Strings break. They bend. They lead, and they follow (if prompted.) It was physical strings that brought me to Hanne Tierney’s most recent piece “Strange Tale of Liaozhai” at HERE arts center, (as it did many) and it was more metaphorical ones that lead me to learn her rich history as both puppeteer and person. Known for her elaborate puppet rig utilizing (this time) over 114 strings, even Tierney’s herself in an interview for her past work (My Life in a Nutshell) says “80 strings can tangle, can break, can slip out, it’s such a high risk business that I kind of say “Why am I doing this?” Knowing Tierney’s tragic history of losing her son in Sierra Leone and picking up his designated NY space to create a community art gallery (FiveMyles) that has won an Obie for its ability to energize a transition community, it’s easy to see there is very little that truly scares Hanne.
Whether the audience echos the sentiment of “why” or not, they certainly are aware of the elements of “danger” or at least the intricacy involved with watching three dedicated puppeteers manipulate the medieval mechanism (creaky as a ship but with no threat of storm) that Hanne has created. A self-professed “art performer,” who works in galleries as well as theaters, Tierney’s work, while sometimes autobiographical, is also the product of her love affair with Gertrude Stein’s ideal of theater without actors. “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” was aesthetically driven by Stein’s piece “A play called Not and Now,” which employed ball gowns and tuxedos to create a piece which deconstructed the foundations of theater.
“Strange Tales” uses 18th century folktales to tell the stories of a bad trade among a pigeon merchant, and the story of two lovers (one a fox spirit) who struggle for martial bliss. The pigeon piece does so through shadow screens and the hand drawn visual projections of Hannah Wasileski, while the lovers pieces utilizes the inanimate puppet players in the forms of scarves, bamboo, umbrellas and the like. Both pieces were joined by the complex, strange constructions of Jane Wang, who played a setup that rivaled the string mechanism of the puppeteers in its visual interest and sound. The stories though slow, are poignant and worth the patience of watching, however anyone who has seen (or heard) Hanne’s work, knows that a good portion of the engagement of the audience relies on her beautifully subtle, slightly accented narration, and on the puppeteer’s ghost within the machine movements. The genius behind creating something that resembles the interior of a grand piano, complete with string manipulators is almost enough to capture audience for the full hour in itself.
The “new” puppets in the piece (many of Tierney’s older “puppets”-bamboo poles, beaded curtains made appreciated cameo appearances), were mostly the silk scarves which made up the bulk of the cast. The stage itself was cloaked in purposefully laid cloth, and each main character was represented in choice colors, that changed pattern with movement and time across the stage and in the plotline; the overly doting mother in deep reds and pinks, the brash, fickle uncle in blacks and blues, the young lovers in pinks, sky blues and rainbows, and the fox spirit, a satiny silver.
Jane Wang’s setup included a variety of musical instruments (perquisite toy pianos included) but the most interesting moments came when she engaged the “space plates” (metal plates balanced on balloons, balanced in plastic containers), and more simply in her playing of the upright bass which she plucked to create beautiful movement and drama within the puppet pieces. Jamey McGilray and Shawn Lane helped manipulate the puppet strings and did so with a great amount of grace and ease.
“Strange Tales of Liaozhai” the book certainly relies on a great amount of history (with humans or no) to appreciate its tales and appropriately enough Hanne’s work is no different. Woven within the strings she pulls there are connections to both her past apprenticeship at a spinning wheel factory, her ability to see more than mundane in simple machinery, and her choice to move forward even and sometimes because of the great danger within.
Photographing the Dead: The History of Postmortem Photography from The Burns Collection and Archive Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These photographs, from the beginning of the practice until now, are special mementos that hold deep meaning for mourners through visually “embalming” the dead. Although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, until recent years they were largely unseen and unknown. Dr. Burns recognized the importance of this phenomenon in his early collecting when he bought his first postmortem photographs in 1976. Since that time he has amassed the most comprehensive collection of postmortem photography in the world and has curated several exhibits and published three books on the subject: the Sleeping Beauty series. Tonight, Dr. Burns will speak about the practice of postmortem photography from the 19th century until today and share hundreds of images from his collection.
This piece has taken Erik and Jessica to Antarctica, Australia and beyond and for the final developmental stage, the entire company travels to Groningen, Netherlands where their unparalleled vision for the stage premieres in August at Holland’s Noorderzon Festival. The Grand Theatre in Groningen has been working away for the past 6 months making a 21’ hydraulic puppet shipwreck that collapses in three phases, a flaming life-size skeleton puppet and our entire wardrobe for the show.
This past Friday, I paid a visit to Deborah Simon who has an upcoming show at NY Studio Gallery‘s LZ Project Space opening this Friday, May 20th. Deborah has been a painter and sculptor for several years now and will be part of the Sculpture Space residency in Utica, this coming October and November. She has worked at the Bronx Zoo building habitats and “intellectual toys” for the animals, and her work reflects the understanding of the dual nature of man-made versus natural environments and the drawbacks and necessity of both. Her sculpture’s present a strange encounter and cause the viewer to approach the animal in an unusual and raw manner, suggesting a reevaluation of the nature of human and animal interaction.
