Monday, May 27, 2013

Ai Weiwei's Challenges and Questions

According to What? is a retrospective that covers twenty years of work in many media by the Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. Organized by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it is the first North American tour of his work, now showing in Indianapolis through July 21. 
Poster in the parking lot at the IMA. A larger one
faces the major intersection near the Museum gates.

Of Ai, more may be known about his story than his work: how he was surveilled by the Chinese police, attacked in the night and beaten to the point of a brain bleed as retribution for his efforts to document the names of the thousands of children killed in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The government has never acknowledged that the schools that yielded immediately to the shocks were shoddily constructed death-traps for the children. Ai was later detained for several months on fabricated tax evasion charges. He became an international symbol for resistance against the Chinese government's attacks on human rights and freedom of expression. He is now the global symbol and spokesman for freedom of individual and artistic expression. 

Ai's personage was very familiar to me, although his work was not, so I went to this show with great anticipation of the work of the internationally recognized, influential, contemporary artist.

Had I really been looking for the work of "the most controversial artist in the world," I would have been sorely disappointed. As it was, I was deflated. The final work in the show is a documentary film, "So Sorry," made from footage shot by the artist's colleagues and friends, which chronicles Ai's conflicts with Chinese authorities: We witness the political controversies that have made him a key figure in the cause of free expression. There is controversy, yes.

Elsewhere, however, his challenges to authority, mores, and history are almost stunningly jejune. As a viewer, I find myself empathizing with the high school art teacher who sighs over the work of yet another class of freedom-loving adolescents whose lifted fingers, voiced "fucks," or engaged spray cans make them strut with imagined revolutionary inventiveness. How many times has the teacher had to suffer this rite of passage?

Something like that is what I thought when I encountered, early in the show two photographs from Ai's Studies of Perspective series. Alluding in the title to the sketcher's use of an uplifted index finger for gauging spatial relationships, he substitutes the irreverent middle
Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective, Tiananmen and Study of Perspective, White House, Inkjet prints, both 1995-2003. Courtesy of
Ai Weiwei Studio. Photograph by the author.

finger in a contemptuous and vulgar gesture toward these seats of government. Apparently these photographs are from a series of studies that include the Eiffel Tower and the Reichstag. Were the reductive, inarticulate gesture used in a rich context, there would be no reason for disappointment. But I find nothing beyond the obvious to raise these works beyond the status of one-off. What would incline me to look at them again? What would grow on me? I can't answer that question.

Similarly with a series of photographs that form one face of According to What? and, I believe, is thought to represent a controversial act. In the sequence, Ai drops a Han Dynasty urn, roughly 2,000 years old. Clearly, he doesn't even flinch as he performs as act we are
presumed to witness aghast. ("The steely terrorist!" or, "The toddler in tantrum!" You choose.)
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009. Image courtesy of the artist. Each photo, 75-3/8 x 70-7/8." Courtesy of the
Indianapolis Art Museum.
These photographs fill up a wall, so the images of Ai loom over the viewer. He is a menacing presence; the series has the feel of stills from a movie in which the assassin reveals to his next victim through visual metaphor, just how easily he can annihilate him or her. I feel no anxiety over the fate of the vase, because the images give us no information that suggests that it is remarkable. That it is ancient comes from a gallery note that gives the title and tells us when the Han period was. Whether an American's assumption that its age indicates high monetary value is not discussed: I just don't know. But I do know that visually, the vase is of secondary interest to the power of this large, fierce man. 

These photos are still, from the film of a performance. The point of the performance was, according to the catalogue (page 89), to be "a work of conceptual art that captures the moment when tradition is transformed and challenged by new values." The performance may well have achieved that.

But there is a chilly violence to this embodiment of the idea that new generations need to transform or challenge traditional values. Wasn't the Cultural Revolution about destroying them? I find this work disturbing. Either one can agree with notes that say it means what they assert it does; or one can look and see a threatening bully smashing a pot with no  appearance of concern for the significance of the vessel, the action, or the spectrum of interpretations.

