In the boy band ‘N Sync’s heavily MTV-rotated music video for their song Bye, Bye, Bye of 2000, Justin Timberlake and the rest of the band descend to stage, strung upon the wooden hand pieces of a puppeteer's control. The female puppeteer smiles gleefully as she cuts the strings letting the band members drop out of the stage and into the precarious situations of real life (the top of a speeding train, a warehouse with vicious rottweilers, an out-of-control car on a winding mountain road). At the surface, the video serves an allegory of the power struggle in a romantic relationship. But it subversively can also be viewed as commentary on the contemporary pop music industry and its tendency to turn musicians into pawns with very little agency in the musical production machine.
These issues of disempowerment and control, influence and intimidation are identical to some of the issues raised by another set of puppet paradigms: the exhibition The Puppet Show, curated by Ingrid Schaffner and Carin Kuoni out of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and currently on display at The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu.
The exhibit features an impressive cadre of 27 international artists, including some personal favorites such as Louise Bourgeois, Pierre Huyghe, William Kentridge, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Kiki Smith and Kara Walker. The media range but the exhibit heavily utilizes sculpture and especially video.
In Nathalie Djurberg’s six-minute animated video The Swing, 2005, the artist plays out one possible outcome of the scene depicted in Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 1766 rococo painting of the same name. Whereas Fragonard’s woman swinging is intended as a bucolic if racy scene, Djurberg’s video explores the negative and possibly violent outcomes of the narrative. Djurberg revists Fragonard’s painting in an attempt to shake us of our own complacency in viewership: who beholds power in the act of looking?
Pierre Huyghe also uses video, to tell the story of Le Corbusier’s Harvard University-commissioned building, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. In This is not a time for dreaming, 2004, Huyghe examines the bureaucratic process of Le Corbusier’s creation, along with all the power struggle, frustration and stagnation that accompany it. His use of filmed puppetry along with impeccable soundtrack and the creation of a seamless viewing environment including printed program and painted room matching the color scheme of the film all serve to underline the total viewing process that is his work. For Huyghe, the museum goer becomes a puppet in the elaborate orchestrated experience that is viewing the film.
Other artists in the exhibit utilize varying media, but they all remain true to the quite literal interpretation of puppetry. Even Anne Chu's wooden figure carvings and amorphous clothed "mountain" are not without hanging strings and manipulating rods. The only work in the exhibit which seems to elude the traditional interpretation of puppetry is a large-scale monocolor print by Kara Walker, which was an addition of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu and not included in the original traveling exhibit by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. The print, as well as her video, both included in the Honolulu exhibit, use Walker's well-honed shock strategy to create viewer response. At the heart, this is what The Puppet Show does best: by creating an intimate gallery experience of violence, anger or perhaps disgust, the artworks on display affect the viewer into complex emotional response. Through this confrontation, the exhibition makes puppets of us all.
The Puppet Show contains work by artists Guy Ben-Ner, Nayland Blake, Louise Bourgeois, Maurizio Cattelan, Anne Chu, Nathalie Djurberg, Dan Graham, Christian Jankowski, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Cindy Loehr, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy, Matt Mullican, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Thomas Schütte, Doug Skinner and Michael Smith, Laurie Simmons, Kiki Smith, Survival Research Laboratory, Kara Walker, and Charlie White, and is on display at The Contemporary Museum at Makiki Heights from September 6, 2008 to November 23, 2008.
A blog of art happenings in and around Honolulu, Hawai'i