“Art is the child of nature in whom we trace the features of the mothers face.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I woke up this morning with the question “Why the necessity for a face?” floating across my waking brain. Why indeed? Within my art practice lies a central gravitation towards creating ‘faces’. All my puppets are anthropomorphic puppets, none of them assemblages or ‘object’ puppets. They are all predictably little people who express my fixation with the human form and the centrality of the human face to my way of working and seeing the world. As a puppet maker I am aware of the potency that an inanimate face commands and the ambivalence it provokes – but ultimately I think of this tendency as a shortcoming. I also acknowledge that as a human being I am hardwired to this orientation and that perhaps some habitual desire for self replication lies at the heart of art making.
Allow me to share an experience that has stayed with me for decades. On this occasion my father brought home a freshly caught rainbow trout for the family’s dinner – I had the task of cleaning it. I began by washing all the viscous slime from its skin into a shallow sink of water. When I’d finished washing the fish I looked down to where a net of slime hung in the water. To my astonishment the slime had reconfigured itself into a delicate filigree replicating the shape of the fish. It swayed in the water, a spectral mass half-articulating it’s fish-ness, while at the same time disintegrating into structural incoherence. It was as if the matter was not-quite dead and the memory of its form, encoded in its very substance, was driving it to cling to a version of its previous embodiment.
Perhaps as people, as artists we are constantly striving to keep re-articulating our being on both a molecular level and through the act of creating. Like the fish slime we keep gravitating towards a recapitulation of the conditions of our existence.
Could this be one of the forces central to the anthropomorphic impulse – an innate desire to repeatedly find reference to our own morphology in other ‘things’, to make inanimate matter perform and re-perform versions of our human predicament? I would argue that puppets, dolls and fetish objects are direct expressions of this tendency and satisfy (or potentially disrupt) this activity.
puppet faces hover on stage dead dancers, pretending life we laugh, scorn and delight in them trusting, yet suspicious of their efforts, for they are our efforts too.
we dignify their charade we applaud, masking the same doubt we harbor in our heart of hearts, our own credibility as alive things, briefly dancing.
I would also propose that any object can be recruited to this purpose and in the process assume a metaphorical or symbolic ‘humanness’. This is why even faceless object puppets appeal to us and appear to be attempting to communicate something. We attribute movement with intent and intent with a communicable outcome – animation produces signals of signification.
Angela Carter describes it thus:
[of the puppet master]
“He is the intermediary between us, his audience, the living, and they, the dolls, the undead, who cannot live at all and yet who mimic the living in every detail since, though they cannot speak or weep, still they project those signals of signification we instantly recognize as language.”
― Angela Carter, The Loves of Lady Purple, from Wayward Girls and Wicked Women
Allow me to re-examine for a moment the definition of the word ‘puppet’:
n 1. a small doll or figure of a person or animal moved by strings attached to its limbs or by the hand inserted in its cloth body.
Etymology : from Old French poupette, dim. of poupée “doll” (13c.), from Vulgar Latin root *puppa, from Latin pupa “girl, doll”
All these definitions imply a human form, a face – so, based on the common definition of puppet – is it still a puppet if it doesn’t possess a face? And is it capable of provoking similarly anthropomorphized responses even in the absence of familiar human or animal attributes?
The answer is yes.