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2007-2010. Han Dynasty vases
(206 BCE- 220 CE) and industrial paint. Photo by the author.
Ai uses more Han period vases in Colored Vases, an installation of just that, vases painted in colors of industrial paint so opaque and brilliant that they look like a display in the patio shop at Home Depot or Pier1. My eye makes little more of this aggregation than that: a collection of jolly pots useful for a casual, graphic sort of interior design.

Once more, it is only through external information that we learn that these have been transformed; that Ai painted them with industrial paint so that, if the note has any authority, "the vases challenge the viewer to consider questions about authenticity and the value and meaning of original artwork." If this is indeed so, why would he have to alter more than one to make the point?

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2007-2010. Image courtesy of the artist
 and courtesy of the Indianapolis Art Museum.
Without the gallery note, I would have no reason at all for the questions it suggests, since nothing about this installation leads me to think that I am dealing with an original artwork of any period, let alone any of historical note. The histories of the vases are entirely effaced. The altered vessels are simply mundane, which is deplorable as a message about challenging cultural values of the past. Again, I feel like Ai plays the naughty boy who has not thought very deeply about his simplistic actions. 

Ai's conceptual work seems to me either simplistic or so engaged with the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and with the Minimalist artists of the 1960s as to be of no unusual significance. There is certainly no controversial content, for he covers ground well-covered for decades.

His best work, though, is when he brings something that feels heart-felt to his conceptual and Minimalist—his very cerebral—forms. This may, in fact, account for my overall disappointment with his work. 

Politically, Ai is testy, aggressive, and histrionic. His modes of art-making, however, are hyper-rational, controlled and cool. While his work is all about culture, history, and to a lesser extent, politics, the personal doesn't so often appear. It is difficult to make personal connection with much of the work. 

Ai Weiwei, China Log, 2005. Tieli wood
(ironwood) from dismantled temples of the
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911.) Photo by the
The art with warmth is work in which materials matter, not to be effaced, but to be revered and admired. Where Ai uses ancient ceramics only to destroy or deface them, he salvages and preserves antique and rare woods. Many works in the show were fabricated by master woodworkers out of ancient or rare woods, using historical joinery techniques.

China Log joins five ironwood beams from dismantled historical temples and joins them into a log, the cross-cut ends of which form gaps that describe the map of China. If there's a commentary about the relevance of the past, it seems to be that the history and culture define and secure the country's definition. The ancient wood is in color and texture well-named: It appears to be an unassailable material. The log, which one is urged not to touch, in fact is so sturdy and beautiful, that it appeared to me as beautiful place to rest and let one's hands enjoy the satiny finish of the wood.

As a commentary on China, I felt this a positive, even nostalgic work, about duration and durability; about its indelible presence in the mind of the artist. An amusing impression from my American childhood that further endeared this to me: Any holes we dug when we were little would eventually "lead to China" on the other side of the Earth. Here, at last, was the perfect fulfillment of the conviction I'd secretly cherished for so many years. I found a bit of myself in this as I was feeling something warm and contemplative coming from Ai.

Ai Weiwei, Kippe, 2006. Tieli wood (ironwood) from dismantled temples of the Qing
Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars. Photo by the author.
Ai's Kippe, too, was another work that stands out for its warmth, beauty, and personal qualities. Appearing to be an enormous pile of wood stacked for the fireplace or oven, it is packed perfectly tightly to form a flawless block. It incorporates architectural ornaments, mere splinters, and slices from cross-cuts of the beautiful ironwood trees. It forms a wall almost like  an oven glowing a steady heat. Who would need anything the woodpile itself does not give?

The notes connect the work to Ai's memories not only of the family's woodpile, but of the village basketball hoop (the uprights) and parallel bars, which are easily read into the structure. Is the success of this piece—its accessibility to the sensoriums and imaginations of others—a result of its genesis in Ai's lived experience?

Similarly, Ai's Teahouse thrilled me because I think of connections made through his use of charged materials. The house itself is a brown, Western style, boxy house without windows or doors, placed on a bare, flat yard of brown leaves. Every aspect of this installation is made of tea leaves—of Pu'er tea from Yunnan, fermented and aged. The house is composed of tightly compressed leaves; the floor is of scattered loose ones.
Ai Weiwei, Teahouse, 2011. Compressed and loose tea. Photo by the author.

