The Puppet Show

Santa Monica Museum of Art
Santa Monica, CA
Annette Leddy

In 1962, Theodor Adorno famously concluded a series of debates with Walter Benjamin by arguing against all directly political art as ineffective: “This is not a time for political art, but politics has migrated into autonomous art, and nowhere more than where it appears to be politically dead.”1 This observation came to mind as I was viewing The Puppet Show, curated by Ingrid Schaffner and Carin Kuoni. The exhibition begins with a video by Bruce Nauman, Violent Incident (Man/Woman Segment) (1986), displayed in an improvised entrance foyer that isolates it from the rest of the exhibition. As the exhibition’s introductory piece, the Nauman video announces that the concept of puppetry will not be limited to the familiar folk-art artifact, but will rather concern the self’s lack of agency, or what Adorno called “a highly concrete historical reality: the abdication of the subject.”2

The elements of this single-channel video are a table set for a romantic dinner, a man, and a woman. The man graciously pulls out a chair for the woman, but as she is about to sit, he is apparently seized by a counter-impulse, and pulls the chair out from under her, so that she falls on the floor. This sets in motion a series of movements and counter-movements: she vengefully reaches up from the floor to stick a finger in his ass, he reacts by cursing, “Fucking cunt, don’t you ever….” They stand facing each other, and he seems about to hit her, when she throws a glass of water in his face. He slaps her; she thrusts her knee in his crotch; he grabs a knife from the table and plunges it in her stomach. Before collapsing, she grabs it back and knifes him, and he collapses. This routine is repeated for thirty minutes.

The repetitions emphasize the involuntary impulses that lie beneath the romantic dinner. Specifically, sexual or self-protective feelings are not subject to the individual’s control. But this lack of agency is no longer the result of repressiveness that causes sexual drives to become tyrannical dissociated complexes, as Freud argues in “The Uncanny,” one of the exhibition’s conceptual antecedents.3 Nauman’s video represents the current phase of the self’s psychic organization, where impulses are not so much repressed as subject to social manipulation. Man and Woman in the video, avatars of the timeless puppet dyad Punch and Judy, can no more stop their behavior than we can stop the video from repeating. We are united with them in our helplessness in the face of social imperatives that the culture industry serves particularly well. As Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of Punch and Judy’s 20th century kin, Donald Duck:

In so far as cartoons do any more than accustom the senses to the new tempo, they hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society.4

Nauman’s video frames and isolates this effect of movies in general, their deployment of a social dictum against “individual resistance.” As if in testimony to this difficult message, as I was watching the video, I overheard one museum worker telling another that before the earphones were hooked up, the repeated grunts, screams, curses and thumps of Violent Incident (Man/Woman Segment) had been unbearable to her. Even with the earphones attached, Los Angeles critics have had a similar negative response to the show as a whole, with one reviewer devoting four paragraphs to complaints about the exhibition’s noisiness, which was “nightmarish,” “relentless,” and “arbitrary.”5 For another reviewer, the show is not “magical,” but “largely unaffecting” and “inert.”6

The Puppet Show is both inert and noisy; these adjectives characterize the two media and psychic poles around which the show is organized. Video in the show generally represents the noisy, often a repetition compulsion of speech or movement, while sculpture represents the inert, or a stunting of the self. (The few photographs included in the exhibition are of sculpture.) “Inert” is the inner condition of the subject who, as in a Beckett play, is just alive enough to know he/she is dead. “Noisy” is a futile attempt to overcome the stunting and exercise agency. Causes of the stunting are laid out in pieces that refer explicitly to history, such as Kara Walker’s or William Kentridge’s, where the puppeteers are vicious slave-owners or dictators. These works lend their narratives to compressed suggestions of systemic cruelty in masterworks by Kelley, Bourgeois, and Nauman, among others, works that appear to be “politically dead,” but which comprise the exhibition’s provocative core.


  1. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” trans. Francis McDonagh, The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Urizen, 1978), 318.
  2. Adorno, 314.
  3. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” trans. Alix Strachey, On Creativity and the Unconscious (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 132.
  4. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, trans. John Cummings, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Seabury, 1972), 139.
  5. David Pagel, “‘The Puppet Show’ at Santa Monica Museum of Art,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2008.
  6. Holly Myers, “No Strings Attached: Puppetry at SMMOA; Kori Newkirk at PMCA,” LA Weekly, July 16, 2008.
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