I recently revisited Auckland Art Gallery’s A Puppet, a Pauper, a Pirate, a Poet, a Pawn and a King exhibition. I had been once before and I can be a bit of a slow burn and things worth seeing can be worth seeing twice. I had to have a bit of a chuckle at using lyrics from a 1966 Frank Sinatra song ‘That’s Life’ as the shows title, it’s something that I like to do with artworks, to link them with what I have been listening to when I made the work or songs that may sum up what I have been thinking about or am trying to say.
Here are some of the things I wrote down as I wandered through the exhibition which was as Natasha Conland says “The exploration of multiple art forms within a single work” but was also an exploration into human culture in it’s many roles, as Sinatra put it: “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king, I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing; Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face, I just pick myself up and get back in the race”.
Colour is used as emotion, used to heighten the drama or the emotions of the characters in each scene
The narrative even simplified still deals with violence, jealousy, love and rejection and the characters play the archetypes of innocence, pride, the colonizer and colonised, the mother, the child, the murderer.
Sometimes in doll or puppet form it can be easier to digest painful stories, it also makes the violence less so, the ineffectual fumblings of the puppets mediate the violence with humour. That was probably part of Punch and Judy’s role too, to be able to speak of painful, political human narratives with a certain amount of disassociation from the real.
The film occasionally shows us glimpses of the storyteller, the God like murky figure of the artist as puppeteer controlling the movements and the tragedy of the puppets from behind a screen.
Stillness and sterility, not just through the crisp construction of the dioramas, nor from the journalistic type photography of the everyday bureaucratic scenes but through the clean and unused surfaces of the sculptures, the grime and grease of everyday life is missing. No tiny man will ever sit at the tiny desk and deface the scene with his body and it’s omissions leaving the fabric shiny and worn, or the desks surface scratched and pitted with use.
Overheard two viewers and their reaction to seeing the work, I thought it was a nice metaphor for capitalism.
Viewer One ” What a mess they make. Utter madness!”
Viewer Two ” Only the numbers on the screens are orderly.”
Out of his works, I was most drawn to the two partial portraits, Face and Anka’s Head, neither of which I can find on the internet. They each show a partial view of something where the face is cut odd by an awkward crop. You are shown something but the rest is hidden, the context is taken away so you have no idea what is happening. Like photography, they only show a tiny part of the narrative, the rest is deliberately left out of the frame.
William Kentridge – (Forgive me if I get carried away here, his was the work that first inspired me to draw)
If you want to see another video of this work you can see one here: LINK it’s better quality than my phone but I don’t like the angle so much.
The film starts with the artist as magician stirring the waters of perception or reality.
Planes echo the patterns of nature, the trails of the stars.
Things distorted in one view are in proportion in another – it depends on where you are looking or your point of view, an apt metaphor for all conflict, not just the Italian Ethiopian war of the 1930s referenced in this film not only visually but also in the Italian marching songs in the soundtrack.
Because of Kentridge’s drawing method all traces of movement are shown all at once. This is exemplified in the bird’s flight, the beating of wings ;eaves a trail or a history of movement behind it, traces of past actions influencing or foretelling future actions. What has gone before influences and can foreshadow what the present or the future looks like. Do we learn from our history or are we doomed to repeat?
All the time during the film there are two planes circling on top of the cylinder like vultures waiting to scavenge what is left behind. Animals become metaphor in this film, planes are not only scavenging birds but metamorph into large flies crawling on the surface. The planes, or perhaps the people in them are like carrion eaters, waiting for the spoils.
Animals also stand for the colonised and the coloniser in this film. Wandering rhinoceros are reduced to pictures on a white collectors walls and finally lost, when all that remains are crude cut-outs dancing jerkily in a ring. The process of colonisation, of conquering can make things less than they were, and overtime irreplaceable things are lost.
Odd hybrid creatures roam the landscape a mix of broken pylons and gas mask wanders over the ruins. A creature created out of violence, a product of it’s environment where greed and violence have decimated and dominated.