Visually, this is certainly not representing the location for a traditional ceremony, or for a rite of any sort. It is a reinterpretation of a Minimalist style tableau in a new material, creating a punning title. What makes it special, though—and seems not to be commented on—is the fragrance of the tea. The area of the gallery surrounding the installation is saturated by the sweet, moist scent of tea that warms every aspect of the senses. The entire body responds to this work in a way it would be impossible to 
react to the same shapes made of a scent-neutral material. It's hard to believe that the aroma wasn't part of Ai's plan, that it wasn't his own escape route from the formal rigors of a discipline he's trapped himself in?

Ai Weiwei, Grapes, 2011. 40 antique wooden stools
 from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Photo
by the author.

There are several pieces in which Ai disassembles antique furniture only to reassemble it in non-functional ways intended to call attention to the beauty of traditional joinery and construction techniques, as in Grapes, an assemblage of three-legged stools. Qing woodworkers secured joints without nails or glue. In this piece and others, Ai evidences his respect for high-level craftsmanship. There is even a meter-square Minimalist cube covered in sheets of rosewood carving of great intricacy, which we compare to an exquisite tiny rosewood box once carried by the artist's father. It is touching and inspiring to see this interest in the continuation of traditional values of fine craft despite his crude and shallow gestures elsewhere that assert the need for new cultural values at the expense of fine works of the past. But it leaves this viewer wondering where he draws the line and why; and whether we expect too much philosophy from an artist who may actually be in the formative stages of his thinking about the intersection of cultural legacy and regime in his mercurial country.

Ai Weiwei, Names of Student Earthquake Victims Found by the
Citizens' Investigation,
2008-2011. Inkjet print, exhibition copy.
Photography by the author.
I was uneasily aware, too, that Ai, like many conceptual artists, depends on legions of anonymous experts to fashion the work that comes to us above his name. His Citizens' Investigation project that works still to uncover the names of the students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai  believes, like Maya Lin, that to name a name is to acknowledge the importance of an individual life. 

This principle is dear in times of tragedy, but not so much when it comes to ascribing artistic credit. On recordings by symphonies, it would be considered churlish to withhold the names of the instrumentalists and give credit only to composer and conductor. In art, there seems to be no issue with crediting Ai as the brains and never naming the master craftsmen who executed his works in wood shops or forges. There are few works (photographs aside) in the show one that one imagines coming from the rough hands of the artist himself.

In the last gallery of According to What? we encounter work surrounding the efforts to name the students lost in the earthquake. On the wall is a reproduction of the spreadsheet kept in Ai's studio, listing the names, birth dates, ages, and sexes of the children discovered so far (over 5,000). On the floor is the installation, Straight, made from straightened rebar rods recovered from the disaster sites. The room also displays Ai's documentary photos of the region 
Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-2012. Steel rebar (38 tons). Photo by the author.
and its rubble. Beside those, a video shows the process of straightening and replicating the rods one by one in preparation for Straight. 
On another wall is the cellphone photo Ai took of himself surrounded by police as he was taken away in an elevator. This is hung next to an X-ray from which his cerebral hemorrhage was diagnosed. 

The single gallery, then,  deeply mixes documentation, dramatization, and what is meant to be artistic response. In this one room, we have the bare list of the names of deceased children; and black and white photos of the crime scene. The memorial rebar installation lies low on the floor. A movie about its making makes noise in the atmosphere. In fact, everything on the walls distracts from its solemnity: It feels rather in the way.

So we come to the end of Ai Weiwei's show with an unfocused gallery and a documentary made by the artist's group about its own efforts. It leaves us wondering whether the show is meant to honor Ai's art itself, or his art as the work of a political dissident whose efforts have placed him on the world stage. Clearly, his art reputation has benefitted from his political action. In So Sorry, we witness his engagement with the cause of the families of missing children; we are given to understand that the title "references the apologies of governments and corporations when their negligence leads to tragedies." 

