The Puppet Show

May 16 – September 13, 2009

The Puppet Show is a group exhibition that explores the imagery of puppets in contemporary art. International in scope, the exhibition brings together twenty-nine artists from multiple generations in works that range from a 1974 installation by Dennis Oppenheim to a new animated video by Berlin-based artist Nathalie Djurberg. Consisting of sculpture, video, and photography, the artwork included in The Puppet Show investigates key themes associated with puppetry, including manipulation, miniaturization, and control. The exhibition demonstrates that in contemporary art, as in Western culture at large, the puppet acts as a psychological surrogate, social and political commentator, and entertaining performer.

The Puppet Show takes as its historic point of departure an important work of European avant-garde art history: Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi, which was originally conceived as a puppet show. The despotic king, who strode on stage roaring the French scatological word “merdre,” is the perfect source for all puppet allegories of grotesque government and acts of puppet transgression. Ubu’s reign continues in The Puppet Show with the work of the South African artist William Kentridge in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company.

More recently, puppets have taken hold of popular consciousness by way of films, theatre, computer games, and animation. Seen in correspondence with these pop culture images, the works in The Puppet Show advance the question: Why do puppets matter now? Perhaps it is the puppet’s power as an allegorical object that makes it so relevant and liberating. In a time when communication seems increasingly mediated and individual agency diminished, puppets abstract the dramas, mysteries, anxieties, and personas we might all project onto a shared stage.

Participating artists in the exhibition are Guy Ben-Ner, Nayland Blake, Louise Bourgeois, Maurizio Cattelan, Anne Chu, Nathalie Djurberg, Terence Gower, Dan Graham and Japanther, the Handspring Puppet Company, Pierre Huyghe, Christian Jankowski, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Cindy Loehr, Paul McCarthy, Annette Messager, Matt Mullican, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Laurie Simmons, Doug Skinner and Michael Smith, Kiki Smith, Survival Research Laboratories, Kara Walker, and Charlie White. Also included in The Puppet Show is a collection of pictures, props, and source material from artists’ studios as well as historic puppets. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

This exhibition contains mature content.

The Puppet Show is organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. It is cocurated by Ingrid Schaffner, ICA Senior Curator, and Carin Kuoni, Director, The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School. The exhibition is coordinated for the Frye Art Museum by Robin Held, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.

ICA thanks the following funders of The Puppet Show: Barbara B. & Theodore R. Aronson; Étant donnés: The French-American Fund for Contemporary Art; Susquehanna Foundation; The Toby Fund; The Bandier Family Foundation; Goldberg Foundation; Sotheby’s; Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation; The Chodorow Exhibition Initiative Fund; and The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative.

Learn more about The Puppet Show by downloading two podcasts featuring Ingrid Schaffner, exhibition co-curator, and Robin Held, Frye chief curator, on the Podcasts page.

Image Credits:
Dennis Oppenheim. Theme for a Major Hit, 1974. Motor driven marionettes, wood, cloth, felt, soundtrack, tape player, and external speakers. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.
Pierre Huyghe. Still from This is not a time for dreaming, 2004. Live puppet play and super 16mm film, transferred to DigiBeta, color, surround sound, libretto and poster, 23:33 minutes. Collection of Kathy and Keith L. Sachs. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.
Dennis Oppenheim. Theme for a Major Hit, 1974. Motor driven marionettes, wood, cloth, felt, soundtrack, tape player, and external speakers. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.
Nathalie Djurberg. Still from Madeleine the Brave, 2006. Animation, 6:13 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery.
Guy Ben-Ner. Still from Elia: A Story of an Ostrich Chick, 2003. Video, 22:30 minutes. (Soundtrack: Connie Francis “Lipstick on your Collar”). Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.
Kara Walker. Still from Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions, 2004. Video, 8:49 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

…one of those shows you can disappear down into, and at every level you go, you will get something more."

Jen Graves, The Stranger