Text by Hannah Elizabeth Allan.
Hosted by the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool and curated by artists Tom Bloor and Céline Condorelli, Puppet Show is a group exhibition with an accompanying programme of performances, tours and workshops. The show has been re-staged for the Grundy following an earlier iteration at Eastside Projects, Birmingham in 2013. Bloor and Condorelli have contextualised the exhibition as exploring the ways in which puppets can take on – and stand in for – their human operators, and how this quality might be utilised as protest through mimicry, satire and debasement. At the Grundy, this critical dialogue has been skilfully balanced with a number of activities aimed at children, acknowledging the notions of play and entertainment we might associate with the form.
The show features a range of media including films of puppetry, puppets displayed as sculptural objects/installations, paintings, and photographic prints. On entering the gallery visitors are met with a cacophony of noise: the soundtrack of multiple voices lend the space a feeling of animation and chaos. This is in contrast to the puppets themselves who remain eerily still and silent.
On the upper level of the gallery, Edwina Ashton’s installation Midday at the Watering Hole plays on Blackpool’s reputation as a beach resort, with her creations enjoying their day at a similar environment. We stumble upon the scene of these autonomous puppets as an intruder. Each with their own personality, Ashton’s creations have taken on the human aspects of the operators they no longer require.
Within the main gallery, motion comes in measured bursts from the punctuation of small screens which show Pedro Reyes’ work reflecting on Marx and protest, to the anthropomorphised performance of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, with finally the enclosed cabin which screens Dan and Rodney Graham’s film. Two larger spaces show video work on a more imposing scale. Pierre Huyghe’s This is Not a Time for Dreaming combines the puppet show with a meta-commentary on the medium through the characters featured within both. The puppets seem aware of their situation, moving as though in the midst of existential ennui, having noted their own strings and operators. In contrast, the split screen installation by Condorelli herself consists of a series of vignettes acted out by puppets in model train carriages. The theatrical staging of the film reveals the set and operators above, yet the melodramatic qualities and quick paced dialogue allow the viewer to readily suspend their disbelief. Key words and phrases are lifted from the film and repeated as text on the right hand panel, creating a parallel dialogue which is by turn cryptic and humorous.
Puppets by Heather and Ivan Morison feature throughout the exhibition in sculptural installations which create a flow; the show overseen by the silent, striking, carnivalesque forms. A sense of the uncanny is most evident in the work shown alongside Condorelli’s. The puppets are mounted on poles with dramatic spot lighting adding to the staged quality, which in its aesthetic similarities to Goya’s Disasters of War creates a deep sense of unease. The contrast between the dynamic action of the animated puppets onscreen and the silent stillness of the Morison puppets highlights the two potential states of being innate to the form. This potential, and the tension that exists between the two, sustains Puppet Show as an exhibition, opening up dialogues between the artworks featured.
Image: Installation view, ‘Puppet Show’, Grundy Art Gallery, 12 April- 31 May 2014 Photo: Jonathan Lynch
Hannah Elizabeth Allan is an artist, writer, and PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University.