“The puppet is what best represents the position of man in today’s manipulated world. The hand of a puppeteer is always the hand of one who ‘leads’, the hand of the Great Manipulator. The puppet’s immobile expression, its inability to mimic, does not allow it to communicate the subtle oscillations of the soul, but it does emphasise the magical nature of the sign.”Jan Švankmajer (1997)
In the opening sequence of Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), released in Czechoslovakia in 1966, two teenage girls, known only as Marie I and Marie II, played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, have become puppets. As they embrace, exercise, blow trumpets and converse in affectless, mechanical voices, their limbs creak on the soundtrack like the wooden joints of marionettes. This merging of human and puppet characteristics is the prelude to an anarchic revolt, in anticipation of the Prague Spring, perhaps, as the two eat continually, dismember one-another, destroy social niceties, and dance, moving through a discontinuous landscape of factories, banqueting halls and nightclubs, determined to be ‘bad’, to live free of the invisible strings, economic, moral and social, that would control them.
The revolt of puppets against the unseen hands of their puppeteers, their transition from inert material to independent life, has long been understood as a political and existential metaphor, not least in contexts where censorship of direct political realism has necessitated a very particular kind of invention in the making of subversive statements. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?), made for Italian television in 1967, presents its human actors as archetypal marionettes, each destined to play only one role: that of their particular character in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s naïve innocence and Iago’s corrupt scheming make the story’s outcome inevitable only because the puppets fail to question their roles until they’re consigned to a literal rubbish heap, where they finally look up and see clouds where the puppet master they’d never dared notice had always been.
Pasolini’s film, though not Chytilová’s, forms a key part of Eastside Projects’ Puppet Show, an exhibition curated by Tom Bloor and Céline Condorelli that at first glance seems entirely whimsical in its intentions. The space is presented as a kind of playground, a toy-strewn nursery with painted walls, secret passages and wooden toy theatres framing video screens and the information desk. Simon Popper’s elongated minimalist clusters of giraffe-patterned poles and bright pink elephants welded from buckets and trays certainly contribute to the nursery vibe, looking a bit like distorted samples from an IKEA children’s’ collection, while Pedro Reyes’ shelf of wooden bobbin and spindle forms, Solids of Rotation (2009), might resemble Bauhaus abstract sculptures or dolls, but neither entirely fits the definition of a puppet.
In fact, within the Puppet Show, the idea of what a puppet is seems to have been kept fairly loose, so while there’s a well established spectrum in puppetry itself, running from classic marionettes and glove puppets to automata, stop-motion animation and ventriloquists’ dummies, Condorelli and Bloor go somewhat further, with Popper’s toy-like sculptures and Spartacus Chetwynd’s elaborately costumed 2004 performance Born Free: The Death of a Conservationist stretching the remit into territory which might be more plausibly considered anthropomorphic sculpture or a more straightforward kind of masked carnivalesque theatre.
Not that this matters much, as far as the exhibition’s coherence goes, since the central positioning of Jiří Trnka’s final film, Ruka (The Hand), suggests the political and allegorical possibilities of the puppet remain live concerns. Ruka was released in Czechoslovakia in 1965, presenting an original folktale in which an artist, represented by an uncannily expressive puppet, is pursued by a implacable hand that demands its own portrait, over and over again, until the artist’s resistance ends in an ambiguous suicide and a tableaux of solemn tribute as the small wooden body is nailed inside a white wardrobe and lit with candles, like an altarpiece. This final scene is, inevitably, arranged by the hand, which has shaped the action in every sense, as a destructive protagonist in the story and the manipulator of the objects used to tell it.
As a thinly veiled parable of political control, made at the end of Trnka’s thirty year career, Ruka is generally interpreted in terms specific to the position of artists under Communist regimes. But that, in itself, might be seen as another instance of the puppet-masters’ hands tweaking our strings, directing our attention away from the mechanisms that might be controlling us, as Pasolini’s film makes clear: when Pasolini’s child-like Othello hears Iago’s plotting from backstage and confronts him at the end of the scene he accosts his enemy with a kind of bewilderment: “I disgust myself and I know I am not innocent”, he says. “I also know you are my friend, a good man. Why are we acting like this?” Iago shrugs, as if to acknowledge that it’s how things are. We’re not in control.
