Almost Human: Recent Interest in Puppetry and Doll-Making

by Eddie Baker, Columbia University

Originally published in the 2020 print edition

 


Carlo Collodi’s original story of Pinocchio—contrary to the sanitized Disney version, which brought the tale to American masses—follows a puppet who gets beaten up, brutally maimed, mugged, eaten alive, asphyxiated, and thrown from a cliff. The original Pinocchio’s temperament is violent and naïve; he kicks his puppeteer in the shins and smashes a talking cricket with a hammer. We follow him on his quest towards understanding the meaning of human virtue, whereupon a fairy with turquoise hair rewards him by turning him into a real boy [1]. What is so striking about Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio is the near-sadistic abjection with which the author treats his protagonist. Perhaps it is Pinocchio’s status as a mere facsimile of a person—a less-than-but-almost human entity—that allows Collodi to treat his character with the utmost violence, all for the sake of extracting some sort of humanistic moral out of his misfortune. 

From Pinocchio to the present, puppets have borne the mark of abjection. Throughout popular culture, there are countless instances of B-horror movies about humanoid objects that come to life and wreak havoc on civilized society. One need not look further than the wildly successful Chucky franchise, which has produced eight movies in the past three decades, with a ninth currently in the works. Animated by a voodoo spell gone wrong, Chucky goes on a killing spree, senselessly murdering anyone and anything in sight. Puppets, mannequins, marionettes, golems, waxworks, sex dolls, robots, and cyborgs: all play into the collective anxieties of the contemporary audience, and have thereby maintained their status as common tropes within the genre of horror. 

But what is it about dolls and puppets, exactly, that makes them so terrifying? Within the collective consciousness, why are they so bound to violence and obscenity? Considering their role as children’s playthings, the panic they evoke in modern audiences is particularly confounding. Julia Kristeva’s philosophical treatise, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, may help explain puppets’ eeriness: “Abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.” [2] 

Puppets give form to ambiguity. They straddle the border between the living and the dead: on the cusp of becoming a subject, yet are still relegated to the realm of objects. They shift back and forth between states of animacy, with puppeteers exercising the power of bringing them to life, or leaving them for dead. Their bodies—sites of play, experimentation, and expression—allow for the normal conditions of subjectivity to be blurred and interrogated. Our likeness is reflected in the puppet, yet the image is uncanny, fractured, and distorted, as if we were looking at ourselves in a funhouse mirror. 

Recent interest in puppetry continues along these lines. This essay will be broken up into four sections: The first concerns the dollmaker Greer Lankton, who primarily worked in New York’s East Village in the 1980s and 1990s, and serves as a jumping off point for an inquiry into the role that puppets have played in the art of the past several decades. Transsexual, glamorous, and emaciated, her figurines probe conceptions of embodiment and gender. The second section discusses the work of Nathalie Djurnberg and Hans Berg, two currently active artists working in the medium of doll-making who combine puppetry with claymation video to create fantastical films that explore themes of sexuality, religion, and morality. The third section addresses Jordan Wolfson’s recent foray into work with mechanized automatons, which destabilize the categories of human and non-human by using affective triggers to raise questions about who and what is deserving of empathy. Lastly, the fourth section will provide conclusive remarks, and bring together the many ideas evoked by these three puppet artists. What emerges is a notion of puppetry as a medium that maintains the ability to explode the discursive boundaries of the subject. 

Greer Lankton 

Linguistically, dolls function first and foremost as gendered objects of play. The etymologies of the words “marionette,” “puppet,” and “doll” are all positioned directly within the symbolic realm of the feminine: “marionette” literally means “little Marie” in French; the origins of the word “puppet” trace back to the vulgar Latin word “pupa,” meaning “little girl”; “doll” comes from a diminutive form of the name “Dorothy.” As a child, Greer Lankton—born Greg Lankton in 1958 in Flint, Michigan—enjoyed playing with dolls and was drawn to girl’s clothing. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, suppressed her attempts to stray from traditionally masculine activities, so she resorted to making her own dolls out of pipe cleaners and socks [3]. At the age of 21, she underwent gender confirmation surgery while studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She continued making dolls into her adult life, and eventually became a staple in the East Village scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Her dolls—with full faces of make-up and etiolated limbs—tamper with normative notions of the corporeal, suggesting alternative ways of thinking and feeling through embodiment. 