Yet he films spends very little footage on interviews and testimony from bereft families, devoting quite a lot to producing the hagiography Ai seems intent from the beginning to secure. I found it distasteful, as the focus seems far from the apparent issue of the dignity and safety of the earthquake zone families, and much more on the visibility of Ai and his need to outfox and humiliate the police. While I never question the justice of his cause, I never feel sure that the hero is much better than an adolescent bully either.

So, go see According to What? in Indianapolis or at one of its subsequent stops—the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Miami Art Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. When I saw it, well into its Indianapolis run, the galleries were very busy. Is Ai the world's most controversial artist? Not by a long shot. His controversy is in other spheres, and it's mistaken to try to transfer his importance as a supporter of rights to his importance as an artist. I suspect that in ten or fifteen years, curators will look back and blush. 

For now, take a look at some interesting, sometimes good work and then think about it. If your pulse remains low, remember that Indianapolis also has fine American decorative arts, and their 100 Acres sculpture garden is open...

Ai Weiwei, China Log, detail.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blue Collar and Bluestocking: Janet Gilmore at Cleveland MOCA

Janet Gilmore, post-performance set for Love 'em, Leave 'em,MOCA Cleveland, 2013. Structure is 10' high and contains over 150 smashed
 ceramic vessels, many 
of which contained white, black, or pink paint.
Janet Gilmore: Body of Work assembles in one gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland five videos documenting the artist's performances of recent years. In a separate gallery, we see the installation that resulted from her recent commission at the museum. The performance, Love 'em, Leave 'em  occurred earlier in the spring, but its set remains until the show closes on June 9.

Piled inside the stage are smashed ceramic pots and dried rivers of the paint they held. Some of the paint flew out in great sweeping gestures when the pots were dropped through holes in the top of the set, causing grand, gestural marks of the sort we associate with Abstract Expressionist painting. It's hard not to make the association, at the same time that it's risible even to think it: The palette of white, black, and pink is so graphic that only artists of advertising or interior design might use it. Its delivery, too—via ceramic vases and vessels tossed through holes by a woman clad in stockings and shirtdress—is hardly the method of the heroes of modern art.

All the broken dishes makes me think of domestic spats heated to the point of china-hurling; of landfill; or of ancient Greeks casting shards to send a citizen into exile. Whatever was loved on this stage, was left abruptly, and with no love lost.

While there are probably positive things to be said about this set as a work of art, I wouldn't be the person to commend it. The video that was made of Gilmore's performance that resulted in what lies here—that is another, and exciting, thing altogether. At its beginning, the stage is completely white. Gilmore, barefoot in black stockings and a simple shirtdress (she could be a school teacher or an office manager), brings pots to one side of the stage, placing them on the tiered steps. After she arranges several as high up as she can reach, she begins to climb, carefully moving the pots ahead of her up the stairs. Then she scoots them along the top of the stage, scuttling behind them. She heaves them then, one by one, through the several holes cut for that purpose, before descending the opposite side, where she plunges immediately into the same procedure of collecting and moving vessels into position before throwing them to the stage floor.
From video of Love 'em, Leave 'em. Janet Gilmore
places vessels on stairs to be moved to top of
the set. Video courtesy of the artist and David
Castillo Gallery, Miami.

This performance lasts for just over one hour, during which time Gilmore doesn't depart for a moment from her routine of placing pots, moving and hurling them, then descending to repeat those activities from the other side of the stage.The viewer watches her grow sweaty and her hair get sticky and limp. The steps are steep and narrow. She has to avoid tripping in the the holes at the narrow top of the stage. Her work must be exhausting. It is tense and to watch.

Gilmore's labors are the opposite of artistic: They seem compulsive. At best, she seems duty-driven to consume or to rid herself of what I learned were over 150 pots: She sees this as her job. And it is an urgent, significant one for her. Despite the repetition, she doesn't perform her work mechanically, but with grit and determination and as fast as she can, with sweaty persistence. It is a deeply committed presentation.

