The 44th Summer

To all of you who have experienced a season of significant existential doubt – you will understand that this has been a strange and quiet year – a gap-year of sorts – the year my certainty broke. Many aspects of my life are on hold – I am re-appraising my art and theatre practice, my ways of thinking about the world and what constitutes a ‘good life’ – and I am getting my health back.

Shared here is a link to an article, “The 44th Summer”  that I recently contributed to a mental health awareness project. It is a re-working of a post on this blog “Black Dogs and Assumed Vocations” – but charts the last 11 months in more detail…and from the hindsight I have gained in that time.

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/13jq3ko

If you are unable to open this link – contact me and I’ll find an alternative way of sharing the content with you.

Rachael;s portrait 9 72ppi

 

 

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On Black Dogs and Assumed Vocations.

Black Dogs

Depression is not sadness – it is cessation.

At 44 years of age, I have found myself struck down by a strange and paralysing sense of refusal. It has resulted in me having to cancel a forthcoming season of a solo show – and also having to quit my job. I have recently returned from touring Ireland and somehow as my last ounce of resolve gave way to travel fatigue, the existential dam burst.

As the shadow of depression has deepened, I have prepared for a kind of death, have begun relinquishing my attachments and identifications –  loosening my grip on what has sustained or given shape to my life. I have been attending to my daily life as if it were my own wake; present, but not present, harbouring the little secret that I am not actually there; that I am insubstantial – illusory.

I have ‘died’ this way numerous times before – as a singer of opera, a voice for hire, community artist, gifted child – a young person with ‘potential’. Gone is the frantic youth eager to please, gone too, the newly initiated lover chasing new highs – in their place  stands a maturing woman. Her skin grows flawed, her body hums on it’s inevitable trajectory towards change. She’s aware of the depth of her own ignorance, knows that time is finite and that the world harbours cruelty, irrationality and unrest…

And so my ambivalence and sadness grow a little deeper and more quietly insistent with each year that passes. But I know also that on good days this sadness can resemble a state of grace, or even liberation.

The acute and vibrant aliveness of things is bittersweet – it dazzles and stuns me, burns bright and searing into the core of my sadness.The truth is, I don’t want to become too attached to anything – because I know that you and I and every living creature must lose everything. Life is a compulsory paring back – we fall, a particle at a time, into nothingness.

Behind me (and all of us) lays a slew of old identities, previous loves, possessions, houses, cities, relationships and memories – ghost towns of the self.

 ~

SONY DSCVocation?

As a consequence of some decisions I made in my late thirties to study postgraduate puppetry, I am becoming known as a maker of puppet theatre. But is that what I am? Puppetry has been a means to an end, not a life-long vocation. Labels worry me deeply – they evoke a kind of existential claustrophobia. To be called a ‘puppeteer’, an artist – or even a ‘creative’ at once affirms and unravels.

But herein lies the problem – I have always been loath to identify with any single direction. My only vocation it would seem is shrinking from any one fixed perception of what that might be.

As I grow up into my middle-aged self, I am faced with a dilemma – that of my own temperament and other people’s expectations. People are seemingly interested in the work I make, while I am deeply diffident and reluctant to be public. While I am touched that the work engenders interest and at times delight, I have no passionate attachment or identification to any singular art form.

It is the process of investigation that engages me, the personal satisfaction of chipping articulation out of the nebulous, making meaning out of the tiny inchoate mysteries that demand attention and expression. The communion of sharing the work with others is an added gift, but neither a demand, agenda nor an expectation.

Puppetry has been a sojourn, but how can any one thing be the final destination? As a medium it intrigues in so far as I can make objects and harness their latent anthropomorphic qualities in order to perform – beyond that I feel no attraction or compulsion towards the form. And it is ironic that I gravitate towards making theatre as theatre is a collective art form and am not a comfortable collaborator. I find it excruciating to allow someone else into the space of my creative process; to invite another rhythm, thought pattern or shape to intrude into the silent space of creative percolation is highly disruptive. In that private room of the mind, a quiet unnamable shape forms just below the level of consciousness – to hear another’s voice in that room could shatter a window or topple the furniture…

Collaboration physically and psychologically distresses me because I am simultaneously a chronic accommodator as well as an autocrat – and in the process of trying to be open to other’s input, I split into conflicted directions and lose my original impetus. So what then am I left with?  Refusal…?