We truly appreciate her taking the time to talk about her work and upcoming show.
The 22 Magazine: You worked at the Bronx Zoo correct? Can you tell us a little about what you did there?
Deborah Simon: Sure, I did some design work. It was everything from giving exhibits face lifts to mural work, to sometimes just flat out designing and building exhibits. [I also built] intellectual toys for the animals. With that you have to make everything look natural. So [you have to make a] tiger toy that looks [for example] like a rotten piece of wood. It was one of those oddball weird request situations, keepers would come and say we need hummingbird feeders made out of XY and Z and we’d have to figure how to make them look natural.
The 22: How did you get into that kind of work? Did you study design in school or elsewhere?
DS: No, I’ve got a fine arts background. [I studied at] San Francisco Art Institute, which prepares you for nothing but making conceptual art. I just happened to have a realistic bent to what I do, which was thoroughly discouraged but…
I started working as a muralist and then the zoo had an ad in the paper. I replied to it and got hired. It’s one of those jobs where the guy who runs the department is fantastic, and he just expects that you need a lot of on the job training. You need to be able to weld, you need to be able to fiberglass, you need to be able to do some basic carpentry. There are just so many skills that no one person is going to have them all. They do invest in teaching you quite a bit [so], I learned a lot, and it all goes back into what I do.
The 22: In regards to your artists statement, which talks a little about the animal confronting the viewer in an unrestricted environment, did working at the zoo conflict with ideas of how animals should be treated in any way?
DS: I think it’s a conflict a lot of the people who work at the zoo have, because everyone who works there more or less loves animals. We all have multiple animals, we are deeply concerned about animal welfare. Some of the holding areas are very old and not that great. Some of the animals are permanently on medications because [there is] not the best ventilation but, on the other hand, you can’t just let them go. [I believe] Finland ran into this problem. They decided it was cruel and inhumane to keep this baboon exhibit. They decided it was inhumane to keep more tropical animals in Finland, but they couldn’t get rid of them because they breed really well and every zoo has a ton of them. So, they were going to euthanize them but the public had a fit and they had to keep them. So, now they have these unhappy baboons; animals that are obviously not doing well, but there are no other options for them. [I think] a lot of the people [that work at the zoo] go through this. [They think] these animals didn’t ask for this, they didn’t want to become ambassadors of their species, but on the other hand sometimes when your standing and watching the public watch these animals and they suddenly make this connection to the human traits of the animals you really hope it does something. They are suddenly more aware of them and, you think, I hope this means that it will translate into something, maybe [that wouldn't be there] if they hadn’t seen it. Then again, zoo animals they don’t behave like wild animals, they have three meals a day, they sleep all day. [In the end] it’s a lot of mixed emotions.
The 22: A lot of your animals actually are puppets or look a lot like traditional marionettes. Stylistically how did you decide this was how you were going to build?
DS: It’s weird because I have this totally anal goal to be as accurate as humanly possibly, but I’m always reminding myself it’s art, not taxidermy. I was living in India for a while and India is a very sculpture oriented place. I had been painting for years and years at that point, and maybe it was just being around so much sculpture. I was home in the states and one day I just thought, what would happen if I make sculpted animals with fake fur? The hyena was the first one. I found [the hyena's fur] in the bargain bin and I thought, this looks just like spotted hyena fur, no wonder it’s on sale. I brought back Sculpy and fur and whatever else I thought I wouldn’t be able to get in India, and just started working. I was originally thinking of porcelain dolls-[with] the hard heads and the soft body. I was thinking more along the lines of what would it be like to make these things so they look like creeped out porcelain dolls, but they actually ended up a little but more like [weird] taxidermy.
The 22: They seem to have this really human quality, a very aggressive straight on gaze…
DS:I feel even though animals are a really popular subject right now, it’s always animal as metaphor or animal as parable. They play the role of an odalisque and they don’t confront the viewer. They are a stand in for history, they’re a stand in for human behavior, but they are never just themselves, and when they are themselves it’s more kitschy animal art. I want it to be as if you were walking into their space. It’s kind of that feeling when you out in the woods or hiking, or even in Central Park [where] it tends to be a bird of prey, a hawk or something, and you have that instant where they look at you, and you look at them, and you have no idea what’s going to go on. Especially if it’s big enough to hurt you. Then it’s this totally different interaction than the zoo or anything else. Your walking into their space, and they are psychologically dominating it. The sculptures themselves are going to be hung so your going to have to walk around them. They force you to move around them instead of being on the walls or giving a pathway.
The 22: Can you tell me a little about Coyote Pursue’s puppet project?
DS: It was a pretty amazing experience. Collaborating was new to me but Matt Reeck is a good friend and amazing to work with. We shored up each others strengths and weaknesses really well. I would never have been able to direct something like that. I think in the future I may do more puppetry but do it so it’s video.