But the performance is so repetitious that the watching grows tedious. After a while, I found myself restless and ready to move on to something else. Yet when it came to actually standing up, I just couldn't do it: I was too emotionally engaged by the doggedness of the performer. In a place beyond subject or meaning, the persistent activity was compelling in and of itself simply because she did not give it up. Gilmore executed every movement as if it were the climactic activity. Her apparent compulsion to execute whatever purpose drove her made it impossible to step away, for that would have been to consign her labor to the realm of the absurd. The video encouraged a bond between audience and protagonist through respect  for simple and determined daily effort for whatever banal, unspoken goals we set ourselves.

But Love 'em, Leave 'em is, like the rest of Gilmore's videos in Body of Work, open to all sorts of interpretations. It could be "about" the continuing influence of Abstract Expressionist painting and our acceptance of the idea of inspired sources. It could be, as Museum materials suggest, about gendered labor, the way this woman undertakes an extremely physical, demanding process in stockings and dress—in clothing that restricts her motion. Both of these threads are certainly present, working all together to elevate a dead set into a lively locus for ideas, when we know the history of its making.

Janet Gilmore, from My Love is an Anchor, 2004. Video with sound, 7:05 mins.
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
In another gallery, five of Gilmore's earlier, edited videos are installed on side-by-side screens, each with its soundtrack playing. It was a great decision to show them this way, for they complement each other and the sounds reinforce one another's. In each film, Gilmore is in a situation of needing to endure some punishing circumstance in order to free herself. My favorite of these was the earliest, My Love is an Anchor from 2004.

In this film one hears the pounding of the hammer that beats and claws at the bucket of plaster that it setting around the artist's foot. (The gallery note informs us that this causes Gilmore's foot to swell, so it is in actuality imperative that it be released as soon as possible.) It was not obvious to me that she was making much progress, but the effort was massive: She pounds in frantic bursts, then pauses to wipe her hair out of her face and continues. Ah, love! Oh, love and marriage, love and commitment! Everyone wants to have it for life, until the "anchor" of permanence becomes the ball and chain—the bucket of cement in which we're fixed, at the mercy of others.

Janet Gilmore, Between a Hard Place, 2008. Video with sound, 9:43 minutes.
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
Two more videos in which our heroine is struggling to free herself are 2008's Between a Hard Place and Standing Here from 2010. In Between a Hard Place, we watch her punch through walls only to find herself confronted with yet another gray wall, through which she beats her way to yet another...and on, presumably ad infinitum. Her equipment for this is only what she has on her. She is dressed in a formal, black dress, with sheer hosiery and high heels. In this shot from the film, she holds not a hammer, but one of her shoes: She uses its heel as a tool for battering the walls. 

Standing Here places Gilmore in a narrow box of a room, which she attempts to scale, towards the camera, continually sliding down again and having to start agin. The scenery , like that in Between a Hard Place, is colored for graphic impact, the yellow backs of walls contrasting to the dull surfaces presented to the protagonist. In this one, her clothing pops out  particularly—the red dress, black gloves and boots.
Janet Gilmore, Standing Here, 2010. Video with sound, 10:48 min.
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.

In this film we see Gilmore work unaided by even a spike heel. This is the most visceral and physical of all the films. She is driven by the force of  her determination and the strength of her body to punch, batter, and deconstruct the panels around her in aid of climbing up the tower she's confined in.

In these films, I easily, immediately find feminist content. Gilmore's lady-like costumes are ridiculously out-of-place, given her workmanly settings and large, aggressive gestures. Yet she labors with complete lack of self-consciousness, unquestioningly. If she doesn't notice the restrictiveness of her garb, who put her in it? Who handicapped her this way? As in Love 'em, Leave 'em, we see an indomitable person, determined to accept and perform a role that she has appears to accept and take seriously. 

