The Puppet Show

The Puppet Show at Frye Art Museum
May 16–Sept. 13, 2009

In contemporary art the puppet appears as a psychological surrogate, a social commentator, and an entertaining performer. An exhibition exploring the imagery and function of puppets—through working puppets and artworks associated with ideas central to puppetry—The Puppet Show will be on view at the Frye May 16–Sept. 13, 2009.

International in scope, The Puppet Show assembles contemporary artworks in a wide range of media, introducing new variations in a theatrical form that is historically and globally ubiquitous. Co-curated by Ingrid Schaffner, ICA Senior Curator, and Carin Kuoni, Director, The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, New York, the exhibition presents sculpture, film, photography, and video art, by some of today’s most important contemporary artists, including Louise Bourgeois, William Kentridge, Bruce Nauman, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker.

The Puppet Show also includes a collection of historic puppets and artist props housed in “Puppet Storage”—the exhibition’s “backstage,” or unconsciousness. Some works in the show involve puppets as figures (marionettes, shadow puppets, ventriloquist dummies), while in others, artists perform as puppeteers. Other works still evoke such topics associated with puppetry (manipulation, miniaturization, and control).

The Puppet Show’s point of departure is an historical, renowned work of the European avant-garde art: Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi, which was conceived as a puppet show. In the play, the despotic King strides on stage roaring the French scatological word “merdre,” serving as a source for all puppet allegories of grotesque government and acts of transgression. More recently, puppets have taken hold of popular consciousness, showing up on stage and television, in film and even online, where assuming a fake identity to garner public opinion is called “sock-puppeting.”

The exhibition contains adult content. Parents, caregivers, and educators are strongly advised to preview the exhibition before bringing children.

Participating artists include: 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, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy, Matt Mullican, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Phillippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Laurie Simmons, Doug Skinner and Michael Smith, Kiki Smith, Survival Research Laboratories, Kara Walker and Charlie White.

A fully-illustrated catalog with an annotated checklist of the works accompanies the exhibition with essays by the curators and contributing authors: John Thomas Bell, Director, Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut; Terence Gower, artist and exhibition designer; Jena Osman, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing, Temple University; John Pemberton, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University; Jane Taylor, Skye Chair of Dramatic Art, Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand; Michael Taylor, Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Allen Weiss, Associate Teacher, Performance Studies and Cinema Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

The art in The Puppet Show makes a case why puppets matter now: Perhaps puppets are so relevant and liberating because of their power as allegorical objects. In a time when communication seems increasingly mediated, puppets abstract the dramas, mysteries, anxieties and personas we might all project onto a shared stage.

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.

ICA thanks the following funders of The Puppet Show: Barbara B. & Theodore R. Aronson; Etant donnes: 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 Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, a program of The Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and administered by University of the Arts.

The exhibition is coordinated for the Frye Art Museum by Robin Held, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.

Frye Art Museum