Still Lives – memento mori, new desires.

‘Rather than being copies of people, androids are more like memento mori, reminders that, unlike us, they are forever unliving, and yet never dead.’

Gabbi Wood, Living Dolls


In a sense, every simulacrum, whether it be a puppet, doll, statue etc, is a mirror held to our own mortality. And every interaction with the world of the inanimate leads to the creation of some kind of memento mori ; a trace, a memory, an artefact.  Perhaps then, each interaction that involves a manipulation and transformation of the inanimate is an act of puppetry – if so, then just how far can the definition of puppetry extend?

Is it puppetry for example, to pose an inanimate object in a context that suggests narrative and to then photograph it? (i.e. still lives, keep-sakes, memorabilia ). Is it puppetry to pose and photograph the dead  (as seen in 19th century memento mori photography)?

“This will be and this has been… the photograph tells me death in the future… Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


Could it be classified as puppetry to dress, arrange and indulge in intimate relations with a real doll – a sex doll, or an inanimate object?  Globally there are 40 documented individuals, all of them female, many of them with Asperger’s Syndrome who identify as ‘Objectum–Sexual’ – that is, they identify sexually and romantically with inanimate objects and claim to have committed, reciprocal and physical relationships with objects such as the Berlin wall, the Eiffel tower, or in one woman’s case, a segment of picket fence that resides in her bedroom. Perhaps they are a class of unidentified puppeteers, highly attuned to the creative, emotional and sexual possibilities of the inanimate world. Or perhaps puppeteers are a class of unidentified ‘Objectum-Sexuals’, only their leanings towards the inanimate are expressed performatively, rather than intimately – though both performance and sex are forms of intimate, imaginative communion.  

Take a look, it’s really fascinating:

If puppetry is defined by deliberate intention, could there be a whole host of activities that constitute a form of unconscious puppetry? Could puppetry extend as far as the placement of aesthetic or meaningful objects in relation to one another within an environment (public or private) – or the way in which we coerce or manoeuvre others into relationship with us according to our own criteria or visa versa (this is a form of manipulation after all)? Indeed the word ‘puppet’ is used in a defamatory manner in relation to a state of poor leadership or extreme malleability – think of ‘puppet-ruler’, ‘puppet-state’.

Are the ancestors on the mantelpiece puppets or ritual objects? – Is the mantelpiece a shrine or a miniature theatre? Are the sentimental objects on the bedside table, or the teddy bear seated on the bed whimsy, memorabilia, stand-ins or lovers?

Once while staying as a guest at an elderly artists’ house I thoughtlessly cast a teddy bear off the bed in the guest room only to be admonished the following day. My host was extremely hostile all afternoon and when I broke the silence by asking what was wrong she replied, “ I notice you’re not sleeping with Teddy…”

Clearly I had missed the significance of the bear, and my host was only appeased when I left Teddy daily tucked-in and nestled in pillows for the duration of my stay.


Many visual artists have used photographed inanimate objects to form the basis of their work. Hans Bellmer’s extensive, often confronting use of dolls comes to mind as does outsider artist Morton Bartlett (see last post: ). Both artists in their own way, acknowledged their doll fetishes as serving as an outlet for their desires;

Bartlett states; “My hobby is sculpting in plaster. It’s purpose is that of all proper hobbies – to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

Doll and photograph by Morton Bartlett

“It was worth all my obsessive efforts when, amid the smell of glue and wet plaster, the essence of all that is impressive would take shape and become a real object to be possessed.”

“I am going to construct an artificial girl with anatomical possibilities which are capable of re-creating the heights of passion, even of inventing new desires.”

— Hans Bellmer, “Memories of the Doll Theme” (1934)

To read a fabulous essay on Bellmer follow this link:


‘… Inventing of new desires’ – what an interesting motivation. This suggests that the compulsion to create and arrange objects is borne of restlessness, of dissatisfaction with the mundane and the desire to create and communicate new realities. Realties that we are able to manipulate, that are assertions of our identities  – places that suggest the unimagined, unfettered places of creativity and harbour the sting of longing for the unknown and perhaps the unobtainable.

