My last couple of video works have featured an array of puppet characters. It’s not that I set out to be that puppet person, but I have to admit I inadvertently now think about the construction of images through puppetry these days. I thought this might be a good moment to unpack my puppet fetish. What things can only be whispered via ventriloquy and enacted by an animated object that I myself squirm in my seat to talk about in my own animated body? What does puppetry bring to my own constructed images: moving and still? Can puppets act as ghost, a glitch, as stand-in or as the Other within constructed images?
My video Sweaty Scales (2019) follows Asian American character Lisa’s navigation of her sexuality through a quagmire of pop culture imagery that fetishises Asian women. For me, one of the most complex scenes in this video is Lisa’s surreal sexual encounter with her Caucasian partner Oliver, who is made wooden in performance, transformed into a puppet of his very same likeness. To meet him in his transformed state is Lisa, dressed in a camped up green silk kimono with embroidered dragon and green scaley fake nailed/ clawed gloves. She too is a version of a sexualized object: a vamped-up Dragon Lady. Whose sexual fantasy is this scene? That was the central question that propelled the creation and performance of the scene with puppeteer Charlotte Long and actress Harmony Zhang. Goodness, that’s a loaded question when playing with how racialized objectification functions within a masculine western gaze. Is there a way to hold both sexual desire and the constraints of this desire for Lisa within this gaze that she has internalized?
Lisa wants to fuck her puppet boyfriend.
This image is not of horror but of the messy excesses in which the Oliver’s objecthood connects with Lisa’s own complex and full desire. Is that desire twisted, oh course. Chastity is not going to allow us to sort through these historical excesses as image makers.
Oliver, the puppet complicates object/subject relations in this scene, as the paradox of an animated object whose gaze is imagined by Lisa and us, the viewers. Indeed, ‘the particularity of the puppet is to present an ontological ambiguity because it is an object that appears in performance as a subject.’ How can reversed objecthood transform and contest the sexualized gaze? What really struck me in the editing of this scene was how tender Lisa is with her puppet partner, the lighting is soft and the mood is sensual. Lisa enjoys herself in the excess of and absurd racialized signification between object and subject. Oliver’s childlike-puppet foot stamps in pleasure. As Paul Piris writes, ‘This dual mode of existence of the puppet establishes a synthetic reality because the puppet belongs to two different levels of actuality: its objectness is real but its subjectness is not.’ What is created in this scene is a kind of synthetic reality where we project subjecthood onto both characters through their objectification. How can puppetry’s objecthood allow us to address the horrors of representation and the structural conditioning for racialized femmes to be alienated from ourselves?
Kermit and Miss Wiggy
How can puppets allow us to speak in a ventriloquial voice about debt-ridden subjects often pushed under the rug? I couldn’t begin to think about how to talk about the epidemic of student debt in my video Itchy IOUs (2020) without the back up of knock-off puppets Cermit and Miss Wiggy’s highly distinct and comedic voices. Not only are Cermit and Wiggy the most direct about how little they earn as artists (“flies and mosquitos,” Cermit says; “I don’t really get paid,” says Wiggy), their comedy plays off the fact that they are also the most high-profile performing objects in Hollywood. They can say what we dare not.
My puppeteer, Kyle Bellucci Johansson is conjoined to the Cermit and Miss Wiggy, transformed into triplets under the one poncho. Instead of playing the invisible puppeteer who is manipulating the puppets behind-the scenes, Bellucci Johansson is in fact made hyper visual with a camp and high-keyed styling, complete with face paint, bows and fake eyelashes. Furthermore, Kyle performs his ventriloquy in a way that emphases that he is in fact part of Cermit and Miss Wiggy. When Wiggy cries because she earns less in sponsorship deals than Peppa the Pig we see tears streaming down Kyle’s face, he then also blows the hair out of Wiggy’s face. What occurs when we the puppet performs us? The puppeteer creates a kind of co-presence between puppet and puppeteer in which the boundaries of objecthood and subjecthood are pulled and stretched out of shape.
Paul Piris, ‘The Co-Presence an Ontological Ambiguity of the Puppet’ in The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance (New York: Routledge), 2014, 30.