I also acknowledge that collaboration doesn’t always hinder but offers the possibility for expansion, for unseen possibilities…perhaps it is a question of at what stage of the process you let another in, rather than keeping the room definitively locked.

My partner Andy suggested that I am perhaps an artistic nomad – perpetually setting up camp, and then moving on. This way of being is a difficult fit with a society that values consistency and specialisation.

In this limbo between shedding ‘what has been’ and growing into ‘what might become’, I am questioning what to keep and what to let go of. I have no answers. For the time being all I have is this space, these words.

~

DSC07632

My Puppet, my secret self.

Video

SONY DSCmy puppet,my secret self

Please click on the link above to see a short film of a recent project which I facilitated over the course of a year.This gorgeous film was made by Leonie van Eyk to document the process.

“My Puppet, my secret self”, was a workshop-based project which took place at Arts Project Australia, a studio and gallery for artists living with a disability. The project was funded through Australia Council and took place in Melbourne 2011-2012.

What you see here is the result of a year of Mondays — of wide-ranging conversation, laughter and experimentation. These are puppets and objects from the heart, that bear witness to the playfulness and inventiveness discovered through puppetry.

A heart-felt thanks to all that contributed.

Rachael

 

my fathers hands, more permanent than flesh.

“Although we are not passive puppets manipulated by our familial histories, the emotional forces constituting this high-voltage system are profound and deep, demanding and unyielding, laden with blessings and curses that infiltrate our ordinary, everyday lives.” Framo (1992, p. 7)

Predictably, I have been shaped in an indelible way by my experience of family. And so of late I’ve been thinking about the way our family of origin underpins so many facets of who we are and what we manifest throughout our lives. Within my creative practice, family directly and indirectly informs and permeates my work and is a puzzle that I cannot resist re-examining and re-telling.

It is through the act of re-telling that the story becomes an exaggeration, a metaphor, extending beyond the perimeters of its original family and coming to encapsulate human experience more broadly.

The family of origin is where we develop our first attachments, inching forward into our humanity through kinship. Perhaps it could be argued that family is original context for the process of autopoesis (self-shaping)  or, in Buddhist terms ‘dependant origination’.  The traumas, joys and mysteries of being are integrally bound up to this most potent and fraught of relationships – the love within family. The ambiguous mirrors that family throws forth constitute our first reflections of self, the original source of information that affirms that we exist.

So how might family relate to puppetry beyond the obvious metaphor? Bound up within this familial tryst lie the permutations of the uncanny; production/reproduction, alike/unalike, expectation/disappointment, attraction and repulsion. The mould from which we are born at once holds us and repels us – we are interdependent yet striving for independence. No wonder then, we create myths and objects that symbolise the perfect, incorruptible family; unfailing in its guardianship, intransigent in its capacity to nurture and protect; glorious by affiliation and similitude.

“It is not easy to love simple, limited, contradictory, oscillating flesh and bone mortals such as ourselves. It is easier to admire distant idols, maybe protectors in their unattainable majesty.”

psychologist, Emilio Romero

Perhaps this is why we make anthropomorphic images, why we are prone to succumb to illusions of sentience, affection or authority within the inanimate. Perhaps we are inevitably attuned to the symbolic possibilities of creating versions of family.

Might I suggest that it is through the original familial relationship we are primed to identify ‘other’ as kin or even other ‘things’ as ‘pseudo kin’. By pseudo kin I’m referring to the emotional investment or attachment that we extend towards living things (animals, plants) and non-living things (possessions, objects) and how we co-opt them to become signifiers of our personal identity or sense of security in the world.

