Ambiguous Categories – a puppet & poet on tour in Ireland.

This essay was written for Unima Australia’s website earlier this year – it reflects upon the experience of touring in Ireland.

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In October 2013 poet Andy Jackson and myself took our collaborative work of poetry/ puppetry, ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ on tour to Ireland – it was a mutually surprising experience for performers and audiences alike.

Puppets are controversial things it seems, burdened with presumptions about what they are, what they represent and where they belong. Upon arriving in Connemara for Clifden Arts week people were curious, they openly interrogated us about how poetry and puppetry could be combined, given that their understanding of puppetry was that it was ‘kids stuff’ – would a fusion of puppetry and poetry not be a tasteless and crass thing? I actually enjoyed the candour of the people I met in Ireland – one person openly said ‘That sounds awful’ when I described our project.

Poetry has a long and esteemed history in Ireland, so to suggest it could be performed with puppetry seemed sacrilegious. I was reminded about how little is known about the potential of puppetry as an art form and how it carries a stubborn low-brow historical association with it.

Interestingly, although there was a photo of Andy, the puppet and myself in the festival program, a few people we spoke to did not recognise my puppet as a puppet. Indeed after the performance we had many passionate debates about the semantics of whether the thing I had created was a puppet. People were adamant that puppet was not the correct label for the object I had made or the style in which it was performed. It intrigued me that there seemed such a strong dissonance between people’s associations of puppetry and what I had created.

Perhaps the most moving and startling feedback I received from an engrossed audience member was the comment: “Now that I have seen him, I am sorry I called him a puppet.”

Despite the reservations that people expressed about what collaboration between poetry and puppetry might entail – we did have a solitary audience member walk out of one performance clutching her disappointed child (clearly she had expected to see a ‘show for kids’!) – ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ was well attended and the reactions were startling in their appreciation and depth of feeling. During performance it was as if the whole audience was hushed, poised and utterly ‘with’ us for the duration. People came up onto the stage afterwards, moved beyond words, tears flowing, hands extended.

As an artist I found this performance a profoundly liberating experience – ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ is a sparse work with very ‘naked’, simple elements – poem, puppet, song. The effect that it had on people however was not simple and reminded me of the power of language and the uncanny lure of the puppet on stage. I was powerfully reminded that there doesn’t need to be elaborate production values, multitudinous effects or a convoluted story to hold people and to hold them rapturously – for it was rapture that ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ provoked.

‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ is risky in its simplicity and preparedness to share human truths. It strives to evoke emotion with the space around one beautifully crafted poem, two bodies on stage (one extraordinary, Andy has Marfan Syndrome and writes about non-normative embodiment and identity) – and finally, a little puppet, lovingly crafted in the image of its sitter – a tiny, animated mirror.

I re-discovered that silence and stillness could be as dynamic as action. To simply be and breathe with and through the puppet in response to the emotions expressed on stage can be as daring and transcendent as grand dramatic gesture. To resist the impulse to ‘fill’ space with movement is a difficult thing to do – and to maintain ‘aliveness’ in a moment of emptiness demands absolute commitment to and belief in the life of the performing object.

In these moments I came to know the ‘puppet’ I had created in a different way – he seemed to be an entity unto himself. He became an instrument of expression straddling the thin divide between life and non-life. Such an instrument is hard to categorise, to name. Perhaps the puppet is the ‘ambiguous mirror’ in this performance.

~

In Ireland audiences were generous, astute and quick to enter into discussion. Here we found a culture steeped in poetry and music. Here we felt welcomed with our offering of poetry, puppetry and song.  Andy and I felt greatly affirmed as artists and were reminded of the reason behind the desire to make work and keep offering it to audiences. It is the deep satisfaction of communion through the acknowledgement of our shared humanity.

The transfiguring of loss and vulnerability into metaphor and poetry; the joyous triad of a tiny sculpted man, his living, speaking flesh-double and my hands, our intentions – flowing.

 

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Many thanks to Dr Robyn Rowland AO, Arts Victoria and all our supporters on Pozible – we couldn’t have done it without you!

 

 

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.

~

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The story of Ambiguous Mirrors

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Ambiguous Mirrors is the first collaboration between myself and my partner Andy Jackson. The work, a puppetry/poetry collaboration is a response to Andy’s poem ‘9/10/1973 M3’ which explores the emotional and physical legacy of the poet’s deceased father.  Andy shares the rare genetic condition ‘Marfans syndrome’ with the father who he never came to know. For Andy the condition has meant living with an unusual physical embodiment – a theme that he evokes and examines in his poetry. In his own words:

The body I inhabit, or perhaps I should say, the body that I am, is visually extraordinary, due to a condition known as Marfan Syndrome. I am six foot three, and weigh around sixty-five kilograms; I am slender, with long limbs. My spine curves dramatically from side-to-side and front-to-back; I would be perhaps six foot six if my spine were straight. In a way, my body has easily adjusted to this shape. But in another way, this is the shape of my body, and it is normal. I do not experience pain or physical difficulty, as some people have assumed. My body experiences its shape in much the same way as any body experiences its shape.