The 22: Is there a difference between building the puppets versus building the sculptures? Is that something you had to learn?
DS: Yes. St. Ann’s puppet lab is a nine month program so they are a huge resource, but it took me forever just to figure how to walk them. It took me two months just to build one, to actually physically construct it so that it moved properly. Once I got the basic structure it took me weeks to figure out how to string it, and that’s one of the times the lab was great. I brought them in and said I don’t know what to do, and one of the guys [showed me], and it was done. It was wonderful.
The 22: The piece itself was about a world where humans are gone, and coyotes are the only ones left right?
DS: [Matt Reeck] is a wonderful poet and he gave me a book of his poetry and asked me to illustrate it. At the time I was just feeling like, I don’t want to paint anything, and I don’t want to sketch.
[But] I was thinking [the poetry] would be perfect to do a puppet show with, and so we said what the hell, we’ll write a puppet lab. We threw it together in two weeks, and we were really surprised we got in. Originally we had taken three of his poems, more short prose really, and the one we both had a very clear vision-that was the same vision-was [the coyote] one. We started building and time started ticking by, and we realized the other two we’re never going to make it, and that we wouldn’t have time [to perform more than one]. You only got twenty minutes tops to perform. So, we decided just to focus on the coyotes, and it was really based on his writing, and [the idea of] not using the animals as parables but to be really Darwinian about it. What would a coyote really be doing if they were wandering around in this world with nothing really left. We were thinking of it as The Road but with coyotes.
DS: I had actually done the paintings and they ended up on the cover. The paintings were actually in the small works show at NYU and Mike D’s wife bought them. So, she came over to my studio and she’s chatting and we’re having this very nice conversation, and she keeps talking about her husband’s band and so I’m thinking….ok, band whatever and being polite, I ask oh what band is your husband in? And she’s says, The Beastie Boys, and at that point I’m immediately intimidated. So about six months later, they called to see if it was ok with me if they used it as an album cover and I just thought….ooook, twist my arm. It was just this little freak thing, they were just these little freak paintings, that I wasn’t planning to do as a body of work or anything.
The 22: What about the memento mori series paintings? Can you talk a little about what this series means to you and why you decided to do it?
DS: I think in that series I’d been reading a lot about evolution. I was thinking about how death influences life. I was thinking about a Darwinian perspective, you have these animals with these constant pressures, and it’s survival of the fittest but also thinking about viewing what human’s do in the world [destruction and pollution] as unnatural, but it is natural because we are part of the world and this is part of what we do. Animals routinely destroy their environments, but they don’t do it in the same numbers that we do. Elephants constantly trash environments and have to move on, but there are so few of them, they aren’t ruining Africa or Asia-we sort of beat them to it. I guess I was thinking about that simple pressure and interaction, and how some of your stiffest competition is from your species. You know species always have more children than your going to need. You really only need a one to one replacement and chances are that’s all your going to get if your lucky.
The Dream Music Puppetry Program’s feisty showcase of tidbits, characters & shorts from the pinnacles of the puppet community. And after selling-out the last two Parlors, we’ve decided to add an additional show! Featuring:
Come on down to Jalopy (www.jalopy.biz) for a rollickin’ county fair-themed evening including…
Blue Ribbon Chili Cook-Off
Berry Delicious Bake-Off
Hee-Haw Hilarity with The Simpsons’ Mike Reiss
Foot-Stompin’ Live Music with John Foti and more
Carnival Games & Prizes
City of Hamburgers After Dark… Puppets Gettin’ Naughty!
Whistle-Wettin’ Beer & Wine
and a Hoedown with DJ Ca$h Machina!
All proceeds support Alphabet Arts’ 2011 performances and programs.
$20 advance tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets or $25 at the door.
Well folks, it’s finally here. The first issue of The 22 in all it’s beautiful, gritty, hard wonness and I for one am glad to see it foisted upon the world. For the moment it is available to view on ISSUU and this evening I’ll have everything embedded so the tentacles of publication stretch far and wide. There are some amazing artists in here, and their words and pictures are now all yours. Over the next couple of months I’ll be shining a spotlight on each of these artists and telling you the story of why the were chosen to be one of the 22.(Look for a special post tomorrow morning as well, introducing you to the 22.)
Lots of very cool things coming up in the following months as well, including video interviews and some really terrific events involving the contributors.
Thanks again to all the folks that made this possible. We couldn’t have done it without you…and you….and definitely you.
Samantha Kostmayer-Sulaiman reads at The 22 Show/Release Party April 10th
at Cafe Orwell
We hosted our first two events this past weekend and boy did we have fun!
Although things were a bit haphazard after a great game of musical venue’s we were thrilled to see all of you in the same room.
We hope you enjoyed yourselves and that you will come visit the future events we will be hosting throughout the year (including an upcoming reading on May 15th with one of 2011′s “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize winners!)
In the meantime all the photos are up online and video (and very likely more photos) will be coming very soon!