A woman is given a Sisyphean task, to which she devotes steady, unflagging energy, even when there's no aid, resolution, or escape in sight. Where we expect to see a manly construction worker, we see a woman, working the constructed world apart by the strength of her own hands and body, perhaps to begin again to build something less confining, premised on ideas shaped by the power of feminine minds.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Czech Puppets and Their Tradition, at the Columbus Museum of Art

Seeing Strings Attached: The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets at the Columbus Museum of Art (on display through August 25) makes the viewer feel the anguish of the prince who stumbled upon the room where Sleeping Beauty lay encased in crystal. Three galleries full of high-strung individuals in suspended animation! Each face so individualized; every figure shaped not only by anatomy, but by symbolism and its position in a condensed moral
Artist unknown. Devil, 19th century
narrative. With the exception of some video, the show leaves all the beautiful puppets hanging along the walls or posed in groups under vitrines, sometimes in decorated settings. The show is at once disappointing and achingly tantalizing: Let the action begin! We want the show! The introduction to the show acknowledges this inherent difficulty: "Accept the invitation to this enchanting landscape that will draw you close by its strings to a world of fantastic stories and heroes...You, the spectator, are invited to bring the puppets to life..."

The show is a collaboration between the Museum (Carole Genshaft, adjunct curator), the Ohio State University (Joe Brandesky, guest curator), and the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague (Nina Malikova, curator). Private collectors have loaned most of the materials. The many historical notes provide the narrative illustrated by the abundant, fascinating puppets themselves. The story is about puppetry that has been, since the 17th century, a way to maintain ethnic identity in an area of Europe claimed throughout history by an uninterrupted succession of authoritarian political entities: Bohemia, the Hapsburg Empire, Germany, and the Soviets. Though it has integrated puppetry traditions from all over Europe, one constant of the Czech puppet tradition was preservation of the local language, which was always secondary to the reigning power's.

Karel Kobrle, Faustus, Kaspar and two devils on an Ales's Family
Theater stage, manufactured in 1913.
Puppetry in the Czech Republic has never been simply a form of children's amusement, but has been story-telling for all ages and for many purposes. Its subjects have included fairy and folk tales; plays based on the world's great literature; operas; and topical, politically subversive works. Contemporary Czech puppetry mingles with traditional theater and is integrated into live-action film. It has emerged from the nineteenth-century work of itinerants, to domestic parlor entertainment, to become housed in dedicated, state-of-the-art theaters that now exist exclusively for this art form.

Strings Attached offers both the pleasure of seeing many instances of stock puppet characters and singular figures clearly intended as high art objects for high art settings. In the pictures above, we see a truly fearsome devil with one hoof and one foot; in the other, devils lurk behind Faustus and his red-capped servant, Kaspar. Kaspar is the Czech version of the English Punch, appearing in all sorts of settings. He's introduced here even into a homemade version of tragedy, bringing the absurd and earthy with him. 

The show's other Kaspars are a wonderful bunch, each with his own personality, his own physique and expression. A 19th century hand-puppet by Jan Flaschs, Jr., (right) has the carved expression of the philosopher fool, a sage in motley, all the sadder for its drooping lack of animation. But the early, crude see-saw- motion Kaspar is a peasant all the way: No introspection here, just work and low comedy to ease the movement through life.

Another hand puppet, a stunned-looking Kaspar (left), appeared in film, not on stage: in Punch and Judy, a 1966 film by Jan Svankmajer. The film features two Kapers (Punches) who engage in a tradition of their character: They fight—in this case to the death—over a live guinea pig. The exhibit offers only a tiny photo out-take from the film, but it certainly whetted my appetite for the whole. A tradition of red puppet clowns responding to the motions of a live guinea pig? The comic possibilities in the very concept are tremendous on the face of it!

Still shot from Punch and Judy, 1966 by Jan Svankmajer.
Devils are also well represented in Strings Attached. A note mentions that the story of Dr. Faustus has always been popular in Czech puppet theater, as death and the grotesque have been native aspects of the culture and folk traditions. The devils shown in this show are convincingly particularized. They are all black, not red, though this seems to suggest soot—the result of flame rather than the flame itself. They are clearly not racially black; if anything, they are bestial, having the cloven hoof, horns, and even fur-covered bodies. They go unclothed. 