Perhaps it’s significant now, in a way it might not have been in the mid-1960s, when the films were made, that the central justifying metaphor of the neoliberal free market is ‘the invisible hand’, the Enlightenment economist Adam Smith’s coinage for one of the many forces creating disjunctions between the intended and actual consequences of human and social actions in complex systems of the kind his classic study, The Wealth of Nations (1776), explored. Raised to a fetish by the advocates of deregulation and privatisation in the 1970s and 1980s, Smith’s concept of an ‘invisible hand’ at work in an economy, directing money to the deserving while securing the most efficient and beneficial ends for all, has become the free market’s founding catechism and a notion that puppetry fits like the proverbial glove.
If the allegorical point made by Jiří Trnka’s Ruka was largely directed at Stalinist control of cultural production in his own time and place, then, its contemporary resonance may be quite different, since the hand’s controlling powers – most forceful when the hand is that of the puppeteer, concealed from view as it invariably is – ensure that the forces acting on us in our everyday lives pass unnoticed, as somehow ‘natural’. If the Communist state’s censorship, the censorship that artists like Trnka had to navigate, was defeated by the market reforms of 1989, as our present myths have it, it’s also fairly clear that the censor’s functions were not themselves discarded but found themselves outsourced and privatised, along with everything else. What was once politically unacceptable is now financially unviable.
The failure to observe or understand the forces that shape us reduces us to the condition of puppets ourselves, a position of superstition and fear as to what purpose the ‘invisible hand’ might have for us. Those who would claim to comprehend these forces on our behalf, to defend us from their worst effects, are, by definition, the powerful: those who ‘lead’, as Jan Švankmajer suggested in 1997, ‘the Great Manipulators’. When Adam Smith first deployed his now notorious image of the ‘invisible hand’ in The History of Astronomy, a work dating from the late 1750s, it was, strangely enough, in precisely this context, a point that flags up a warning about its decontextualisation when quoted from later texts. In the 1750s, Smith noted that, in an age before rational enquiry, “fire burns and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend and lighter substances fly upwards by the necessity of their own nature; nor is the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters.” The ‘invisible hand’ is here that of the Gods who must be appeased, regardless of the social and natural forces at work; the Gods whose influences must necessarily disappear once Enlightenment and Reason hold sway and we finally shape our own destinies through the pursuit of new knowledge.
Like Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist driven to murder by his unsettlingly animate but still-wooden dummy in Alberto Cavalcanti’s segment of the portmanteau British horror film Dead of Night (1945), the uncanny and disturbing qualities of puppets, both in action and as objects, lie in this ability to mirror our own fears that this might be our general predicament: that someone might be pulling our strings (ps see notes on Ligotti and Metzinger). Even when invested with the illusion of consciousness, puppets can only stage their revolts for as long as they are manipulated, while remaining subject to the actions of ‘invisible hands’. Perhaps pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, has its root in an unconscious sense that we are not in control, either; that our voices and actions are not our own.
It’s a point obliquely made in Dan and Rodney Graham’s Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty (2004), a ‘rock opera puppet show’ (and loose adaptation of the 1968 exploitation film Wild in the Streets) made in collaboration with Tony Oursler, Phillip Huber and the avant-rock duo, Japanther. A mixed media staging, presented at Eastside Projects on digital film, it’s the story of an idealistic revolutionary youth movement at the tail end of the sixties and its transfiguration into a comically groovy new form of fascism, a liberation far worse than the system it set out to oppose. Partly a restatement of the old maxim ‘power corrupts’, partly a parable about the symptoms and causes of oppression, the tiny marionettes in Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty act out their doomed revolutionary pantomime under the control of puppeteers whose polished shoes and trouser-legs are always visible behind the networks of pulled strings directing the narrative, like the lower floors of corporate tower-blocks in a financial district.