~

Family goes right to the heart of the banal and the uncanny. It presents a set of circumstances we have little control over, hence the old adage ‘You don’t get to choose your family…’

19761975 baby brother comes home

BUT as a child you do get to imagine and manipulate a family of playthings, to wield  control over your own doll…

AND as an adult artisan you do get to make your own puppets and play them in scenarios of your own making…

(although, inevitably with any creation there are dimensions that exist beyond your intention and control).

IMGP0821 2002 with an early ‘doughboy’ puppet.

Creation and re-creation  – life leans towards life – we are created/we are destroyed, we in turn are makers and collaborators – like Russian dolls self-duplicating, generation after generation, the story is made and unmade – each life assembled, then disassembled.

~

“[The uncanny can be defined as a quality that]arises in objects, in people, in mirrors, as a minimal difference which causes a tremor in the world as a whole.”

(Michael Kinnucan, The Uncanny and the Rest of the World, The Hypocrite Reader, Issue 12, Home and Pain, Jan 2012.)

Surely then, familial resemblance is a place where we might encounter this sense of  ‘minimal difference’. Within the biological family we witness the peculiar duplication of resemblance as it alters and shifts and replicates itself inexhaustibly across the generations – a transmigration of inheritable attributes. We are all simultaneously replicas and originals.

My father’s hands always disconcert me; they are a masculine version of mine. They move in the same way, make the same gestures (are they our individual gestures or do they belong collectively to the family gene pool?). My hands are ageing the same way and even the whorls of his finger prints are the mirror image of my own. Watching my fathers hands always leaves me with the sense of inhabiting a body that is an assemblage of my forebears and which has an intrinsic will of it’s own, separate to mine, that comes to bear through my living. Which of course leads me to question whether my personality is also an assemblage…

Photo on 26-10-12 at 4.59 PM~

It is such a precarious line between the ‘familiar’ and the unfamiliar – this recognition that binds and divides us, that renders us so psychologically prone to be attracted to and disturbed by that which appears to mirror the familiar.

In the world of puppets, dolls and other simulacrum, the benign and the sinister wear familiar masks – and so it is with family.

 ~

Recently people who have visited my house have seen a photograph of my 40-something grandmother and asked “Is that a photo of you in costume? – It looks like you, but not you.” The tone of doubt that accompanies this question is the tone of doubt that arises when we encounter the familial uncanny.

How peculiar it is that as I am writing this I receive an email containing two photographs of my grandmother lying in state in her coffin – I was not expecting these images and it is an understatement to say I got a jolt when I opened my mail. The image was wholly uncanny, for it is my grandmother, but not my grandmother. She wears fierce pink lipstick, a tidy pink floral shirt and a modest cardigan. Her skin is waxen, her hair neatly brushed. Her heavy eyelids haunt me. The intimacy of witnessing her final rest is disconcerting – for it is a profound state of cessation, a bottomless, irrevocable state of permanent ‘arrest’. This was her condition in death and thus the condition we all come to share.

Perhaps this is a good moment to speak about mortality salience.

Mortality salience is a term which describes the awareness of one’s eventual death and is linked to Terror Management Theory (TMT) in social psychology. This theory posits that human behavior is mostly motivated by an unconscious fear of mortality. Thus, it is our inclination to value symbols that create cultural worldviews and to protect these symbols as representations of continuity.

Just as we are unsettled when we view a dead body which resembles the once-living but no-longer-living, we are unsettled by symbolic or literal representations of ourselves made of more enduring material than our own flesh. Mortality Salience explains the sense of unease experienced when viewing anthropomorphic objects such as dolls, puppets or robots. To behold such an image evokes in viewers a reminder of their own mortality.

It interests me that we not only experience strong states of attraction and repulsion towards such objects, we feel to compelled make them. Through the making of symbolic objects as precious ‘stand-ins’ for the real thing, has evolved the notion of ‘sympathetic magic’ – that the image of something can function analogously to the thing itself.

Object and ritual are entwined and I would argue that the definition of ritual includes not only religious practices but also play, theatre and visual art.