Greer’s practice also reveals much about the function of dolls in the formation of subjectivity during early childhood. Lacanian psychoanalysis claims that our conception of our bodies is formed as infants. Lacan’s theory of the “mirror stage” of childhood development presupposes that when the infant detaches itself from its mother, it forms its self-image through mapping its body-concept onto external images of itself—reflected either in the mirror or in the doll. As previously noted, the etymologies of the words “doll,” “puppet,” and “marionette” define dolls as primarily gendered playthings, which young girls use as models for their body-image. In this Lacanian reading, the ambiguous gendering of Greer’s mannequins could attest to a dysmorphic relationship to embodiment formed during infancy. 

Yet aberrant body images should not be relegated to the realm of pathology. Hans Bellmer—a surrealist doll maker from the early 20th centry—once described the body as “comparable to a sentence that invites us to disarticulate it” [4]. Like Greer, Bellmer made dismembered and deformed dolls, formed by de- and reassembling body parts of pubescent female figures to create new anatomical configurations. His erotic-yet-abject aesthetic echoes Lacanian and Freudian psychology, which posits infancy as a period of latent sexuality. According to Freud and Lacan’s clinical observations, sexual desires first take shape in early childhood, and subsequently follow the child into adulthood, whereupon the pressures of social normalcy force unseemly fantasies into the realm of the subconscious. However, these repressed desires can surface and manifest as atypical sexual behavior. Freud often viewed these non-normative desires as pathological; by contrast, Bellmer freely fantasized about the manifold possibilities of embodiment, and used dolls to envision alternative states of being. Greer continues in Bellmer’s tradition, opening up the body to new constellations of desire and subjectivity. 

The abjection in Greer’s work is made incarnate by her disarticulation of the body. The historically, politically, and medically constructed definitions of the subject are collapsed, opening up whole new realms of possibilities. Yet visions of such a porous and unstable subjectivity can be scary, and at times repulsive. Hal Foster posits the abject as “what I must get rid of in order to be an I at all” [5]. The abject is thus a state of de-subjectivization, of being stripped of the bearings that distinguish human from non-human. Greer’s Albino Hermaphrodite in a Baby Carriage (1984) is exactly that: languishing in a Victorian baby carriage full of gray refuse, the dollis framed by impossibly long, strung out pink hair, its scraggly limbs splayed out in a gesture of welt-schmerz. The figure is naked, its bare flesh pale and blotchy, and a prominent penis rests between its legs. This is an “abject” body, in the sense that it is neither male nor female, child nor adult, dead nor alive. In line with Foster’s theory of abjection, Greer’s Albino Hermaphrodite shatters subjectivity. Its skeletal, obscene, and genderless body belies the “fragility of our boundaries, of the spatial distinction between our insides and outsides.” 

Greer’s corpse-like dummies echo what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life: wrested from the realm of humanity and reduced to mere corporeality, they force us to feel and think through the fundamental nature of embodiment. Bare life refers to the condition of being stripped of the possibilities and potentialities that a subject is normally allowed. The term originates in Agamben’s observation that the ancient Greeks had two different words for what is now simply referred to as “life”: “bios” (the form or matter in which life is lived) and “zoe” (the biological fact of life) [6]. According to Agamben, the body reduced to bare life is afforded nothing but its “zoe,” its baseline state of embodiment. For Agamben, this notion’s historical point of conjecture was the absolute abjection with which Nazi officers treated concentration camp prisoners. Deprived of their sovereignty, victims of the Holocaust were left with nothing but their animal reality. Serving as potent visualizations of bare life, Greer’s dolls give form to the fluidity and porousness of the body before its boundaries are laid down and defined, before the subject is constructed by discursive practices. 

However, unlike Agamben’s non-subject, these dolls are not necessarily without dignity. Instead, they marry abjection with glamour. Greer often made clothes and accessories for her creations, bestowing them with full faces of makeup, coiffed hair-dos, and opulent jewelry. Similar to Albino Hemaphrodite, Candy Darling—Greer’s 1986 model of the Warhol superstar and transgender icon—is naked, gaunt, and ambiguously gendered, yet she sports diamond earrings, high heels, a pink feather boa, and red lipstick à la Marilyn Monroe. These fluctuating states of adornment imply the body’s ability to emerge from bare life through the act of self-fashioning and performance. Without its trappings of opulence, Greer’s Candy Darling doll would be, like Albino Hermaphrodite, the embodiment of abjection. Yet its glamorous embellishments bespeak one’s own ability to perform identity through self-fashioning—to dance between categories of gender, class, and beauty. Jackie O., Greer’s 1985 figurine, suggests as much: the former first lady’s pale and decrepit body is hidden beneath a pastel pink dress suit, Chanel heels, a string of pearls, and her iconic pillbox hat. Greer’s dolls inhabit the in-between zone of ontological tensions: both ugly and beautiful, male and female, human and object, their very essence seems to defy established notions of embodiment. 