In this light, it’s arguable that the revolts staged by Věra Chytilová’s anti-heroines in Sedmikrásky and the artist’s principled refusal to serve the oppressive hand in Jiří Trnka’s Ruka, are both ultimately futile – indeed, in Chytilová’s film, the very pointlessness and arbitrary nature of the two womens’ orgy of destruction is, if anything, the source of its fleeting potency. But at least such acts have offered examples of puppets refusing to act out the scripts written for them, achieving not a free consciousness, exactly, but a temporary liberation from the forces directing their actions. And perhaps there’s no escape: in Jan Švankmajer’s Byt (The Flat), made in 1968, the human protagonist, trying to follow his conformist daily routine, is tormented and controlled by the inanimate objects in his small apartment, as though rendered a puppet merely by the forces at work in the world he inhabits.
In 1965, when Věra Chytilová was completing Sedmikrásky and Jiří Trnka was in his Prague studio making Ruka, Jan Švankmajer was already working on Rakvičkárna (Punch and Judy, or The Coffin Factory), a short puppet film released in 1966 that portrayed the characters from England’s adopted commedia del’arte folk theatre in another guise, as the solemn duellists of a Punch and Judy show without kazoos and crocodiles, strings of sausages and policemen, just a willed and murderous intent at the hands of the puppeteer, whose hands are revealed at the beginning and end of the story. In both Alice (1987) and Faust (1994), Švankmajer’s protagonists oscillate between inexpressive humanity and doll or puppet states, their characters and motivations unchanged by the arbitrary transformations.
It’s obvious in examples like these – sadly not part of the Eastside exhibition but useful in casting light on its contents – that puppets absorb and bleed into the characters who make, operate and become them, much as photographs were once thought to affect their subjects’ spirits. When Heather and Ivan Morison stage Empire of Dirt (2012), the puppeteer Owen Davies gives a convincing impression of a man possessed by the Black Troll and The Girl, whose baked mud figures hang, for this Puppet Show’s duration, from the sides of Davies’ high, burned chair, which in turn overlooks empty benches and a crowd of inert, raggedly hand-made puppets, from other Morison puppet-plays like Pleasure Island (2008), Anna (2011) and Mr Clevver (2013). All have toured, but here find their characters displayed as objects.
The aesthetic of the Morison puppets is clearly borrowed from the glove puppets made from household scraps and salvaged junk by the artist Paul Klee between 1916 and 1925, ranging from fantastical figures like Death, an Electrical Spook (with a plug-socket head), a Matchbox Spectre, a Poet, a Monk, a Devil and a Scarecrow’s Ghost to – perhaps most intriguing of all – a Self Portrait. These undeniably Klee-esque objects have a presence that, for all their whimsical invention and makeshift construction retains a quality of potential life, possible consciousness, and this characteristic haunts the Morison puppets, too, as though, like Pasolini’s Othello marionettes in Che cosa sono le nuvole?, or Edwina Ashton’s gathering of figures to represent A Short History of the Midlands (2013), they might all be awaiting their chance to revolt, to break free of the alternation between scripted animation and silent waiting we tend to impose on them.
This sense of inanimate objects with inner lives may be the defining quality of all puppets, and there’s always a possibility that they might turn the tables on those who control them. The first exhibit encountered in the Eastside space, and the last seen on leaving, is Geoffrey Farmer’s You Know Nothing, The Owl Knows Everything (2007), a small archaeological museum of sharpened broomsticks and abject but once-precious things – a tiny wooden cross, a splintered twig, a note instructing its reader to kill whoever suggested some small disobedience – all presided over by a mutely inscrutable owl. Roughly made, barely even an owl or a puppet at all, the lumpen form, like some untypically sinister intruder from the world of Oliver Postgate, invests its surroundings with an air of ownership. We enter its domain to look at the relics of its time as a ruler and feel the implicit threat of the owl’s reanimation, the owl’s return to power. Defeated rulers, like their subjects, can also break free of their constraints and limitations, as the wealthy broke the chains placed on them by the 1945 settlement in 1979, the ‘invisible hand’ their justification. Farmer’s owl warns us that the puppeteers might be puppets, too.