One such piece, a remarkable fusion of the inert and the noisy, is Colloquy (2004) by Cindy Loehr, a two-channel video in which two hands, each with its own monitor, enact a hand puppet show about the end of a relationship. Phrases from the book of couples counseling are produced like one-liners: “You can’t kill me off without killing yourself”; “I don’t want to change who you are but I’m confused”; “Everything I know I learned from you”; and so on. These clichés, expressed in a sincere voice, are counterpoised to the weird but moving gestures of the hand that listens: clenching and relaxing the thumb, tensing all the fingers together until they tremble. This hand suggests early life forms like fish or underwater plants. As body parts standing in for the whole self, they (again) suggest the self is fragmented, stunted, deformed. The dialogue shifts from the interpersonal to the intrapersonal, partly because the rhinestones glued to the hands to suggest eyes have the classic uncanny effect of eyes that do not see. They direct you inward, toward perceiving the platitudes as inner attacks and laments.
Even more inward, and more acutely in dialogue with itself, is Matt Mullican’s Live Under Hypnosis (2002), documentation of a performance consisting of four hypnoses of Mullican enacted in the same space. In the video, Mullican displays childlike behavior, daily routines, fear and wishes. The play between a puppeteer’s control of the strings, and the lack of control affected by the puppet’s weight and construction, is most eerily expressed visually in the first segment: “A. It’s cold in the box,” where a square defined by tape on the floor becomes a tiny theater for a trapped and isolated Mullican.
In the second segment “B. Checking out the space,” Mullican paints a figure, a kind of self-portrait that he’s been trying to capture for years. He says, “The first time I painted this was fifteen to twenty years ago, and I’m still not….” An embellished stick figure, it is more robot than puppet, with antennae in lieu of arms and legs, as if it is trying not so much to move as to transmit or communicate. Eventually the strain effected by these deep inquiries takes its toll, and Mullican in “D. Do not want to hear his voice,” is fed up with his hypnotist, his ostensible puppeteer, and the one who facilitates his work. Overwhelmed by the demands of his art form, Mullican screams “You’re yelling! You’re too loud!” Reminding me of the art critics faced with this challenging exhibition, he covers his ears with a pillow and runs away.
Like several of the works in the show, such as those by Paul McCarthy, Phillip Perrano and Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Dennis Oppenheim, Mullican’s is a portrait of the artist, revealing the challenge of psychic management within the urge to create, when one may be both puppet and puppeteer. Oppenheim’s Theme for a Major Hit (1974) combines the inert and the noisy in alternating acts, with several true puppets (Oppenheim in multiple) hanging from strings. When the music comes on, they dance with clattering intensity, in abandonment that is literally programmed, for we can see the computer that operates them, while the music’s lyrics, “It ain’t what you make, it’s what makes you do it,” mock the notion of agency. Dressed in black or grey suits with white shirts, these puppets could be dancing at a club or climbing the corporate ladder, as is more explicitly true of Maurizio Cattelan’s similarly dressed puppet, which desperately clings to a sheer glass wall.
The overlapping interests of the art world and the corporate world is acknowledged in several works that move from the arena of creation to that of the art market, where others move beyond that to the broader social world. Kara Walker, for example, tells the story of women and slavery, rendering historical narrative in animated cutouts that mimic a halting voice or fragmented memory. Effective as this work is, it packs considerably less power than Bourgeois’s congealed narrative on the same topic. In fact, though the works in the exhibition generally dialogue with and enhance one another, the less polemical pieces seem to mine more deeply the contemporary manifold implications of the puppet, recalling Adorno’s claim for the apparently defeated work of Kafka and Beckett, which “have an effect by comparison with which officially committed works look like pantomime”8—or in this case—puppetry.
Annette Leddy is a Los Angeles writer, archivist, and curator.
- Adorno, “Commitment,” 314.↵