Nathalie Djurnberg and Hans Berg 

In Nathalie Djurnberg’s and Hans Berg’s clay-mation film Damaged Goods (2019), an emaciated marionette made of modelling clay disassembles and reassembles its own body using sundry parts— human, animal, or otherwise—sequentially pulled from a wooden box. The puppet jams an elephant’s trunk onto its face, dons a barrister’s wig, and sutures a pigtail to its butt before ripping it all off and starting over again. As the puppet moves around an empty room, phrases such as “My lungs collapse and my heart stops,” “All comes tumbling down,” and “I’m falling apart and I’m building myself up again” are seen scrawled across the walls. Footage of this half-human, half-animal creature is interspersed with shots of a female marionette rubbing her naked body against the cushioned floor of a child’s playpen, her face frozen in an expression of ecstasy. 

Damaged Goods, recently installed at Tanya Bonakdar in Chelsea as part of the show “Nathalie Djurnberg & Hans Berg: One Last Trip to the Underworld,” picks up where Greer Lankton left off. Not only do Djurnberg and Berg’s puppets, with their gangly limbs and willowy torsos, resemble Greer’s constructions visually, but they continue to embody abjection as a means of communicating fantasies of alternative states of being. The figure in Damaged Goods is grotesque in its inability to maintain a stable form. Instead, it continually remakes its body, attaching and detaching part after part, slobbering, snarling, and grovelling all the while. The medium of claymation enhances this sense of disintegration: the modelling clay, undulating ever so slightly as it is manipulated from shot to shot, almost seems to be melting off the marionette’s body. Meanwhile, the masturbating female figure in the playpen suggests that there is something pleasurable, even erotic, about breaking down the boundaries of the body. As so famously conjectured by Gilles Deleuze, when the body is stripped of its subjectivity and reduced to its zoe—its biological facticity—the animal desires that define corporeality (eating, sleeping, shitting, fucking) come rushing to the fore. The body becomes a plane of pure immanence, a vessel for absolute desire [7]. Abjection, in both Greer’s dolls and Berg and Djurnberg’s puppets, thus functions as a means of delighting in the primacy of the corporeal—of taking pleasure in the basic desires of a body unobstructed. 

Yet, by blending the media of puppetry and claymation video, Berg and Djurnberg depart from Greer’s inanimate mannequins. Film opens up the possibility of narrative, allowing the two artists to formulate nightmarish parables about victimhood, sexuality, and morality. Berg, who composes the dreamy soundscapes for the films, uses audio to add to the overall atmosphere of fantasy. In How to Slay a Demon (2019), another film also featured in “One Last Trip to the Underworld,” the camera looks out onto a room from the perspective of a figure in a dress sprawled out on the ground, gazing down at its own body. The figure is attacked by a series of demonic creatures, including a bear, a clown, and a fleshy Hindu-esque monster. They crawl over the helpless protagonist, squeezing, undressing, and violating it with grubby hands. A shutter runs over the screen every couple of seconds, mimicking an eye blinking. Every time the eye blinks, the roles of victim and perpetrator change. Sometimes the clown is seen sprawled out as the victim, sometimes the female figure the perpetrator—this continues in a multitude of different constellations. The resulting effect is sheer moral uncertainty. Distinctions between victim and assailant collapse, and we are left with a nightmarish fantasy where there is no winner and no loser, no good and no evil. The body of the marionette is the site of this unending moral struggle, and serves as a vehicle through which such ambiguities can be conveyed. Like so many discursive binaries, the borders between good/evil, human/animal, and self/other all collapse in relation to the mutable and indeterminate semiotic valence of the puppet. 

Jordan Wolfson 

Jordan Wolfson’s recent work with humanoid automatons provides a hi-tech take on many of the ideas set into motion by earlier puppet artists. In Colored Sculpture, 2016, recently installed at David Zwirner in Chelsea, as well as at the Tate Modern in London, a life-size plastic marionette is strung up with heavy chains to an overhead gantry system. The rig, programmed to elongate or shorten the length of the chains, violently slams the puppet against the ground before dragging it across the floor, yanking it up, and throwing it down again. The puppet—which resembles a mix between Huckleberry Finn, Alfred E. Neuman, and Howdy Doody—has eyes made of tiny glass video screens, allowing for a full expressive register that shifts freely between anger and sorrow. 