The faces of these two unattributed nineteenth century devils demonstrate something I found fascinating about all the puppets: Their faces are carved not into neutral expressions that I would have assumed the choice for flexibility. They are carved, rather, into striking, definitive attitudes. It made me stop and think how much what we see is affected by the context--how the fixed, fierce face of a devil will in fact assume in motion any number of expressions as it is introduced among other characters in different settings; through the course of a drama; and against different backdrops designed or imagined.

Petr Matasek, Devil, 2001
Petr Matasek is at the pinnacle of contemporary Czech theatre design; his puppets for a production of the Faust legend demonstrate how far puppet-making has moved into the realm of fine art. His Devil is carved in such baroque detail, with fur affixed, strategic use of red, and such fixity of limbs that we are as impressed and amazed by his strangeness as we were by the human features of the earlier devils. The artifice is so beautiful and wrong; does his awkwardness make him terrifying or sympathetic? Perhaps there's more to fear from a devil we try to understand.

Petr Matasek, Devilyn, 2001
Matasek's three figures from the 2001 Johan Doctor Faustus are among the high points of the show. In addition to the puppet above, are Faustus himself and, most remarkable of all, the femme fatale, brilliant in concept and execution. Tall and drawn out, Devilyn has every trait of irresistible feminine sexuality on display and available. Her uncovered breasts are like torpedoes. Her face is brightly painted. She's wearing a satiny red skirt, pulled back even, to reveal her bush—but it's a beard. In fact, it's the devil's beard, for his inverted head forms her legs and sexual parts. It is a stunning idea, realized so boldly: I'm dumbfounded by the idea of a show with this figure in action.

Olivia, 1995 execution of 1925 drawings by
Anna Suchardova-Brichova.
There are many exceptional artists presented; people whose breathtaking skill in carving is put to the service of great fancy and insight. In the 20th century puppets, we see a great variety of forms bursting from a veritable garden of performance ideas, ranging from the rusting and rough-hewn to very polished and refined. A set of puppets for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night were executed in 1995, but designed in 1925 along the lines of the simple, clean lines of the Bauhaus aesthetic. Viola is a doll, onto whom the iconic role of the chaste, love-beleaguered mourner can be thrust.

Stylized, but in a more comical vein, are the 2005 puppets for an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's children's story, The Happy Prince. These puppets wear fabric costumes atop upholstered bodies. This gives them a warmth beyond any available to their kin made entirely of wood, or even to the hand puppets which affix wooden heads to loosely draped cloth costumes. Warmth, in general, is not a feature of the puppets in this show; few have any reassuring or inviting presence. Whether their dramas generate comforting emotions is a question I'd like to know more about. Because they are nearly all carved of wood and
Zdenek Hajduch, puppets for The Happy Prince, 2005.
stylized to varying degrees, they seem indeed to be material for a medium of ambiguity, absurdity, irresolution; for hard edges and dark subjects.

But Olivia is an exceptional wooden puppet. Most of the carvers take the wood in less highly refined directions, though without being any less self-conscious in its use. Robert Smolik's rough-hewn figures for the fairy tale, The Seven Ravens, retain every mark of the chisel. In the story, a mother's curse transforms her sons into ravens, who are redeemed by their sister's persistence and love. The roots of such a story in folklore and archetype make such raw handling of the material seem particularly right—compared especially to the high art Shakespeare Olivia, painted and polished, above.
Robert Smolik, figures from Seven Ravens, 2001.

Another artist in 2003 made a revolving stage with figures for performances of the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel. Again, the artistry is great and the carving is beautiful. It is rhythmical and precise, by the manner is rough. The handling of the material itself "sets the stage" for the beloved story of innocence and power claimed.

Strings Attached is an art show giddy with an abundance of beautiful material, but it is also a show about stagecraft. While one misses the action and longs to sit and laugh or cry over the multitude of stories inherent in the three galleries, the compensation is the fascinating opportunity to glimpse playmakers' decisions about styling, costuming, and even about set design. It's a rare, multifaceted, and absorbing show. It's wonderful: full of wonders.
Vignette from 2009 film Toys in the Attic. Stop-action animation, drawn animation, and live action.
Features voices of Forest Whittaker, Joan Cusak, and Cary Elwes.
 All photography by the author.