 Andy’s incredible poem ‘9/10/1973 M3’,  is a meditation on loss, familial similarity and emotional absence. Reading like a poignant conversation with his unknown parent the poem begins:

Knowing only your earth-gripped body can accept this

wreath of questions, I call the Cemetery Trust. 

 

I clutch, for the first time, the date you died, a grid position.

The gates are held open by sleepless weeds,

 

their shadows unseen, locked inside by the sun.

It’s hot.  Removing another layer, I sift the crunch

 

of dry earth for sympathy in the sound, for some hint

at how I’ll feel when finally face-to-stone,

 

though I know every echo is open to interpretation.

When I reach your section, I find

 

it barren, abandoned by flowers and rain.

So many unmarked plots in this desert, no oasis.

 

The gardeners drive past, trailing boredom and dust. 

I walk the aisles until I become just one

 

more sigh in a crowd of upper-case names.

Grief is not a hand but an absence –

 

it flies in the breeze echoing in the curves of my ears

and reveals as much of what the grave knows

 

as the magpie eyeing me from a mute monument.

The portrait puppet I created for this work is a response to both the poem and to Andy’s striking physical presence. Like poetry, puppetry is a rich forum for exploring issues of embodiment and identity – curious about the potential ‘conversation’ between our art forms we collaborated, uncovering connections between object, word, physicality and memory. At times this was a disconcerting process for both of us. For me I was aware that I was dealing with an incredibly sensitive area of Andy’s life and also working directly with his likeness (a process which is never easy , but is particularly heightened for Andy who lives with a visibility that few of us have experienced). For Andy, he expressed the anxiety of opening such a personal poem to the act of collaboration – and also to be faced with a tiny emergent ‘Doppleganger’ in clay was at times harrowing and highly emotional. 

Like a hall of mirrors this project began to unfold – the puppet coming to represent both Andy (child and adult), his deceased father (with whom he shared an uncanny likeness) and an entity in it’s own right. 

 

In the shadow of the Ring Road overpass,

I wait at the bank of the creek for your image

 

to appear, your arms to reach out and around me. 

Apart from death, movement is the only constant. 

 

Ducks glide past rubbish – this is the consolation. 

You don’t keep the appointments I make, you slip in

 

through fissures between thoughts that collapse

as I catch myself in shop windows and see

 

your nose, your hairline, your spine…

My dead father, the roaring trucks overhead

 

couldn’t care less, and the neck of the youngest

swan is strong enough to break a human arm

 

or heart.  I want the texture of feathers to speak

to this skin, to smother my fear I will never be held. 

 

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The result has been a simple, but emotionally charged and visually arresting work which has captured audiences at various literary festivals across Australia. Now we have been invited to share this work with audiences in Cork, Galway and Clifden. We are incredibly honoured to have been invited and are intensely curious to experience audience feedback in another country. Andy and I are currently planning to work up triptych of poems into another visual theatre collaboration – this process has been deeply rewarding and held rich revelations along the way.

 

As you know we are currently raising funds towards our tour – please consider pledging to this project. There are rewards associated with your pledges – yes, we will gift you with poetry and your own cast of the puppets hands or head depending on your donation.

To donate click on this link, any contribution will be deeply appreciated:

http://www.pozible.com/project/27597/

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I will finish this post with Andy’s beautiful words  – on seeing a photo his late father -the poem concludes:

She hands me a photo. 

Sense-memories I’ve wanted so much erupt in my skull. 

 

In a cigarette-scented black suit and tie, salesman-like,

you sit solid on the porch.  I rest on your lap, gazing away,

 

my child-face vague and adrift as if already swimming

the channels within.  Are you in here?  Your big hands

 

and slim fingers close around us like unsaid things. 

You are looking into the camera, into her I guess. 

 

In this shot, I can’t see the unnerving curve

of your back, but I know.  You didn’t talk about it,

 

your body a vault that ran out of air.  Later,

different times brushing against each other, 

 

a thunder in my head, I trace the lake slowly,

my bones resounding.  Your mother was born

 

in the century before last.  You just got on with it. 

Why can’t I?  A moorhen senses my feet

 

crush the grass, signs himself against the sky,

trailing the long red legs he inherited.

 

 

 

To read more about Andy and his poetry go to: amongtheregulars.wordpress.com

Ambiguous Mirrors tours Ireland

Dear Reader,

Poet Andy Jackson and myself are preparing to tour Ambiguous Mirrors in Ireland in September 2013 – this will be our international debut! As part of our fundraising efforts we are running a Pozible campaign in order to raise funds towards our touring costs.

So far we have reached 50% or our goal – please help us to reach 100%!

Please consider supporting this unique and sensitive poetry/puppetry work.

 

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****To view a short film of the work and to pledge to our project please go to the following link:

http://www.pozible.com/project/27597/

Please share this among your people and help us get the word out there!!

My Puppet, my secret self.

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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.

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