First encounters

Joss House

Queen Victoria Museum, Launceston 1979

Behind the crimson door,
a darkened glass booth.
A young girl hovers –
the light switch is pressed, the display illuminated
Inside, a crowd of eight figures,
almost dolls,
 yet so much more than dolls –
How she loves the women’s white faces, the texture of eggshell
and the rigor mortis of tiny limbs,
twisted in enigmatic gestures.
The men wear slim braids of human hair
so black and rudely alive against the flat hues
of inorganic skin.
Everything’s brilliant with scarlet and turquoise –
gold shimmers on the cascading head-dresses
and on the pendulous sleeves of embroidered costumes.
Chrysanthemums and dragons,
Peonies and white cranes
adorn the awnings of the spirit house.
Between incense urns and sprays of peacock feathers
The suspended motion
of a flea-bitten rocking horse.
The vitality of banners, muted behind glass
awaken this young girls’ mind
to the possibility of worlds unimagined.
The timer whirrs and clicks, the light goes out –
a ghost image of small white faces



As a child encountering the Weldborough Joss house displayed at the Launceston Museum in 1975, I became intuitively aware of some distinction between ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’, or ‘plaything’ and ‘ritual object’. The figures in the Joss House held an authority that dolls did not. They seemed to be made with a different sense of intention – the intention to ‘house life, to receive or mirror something of significance. They were objects charged with the paradox of an alive/dead intensity. The grotesque beauty of their unalive faces, poised on the brink of possibility, held the allure of the ‘uncanny’ – riveting in both its unfamiliarity and potential. After this encounter I was forever attracted to objects made in the image of the human form and curious about their function.

Of dolls Rilke said,

“They did not make any effort of their own…as they were accustomed to be lived tirelessly through someone else’s power during the day.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Some reflections on Dolls” 1913.

Though the same could be said of a puppet, I believe that there is a distinction in the ‘intention’ of that borrowed ‘power’ and the context in which the resulting ‘life’ is played out that gives puppets a different quality from dolls. Rilke, who despised dolls, saw puppets as potential ‘soul vessels’. He writes:

 I don’t want these half-filled masks.
I’d rather have a [puppet]. That’s whole.
I’ll put up with the empty body, the wire, and
The face that’s only surface.
Angel and [puppet]: a real play at last.
Then what we continually divide
By our being here unites there


( Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies: The Fourth Elegy (trans: A Poulin, Jr, Mariner Books, 2005)

So what is the nature of this ‘life’ that a puppet begs to receive? From childhood play to the archetypal pull of the religious or ritual object, why do we seek a simulacrum to house and mirror the enigma of our own existence? What is it that compels us to imbue these inanimate, material, non-entities with life? – to engage willingly in the three-way imaginative tryst between puppeteer ≈ puppet ≈ viewer. Or the private and communal rituals of worship and play?

Perhaps as human beings we are highly attuned to perceive ‘animation’, to imbue what is outside of ourselves with life. Perhaps to believe in our own life, we must be able to identify or empathise with another’s.

Standing beside the body of my deceased grandfather recently I kept imagining life. The stillness of death had my mind somersaulting, it was as if my grandfather was an unreal, inert thing that had never lived – or perhaps his deathly stillness was a mistake, a trick of perception. I kept seeing phantom breath rising in his chest, kept seeing the muscles of his face twitch and move – it was as if I was attempting to puppeteer life back into my lifeless grandfather by force of will.

Just as the cessation or absence of life perhaps evokes a desire to imaginatively reinstate it, it could be argued that the pre-formed personhood of the newborn infant evokes a similar psychological impulse. That is, we imbue the newborn infant with a degree of complexity that it does not yet possess, or it cannot yet communicate. By privileging the newborn as a fully formed person – we make a commitment that ensures that the infant’s nascent identity is fully realised over time;

 “Irresistible, it seems for the human, is the imperative to project human attributes onto non-human entities…. this instinct seems strongest with things or animals close in appearance to the human infant…’

‘Perhaps it is our species’ instinct to parent, or to take care of, which predisposes us to project human capacities onto a puppet…”

‘The puppet is an infant who relies on another’s recognition of its humanity in order to survive. It can not live without us and, if it is to live, must manage to persuade us to believe in its potentiality.’

(Taylor, Jane, Handspring Puppet Company, David Krut publishing 2009, pp.28)

And so, anthropomorphism, it could be argued is the essential ingredient to the psychological alchemy that has enabled the evolution and persistence of the puppet across ‘eons and continents’.

This question of ‘what is the nature of a puppets life?’ is so elusive – the further I climb down this rabbit hole, the more chambers I find! The more I question my own impulse for making puppets – the more improbable it seems as an activity. I guess this is the conundrum of creativity, the irrationality of it – its lure and it’s curse.

Scene from ‘Hutch’ a work in progress I developed in 2008

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