I would argue that the work of these artists is highly deliberate, performative and required a degree of ritual to be fully realised. The choosing, making, arranging and capturing  are all steps leading to the apprehending of a particular transitory moment, a moment most likely ripe with meaning, a moment charged with a potent intentionality.

Just as artists intentionally furnish their worlds with objects that can be puppeteered into scenarios that signal and iterate their imaginative lives, many of us unconsciously do the same. We daily perform rituals and commune with the world of the inanimate, making our world habitable, the traces of our actions tangible. We are all ultimately ephemera and through our interventions with the inanimate we behold evidence of our being, a reflection of our identities. We encounter ourselves in the present moment just as we encounter and resurrect those who have gone before, artefact by artefact.

I’ll finish with a quote from Victoria Nelson who makes an interesting argument for the impulse to create simulacra its persistent allure in the Western tradition, even as we move towards a more secular age:

[There were] two profoundly religious activities of the early history of Western culture: spiritualizing the material body by embalming human bodies, and materializing the spiritual by making human simulacra as physical embodiments of the divine.”

[The] Invented creatures of our imaginations’…carry for us, below the level of consciousness, that uncanny aura the unacknowledged “holy” characteristically assumes in a secular context…we can read – in a backward image, like a reflection in a mirror – the underground history of the soul excluded from its religious context in Western culture.

Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets


2 thoughts on “Still Lives – memento mori, new desires.

  1. This is just me trying to clarify what the writing has prompted. I hear what you are saying and appreciate the shifting frame of puppetry from traditional manipulated ‘dolls’ to persons, sentimental objects, the past, loved ones in death etc. This is obviously a fruitful area of investigation that follows the use of performance/performativity into daily life; but does the use of the word, or idea of puppetry in a context of persons, sentimental objects, rely on the defining of those events or objects from the original context, that is carved or sculptured figures on strings, or hand puppets say, manipulated by an artist or puppeteer. It seems obvious that it does. The way you are speaking of these objects or events however seems to give them agency, the relational aspect seems a bit diminished. This too I can appreciate, but with your friend’s teddy bear or Bartlett’s dolls, the relationship of the figure to the person has a reciprocosity that belies the manipulative relation that puppetry may imply. I can see the bear as a sentimental object, one that has affect, and carries relations, that it may be a place from which to begin to think a work, but does this make it a puppet, or is it rather a significant object in the sense of it having affect, carrying affectivity? Is this part of your understanding of what a puppet may be? I think it is. I’m still working through the writing. I like the idea of sentimentality being given its due, which is something I am particularly interested in, the potency of everyday objects. There is a wonderful passage in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where he talks about a tin and its lid which desires nothing else than to be fitted to its base. In my Norton edition it is on page 157-8. After a bush fire where I live I helped organise a display of objects that people took with them when they evacuated their homes. There were teddy bears, toys, books, objects that people described to me as insignificant, but were what they decided to take with them above anything else. Are these puppets? Perhaps in a relational way, they are no longer an ‘it.’ But are they through their own and the persons longing what Martin Buber in I and Thou calls ‘You,’ a truly relational being?

    • A very complex response – thankyou. I think in response to what you’ve written, my answer might be that the original context of puppetry (figures with strings, hand puppets etc) and the’ manipulative’ aspect really matters less to me than the idea of objects ‘becoming’ or ‘being’ relational beings that carry an affect, which in turn exerts influence upon our actions and identities. (This is very slippery territory and I really must read Buber!) I can say, as a maker and performer of ‘puppets’ and as a tourist in this world of things- I think of these objects as entities that ‘call’ to me to relate to them in a certain way – like there is a latent, subtle life that calls to be expressed, rather than me simply ‘manipulating’ them. I do think of these relationships as highly reciprocal and symbolic. I guess , if I think of ‘puppeteering’ as the response prompted by an ‘affective relationship’ – many of our activities and behaviors (which are inevitably connected to things animate or inanimate) become a form of puppeteering (mutual)…? Im just testing the concept and definition of ‘what is puppet’ at the moment – and Im finding it incredibly elusive!

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