I would like to cite some examples of ‘faceless’ theatre. that I have encountered. Recently I attended an exhibition of William Kentridge’s work and amongst the works were two mechanical puppet theatres, Black Box/Chamber Noir and The Magic Flute 2005. These were multi-layered works combining projected animation, music and simple mechanical puppets. I was deeply struck by the effectiveness of the mechanical puppets and the strange authority that they commanded. Somehow the complete absence of a human manipulator made their appearance of sentience all the more compelling. They were very roughly made yet paradoxically precise objects. Made of torn and rolled paper, sticky-tape, tacks, wire and visible split pins the objects were mounted on delicate jointed metal ribs that contracted, expanded and propelled the objects along tracks across the stage. The whirrings and pneumatic hiss of animating mechanisms were heard, the cables and flywheels all visible, and yet the mechanical puppets wobbled and jerked into view as if propelled by their own volition. Perhaps ‘will’ is the crucial word here – it was the illusion of will that made these mechanical puppets with their nodding paper heads (actual or implied) and their brittle movements so ‘other’. As audience striving to understand the life of these assemblages we granted them temporary status as living entities – we read into their actions intention, will and motivation. They seemingly implored us to interpret their actions as purposeful, as meaning to communicate something. This illusion of intent was also informed and supported by the other elements of the piece; the music, animations and text. The contextualising of content historically (no matter how opaque at times) also informed our reading of Kentridge’s mechanical actors and proffered an authority and poignancy to the cast of paper and steel players.
Another work of theatre devoid of explicitly human presence and which made a strong impact on me in recent years was Heiner Goebbels’ intriguing work ‘Stifter’s Dinge’. The work has been described as a play without actors; read here a wonderful description of the work by Artangel:
From rain and hail to mist and fog, a remarkable indoor landscape gradually awakens… Five hanging pianos, their innards exposed, form a corpse-like backdrop to the unfolding action. The pianos play themselves, advancing as an unlikely and threatening presence over steaming pools of water… In an extraordinary sculptural installation that is part music box and part landscape painting, it is the objects that are the chief protagonists: objects at the mercy of underlying elemental forces.
I vividly recall the final scene where the mechanised structure of upturned pianos began to advance (imperceptibly at first) towards the audience. It was an awful, unrelenting advance, punctuated by spasmodic twitches and hammerings, pneumatic wheezes and a rumbling crescendo of music emanating from the structure from some unseen place of remote control. Just as it loomed hard against the audience almost threatening to crush us – it all abruptly ceased. We were left with an eerie silence punctuated by water dripping and the occasional sound of piano wires twitching, timber creaking. Here was theatre without a ‘face’ in sight – we were confronted instead it seemed, by ‘the ghost in the machine’. As audience we felt as if we’d intruded on the private space of this monstrous machine and witnessed its secret, underlying vitalism.
Finally I would like to acknowledge the impact of the The Quay Brother’s short film Das Stille Nact lll, Tales from the Vienna Woods had in awakening me to the intriguing potential of a world ‘peopled’ with metaphorical objects.
This enigmatic work appears to be set in a museum case in which hovers a peculiar elongated table with asymmetrical antlers. We then follow a disembodied hand which seems to orchestrate the recurring sequence of events which follows; a gun is fired and the course of a bullet is traced as it passes through branches of a stylised forest, navigating tree trunks and foliage before coming to rest in the museums interior, lodged within a testicular pine cone which dangles from the table. A long scalloped spoon sprouts like an erection catching the smouldering bullet as it is regurgitated from a small drawer and offered once more, to the hand thus, the whole cycle begins again…
Tales from the Vienna Woods seems to quiver and flash with a vitality that cannot be apprehended or entirely understood. In this world dusty leaves shiver, ornaments hold arcane clues, and bullets shaped like bumblebees wound and re-wound. The claustrophobia of the museum display case holds a muted terror that is acted and re-enacted without human observers. This mausoleum of un-dead objects has its own relentless rhythms, its own irrational rationale.
Here the Quay Brothers describes the objects at play:
The anamorphic table with antlers and multiple legs is one of those “bachelor machines” you imagine exist in some fictional museum. At night, these objects repeatedly dream and replay their former circumstances for having arrived here in this museum…They are only alive at night remorselessly tied to a single dream – it’s a permanent death that they rehearse over and over again.
What a poetic analogy for this process of ceaselessly dreaming and reiterating ourselves into and out of existence. The ‘single dream’ to which we are ‘remorselessly tied’ is for the time being, life. And through this process we not only rehearse our death over and over but also our being. We reinstate our sense of self daily through the act of communicating, doing. Through the creative process we find a face to commune with where there is none, a voice where there is silence and audience to witness and bear witness, inanimate or not.