely off. I still liked the mood and colors of Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions, though, so I imagine I’d just seen this piece—or ones like it—too many times.
I found myself overly familiar with a lot of the artists and their works here, and I think a less, ahem, seasoned viewer probably won’t feel so tired looking at a lot of this stuff. But even though I always think Oh, not more of that guy!, whenever I see William Kentridge’s name on a banner, I’m always newly blown away by something or other that’s he’s done. What Will Come makes you think, He’s done it again. Like much of his work, the format is incredibly simple. An anamorphic, illustrated film is projected to a round table top. In the center, a silver cylinder translates the elongated, bloblike markings into a haunting, typically Kentridge-esque scenario, filled with rolling clouds and figures wracked with sorrow and discontent. Somehow, Kentridge does his thing over and over again without coming off as repetitive. I realized here that this was no mean feat.
Although there are quite a few good works in the show, nothing tops the Puppet Storage, a series of crudely constructed plywood cabinets housing the Ballard Collection (Collection of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut). Also presented in this rustic barn-like format are several of the puppets used by the artists in the exhibition. From the Czech Hansel and Gretel marionettes of 1903 to the hand puppets Laurie Simmons used in her 1994 Music of Regret, I found these human avatars magical and compelling, and all telling a personal or political story no human being could as effectively convey.
This aspect of the The Puppet Show stuck with me far longer than any of the works in the show. Perversely, it is for this reason I find the exhibition most compelling. In 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a version of Roald Dahl’s famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out. Like much of the popular entertainment of the time, it was filled with a lot of visually clunky, home-made, puppet-like things (think of the low-tech, cloth-draped machine that spit out the Everlasting Gobstopper) and starred Gene Wilder. In 2005, Tim Burton re-made it , adopting the original book title. But no matter how much you like Tim Burton , you have to admit that, in contrast to the analog world of Willy Wonka, Burton’s updated and partially digitized version, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , simply lacks magic. It doesn’t matter what generation an artist comes from—each of them in The Puppet Show knows that even though he or she could make their points elegantly, he/she can sometimes toss a bath towel over a lawn chair, pretend to make it talk, and wind up making a more powerful statement.
* I’m with Stupid was the title of Laura Lark’s blog on Glasstire, published from 2009-2010. -Ed.