What makes the work—like so much puppetry— so unsettling is its transgression of borders between living and dead, human and non-human, subject and object. Even though Colored Sculpture is clearly an inanimate thing, we wince when the marionette slams head-on into the floor. Its eyes, gazing out in an expression of anguish, rouse a sense of pity for the poor dummy. These affective triggers provoke an empathic response; the so-called “uncanny valley” between human and object is bridged, and our capacity for empathy extends, against all odds, towards a hunk of plastic. 

The following question arises: Who and what is deserving of empathy? Dolls have the power to embody both object and subject depending on human necessity. Sex dolls, for example, are awarded the status of ersatz humans when they are in use, but are shoved back into the closet as soon as their purpose has been served. In the early 20th century, Oskar Kokoschka created a life-size doll version of his former lover and muse Alma Mahler. He treated the doll like a companion, taking it to the opera, throwing parties in its name, and even hiring a maid to dress it up and wait on it. Eventually, the artist, no longer able to live with Alma’s “inescapable thingness,” decapitated the doll and drenched it in blood [8]. 

The Kokoschka parable raises yet another question in relation to Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture: Why are dolls so often victims of violence? Like Pinocchio, who is used and abused throughout the course of Collodi’s story, the cruel abjection of Wolfson’s marionette serves as a means of aesthetic pleasure and philosophical inquiry. As conjectured by Foster, we want to attack that which calls into question the permeability of the subject, whatever “I must get rid of in order to be an ‘I’ at all.” As exemplified by the demise of Chucky in Child’s Play 3, we must throw the doll into the woodchipper in order to save ourselves. 

Yet the doll, in all its glorious obscenity, also maintains the ability to unravel the socio-political limitations of the subject. Kristeva positions the abject as “simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that the “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.” Such is the life-affirming power of abjection. Maybe this notion of “a fortified existence” can explain why dolls are so often victims of violence: in their inconclusive ontological status, they represent the unknowable “Other” that threatens the existence of the subject, and must therefore be destroyed. Violence grounds the self in the body, reconnecting the subject with the fundamental condition of its humanity. Perhaps this is why dolls are so often victims of violence: they threaten the subject’s ontological stability, provoking a defensive outlash, a futile attempt at securing what has been lost. 

The puppet’s interstitial ontological status endows it with the ability to muddy established notions of gender, morality, and affect. This humanoid figure lives in a world of shadows and ambiguities; the in-between realm of not-quite-dead yet not-quite-alive, of not-quite-subject yet not-quite-object. Heinrich von Kleist writes that marionettes are beautiful because they represent absolute innocence; they embody grace, a grace which “appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in God” [9]. Free of human inhibitions, anxieties, and resentments, puppets return the subject to its primal material condition. Perhaps this is what makes them so popular in both horror and the avant-garde: puppets give form to ego-death, a state where civilization and its discontents break down. In their naïveté, they embody freedom—however horrific and absolute. 

 


NOTES 

1. Gross, Kenneth. “The Madness of Puppets.” The Hopkins Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 2009, pp. 185–205. 

2. Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1982. 

3. Cohen, Alina. “1980s Icon Greer Lankton Explored Glamour and Gender in Her Eerie Dolls.” Artsy, 15 Feb. 2019, www. artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-1980s-icon-greer-lankton-explored-glamour-gender-eerie-dolls. 

4. Bellmer, Hans. The Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious: Or, the Anatomy of the Image. Translated by Jon Graham, Dominion Press, 2004. 

5. Foster, Hal, and Costas Douzinas. “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic.” Law and the Image: The Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law, edited by Lydia Nead, University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 245–260.

6. Agamben, Giorgio. Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, 1998. 

7. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Ödipus: Kapitalismus Und Schizophrenie. Translated by Bernd Schwibs, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977. 

8. Roos, Bonnie. “Oskar Kokoschka’s Sex Toy: The Women and the Doll Who Conceived the Artist.” Modernism/Modernity, vol. 12, no. 2, Apr. 2005, pp. 291–309. 

9. Kleist, Heinrich von. “On the Marionette Theatre.” The Drama Review: The “Puppet” Issue, translated by Thomas G. Neumiller, vol. 16, no. 3, Sept. 1972, pp. 22–26.

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