As I have probably mentioned earlier in this blog, I think of my own puppetry practice as applied sculpture. My puppets are statues; they are not substitutes or ‘stand-ins’ for something else, they are the thing itself.

Mike Kelley writes of the ‘aura of death’ that surrounds statues:

The origin of sculpture is said to be the grave; the first corpse was the first statue. And early statues were the first objects to which the aura of life clung. Unwilling to accept the notion of himself as a material being with a limited life span, “Man” had to represent himself symbolically as eternal, in materials more permanent than flesh.”

from the essay: Playing with dead things:on the Uncanny

~

As a maker I find the human form an inexhaustible fascination, and to take it a step further and perform with such objects is to further venture into this beguiling tryst between the animate and inanimate. It could be described as another version of ‘dependant origination’ between maker and creation.

And so we arise in an uncanny universe, from a source of which we have no recall, a source before language, an inchoate state from which we are summoned and brought into being by family, coaxed forth and shaped in its likeness.

This could be spoken by a person, but equally it might be spoken from the point of view of a puppet –

or so I imagine.

SONY DSC

My pretty new puppet is a little cadaver.

It has been a while since my last blog entry – the 1st day of January seems a good moment to resume.

I have been unable to write for the past three months as I have been immersed in making elements for my forthcoming show ‘Hutch’. Somehow in the process of puppet building and devising, I lost all desire to write. I was dwelling in a wordless space of sculpting, designing puppet joints and visualising spaces, music and gestures.

The past three months have been a long, mostly solitary slog – alternating between long hours in the studio, cups of tea, rumination in the garden, acute highs and lows and then back to the studio. I’ve been working on a small self-portrait puppet, which will be birthed from an empty dress in the final scene of ‘Hutch’.

Puppet head in progress.

Reproducing one’s own likeness in the form of a puppet is no easy task on a number of levels. It confronts you with your own mortality, as it is the act of suspending a moment of time.

I am aware that this puppet is a version of my 42-year –old self forever trapped in paper-mache repose. This miniature self, is something at once inert, yet charged with the capacity to receive a borrowed vitality. I have created a little cadaver who dances at my touch.

Another aspect of the difficulty of puppet self-portraiture is the elusiveness of what it is that constitutes ‘likeness’. In portraiture we talk of capturing someone’s ‘essence’ – to merely describe the sum of their parts does not guarantee a depiction their ‘likeness’. It’s really hard to identify what it is that constitutes our own likeness, as we never see it objectively. My puppet is a caricature I suppose – yet it goes someway towards expressing the experience of my own embodiment and perhaps my speculation of what I must look like to others (which is it’s own form of auto-biographical disclosure).

In the studio, comparing likeness.

There has also been a comical aspect to this process; during the building of this puppet, I’ve also been trying to re-build my own flesh and blood body. Due to a back injury I’ve been doing Pilates and physiotherapy. While packing my puppets midriff with rolls of baby fat foam to create softness and describe ‘she-ness’, I’ve been working hard to whittle away my own softness. I have spent hours designing joints that rotate and flex, while my joints are stiff – I’ve created a spine that bends gracefully in all the places mine won’t. I will continue to age while she will remain impassive and smooth under her mask of gesso. There is something disconcerting about the durability of her materials compared to the perishability of mine.

The act of making such an artefact (or indeed, any piece of creative work) seems to lead inexorably back to the unanswerable mystery, “What am I?” “Why do I exist?”

The puppet, being a liminal object, suspended between ‘thing-ness’ and a borrowed subjectivity, does indeed reference our own finite time as subjects before we return to  incoherent stuff, to elements.

Many years ago I heard a French Philosopher (whose name I can’t recall) talking about the transition of the body from a condition of desirable self-hood (he/she, I/you), to a repulsive, decomposing thing – an ‘it’. It becomes a thing that we reject, distance ourselves from, try to forget. A puppet also shifts between these two poles – its life comes and goes; we pick it up (he/she), we put it down (thing/it).

