The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s Brown Foundation Gallery becomes a stage for The Puppet Show, a group exhibition that looks at the imagery of puppets in contemporary art. The Puppet Show concentrates on sculpture, video, and photography and brings together several generations of artists from around the world. Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, The Puppet Show is co-curated by Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at ICA, and Carin Kuoni, director, The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, New York.
Some works in The Puppet Show involve puppets as figures: marionettes, shadow puppets, ventriloquist dummies. In others, artists perform as puppeteers. And still other works bring to mind the richly evocative topics associated with puppetry such as manipulation, miniaturization, power, and control. Ventriloquists dummies of noted art-world luminaries like Hans Ulrich-Obrist and Liam Gillick sit ready to participate in a panel discussion in Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (ventriloquist performance #1 (2005); French architect Le Corbusier’s struggles with his 1963 Harvard-commissioned building are documented in Pierre Huyghe’s puppet opera This is not a time for dreaming (2004); a man and woman alternate roles as aggressors, in an unconventional Punch and Judy show, over a romantic supper that erupts into violence in Bruce Nauman’s 1986 video Violent Incident (Man/Woman Segment); and dozens of identical dancing figures perform in Dennis Oppenheim’s 1974 installation Theme for a Major Hit.
The exhibition opens with a look at backstage—an installation dubbed, “Puppet Storage.” The plywood structure is filled with pictures, props, and other source material collected from artists studios as well as a historic collection of puppets from the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut selected by the Ballard’s director Dr. John Bell, an internationally renowned puppeteer and historian of puppet theater. “Puppet Storage” was conceived as an exhibition within an exhibition and provides insight into the artists working methods and inspirations.
The Puppet Show takes as a historic point of departure one of the first episodes of avant-garde art history: Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi that was conceived as a puppet show. Considered by many to be the first dramatic work of the theater of the absurd, Ubu Roi (translated as “King Ubu” or “King Turd”) is an allegory of anarchy that uses farce and scatological humor to comment on art, literature, politics, and the ruling class. Since Jarry’s play, puppets have taken hold of pop consciousness by way of films, theater, computer games, and animation. Together with these collective points of reference, the exhibition shows puppets to be a provocative and relevant subject—one that moves deep into social, political, and psychological terrain.
Artists in the Exhibition
Guy Ben-Ner, Nayland Blake, Louise Bourgeois, Maurizio Cattelan, Anne Chu, Nathalie Djurberg, Terrence Gower, Handspring Puppet Company, Pierre Huyghe, Christian Jankowski, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Cindy Loehr, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy, Matt Mullican, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Laurie Simmons, Doug Skinner and Michael Smith, Kiki Smith, Survival Research Laboratory, Kara Walker, and Charlie White.