˜

This new puppet is a self-portrait but primarily she’s an actor – she represents me as my character in Hutch. How well she performs is yet to be tested! Though she is mute, I’m certain she has something to say.

The new puppet near completion.

Why do I make puppets?

7 July 2011  – A note to ‘Secessionist’ puppet (currently being created)

You frustrate me and allude me, yet you demand to be made. For weeks now I have molded clay, creating your hands, feet, belly, genitals, and face. I have birthed you from Pinkysil moulds – squeezing your hard pale form from a silicon womb – I have Dremelled away all your flaws, your ragged edges, carved shallow sockets for your joints, drilled channels in your shins in preparation for spring-leg-bones, I’ve fashioned wooden beads for knee joints, ankle joints – but I have failed to give you fluid movement.

Now you lie dismembered on my work table –  I have failed to animate you.

In moments like these, on the long, lonely slog of trial and error, I honestly wonder why I am doing this. Investing all this time in the creation of puppet whose purpose for being is so singular, so specific to the poem on which the work will be based.

(this puppet is being created for a performance based on the Poem ‘Secessionist’ by Andy Jackson:  http://www.library.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/210125/Secessionist.pdf

˜

˜

Making a puppet is not any easy process – puppets are emissaries or ‘ambassadors’ to human beings from the world of things.

According to Kenneth Gross, English-born, Israeli poet and playwright Dennis Silk imagined objects or thing-theatre to have an intensity and power that led him to feel critical of puppet theatre that was merely ‘cute’ or ‘comforting’. Of this style of puppeteering he says “ The soft [puppet master] doesn’t know he has a dangerous object in his hands. He’s like a sapper defusing the mines he plants”.

I get the impression that Silk felt that ‘cute’ and ‘comforting’ puppetry was a lazy choice that betrayed the real strength and symbolic potential of animated objects. Silk writes with almost religious intensity about the power latent in the world of ‘things’. Of this power he writes:

“We’re afraid of the life were meager enough to term inanimate. Meager because we can’t cope with those witnesses…If a cross is a witness why not a loaf of bread, or a shoe-tree, or sugar tongs, or a piece of string? We should have an All Soul’s Night for dead objects, and confer on them some hours of life we deny them.”

(Dennis Silk, The Marionette Theatre, 1996 )

As a maker I am acutely aware that I am simultaneously creating something dead, an inanimate object – and something alive, an object with specific characteristics made with the intention to appeal to onlookers’ anthropomorphic tendencies.

Of the process of puppet making Michael Meschke speaks with great deliberation and passion – he insists that a face must not be too finished as it doesn’t leave space for the audience’s imagination.

‘But how, on an unchangeable mask, can one mirror the entire spirit [?]…perhaps one must try to reproduce a distillate of her most important feelings and behaviour patterns…

A human portrait that is too well-defined can block a spectator’s imagination from responding to the many variations that the face expresses.’

(In Search of Aesthetics for the Puppet Theatre, Michael Meschke.)

When I come to create a puppet I am attempting to create a face that is highly modeled and refined but which has a still and open expression, a neutrality that is both full and empty. Quiet and active – alive and dead. I also desire to imbue what I create with beauty – not a conventional beauty but something compelling that captures the attention of the onlooker.

 Meschke: ‘What makes sensitive puppet faces appeal so strongly to us? Why is the impression they make on us so important, when at the same time, they are so unreal, a mere illusion?

When the human hand attempts to capture beauty it expresses our longing for the absolute. We are reminded of how we ourselves could be reminded of the dreams we cherish, in the midst of our impoverished insufficiency, of a paradise lost or perfection always worth seeking…

Perhaps then, anthropomorphic instinct arises from a state of incompleteness – although in desiring a mirror, an actual reflection is not sought, but an enhancement, a distillate of what we imagine we could be, what we imagine might make us complete.

A certain existential loneliness pushes me to make puppets, to create these little simulacra, to behold the human form in all its mystery, banality and vulnerability.

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

hovers.

˜

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