On the occasion of Wyatt Kahn's Performa 15 Commission, Work, Marc Arthur, Head of Research and Archives, spoke with Kahn and the acclaimed artist Laurie Simmons (Performa 05) about working with puppets in the context of visual art.
MA: Thank you both for joining me today! I’d like to begin with a general question. How does puppetry inform your practices as visual artists?
WK: I think there is a kind of weird abstraction that puppetry has, especially the abstraction of the figure, which I feel connects puppetry directly to my work. It’s hard for me to know yet though, I feel like it always takes 24 to 36 months after you make something to understand fully how it trickles down and affects you.
LS: I agree though I think sometimes it takes years! Having just read your transcript for your performance, it seems that one of the ways you’re using puppets is as middle-men or mediums, for lack of a better word, who can say things you might not be able to say about your own work. One of the things that has always interested me about puppets and ventriloquism in particular is how the ventriloquists would make their dummies say the things they might never say in real life.
WK: I agree. This is the fantasy that all artists have–to sit and talk to your paintings, have a two-hour conversation with them, what would it be like and what would they say to you? Artists can do interviews or conversations, but to really talk about a specific work or talk to specific works in depth is not something that artists have the opportunity to do.
LS: But what a great idea to have a scenario where your paintings could actually speak for themselves and then you don’t have to do it right?
WK: Yes, exactly.
LS: What a relief!
WK: It removes you from the work, right? There is no way for you to sound pretentious because the paintings are stand-ins for this.
LS: Exactly, you could let the paintings chat with each other and engage in a critical dialogue about themselves and you don’t have to take any responsibility for it.
MA: Wyatt, in the performance you give the audience access to your inner thoughts, and I know that a tentative title was 'Studio Visit.' Can you speak about how your studio is a site of inspiration for this piece?
WK: There is this allure where people want to get into the studio and view the process behind each work. I feel during these visits it’s impossible to gather what is going on in the studio because it has become this professional presentation, instead of what it truly is which is an experience that is vulnerable, goofy, and real.
LS: Well, that’s precisely why artists tend to build personal mythologies because most of the time what goes on in the studio is not this magical mystical alchemy that a lot of people assume it is. It’s actually kind of plain and down and dirty and relatively ho-hum.
WK: Yes, everyone thinks it’s like Mad Men, right? That artists sit and suddenly have a genius idea and then proceed to drink several scotches or whatever else is around…
LS: Most of the time movies about artists are like this. Is this really what they think we do? OR should I say is this what we’re supposed to do?
MA: Wyatt, I know you’re staging this piece at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park. Can you both speak about the theatrical qualities in your work? What draws you to live performance?
LS: I have always been interested in the theatrical quality of making images. But to answer your question, I am not involved in live performance. All of my work is on film but often documents a theatrical performance.
WK: The Swedish Marionette Theater was my first choice. I went to puppet shows regularly there as a kid—up until probably seven years of age. There were several other possibilities for the stage before we circled back to this. This particular venue has a special quality, and the audience will get what they are expecting from this performance. You know?
LS: You mean a puppet show?
WK: Yes, they will know they are here to see a puppet show because this is a puppet theater. Here, the work is able to speak for itself and doesn’t contain a grandiose element.
MA: You both spoke earlier about how puppets allow you to say things you’re not able express explicitly as artists. Can you talk about what it is that puppets allow you to communicate?
LS: When I think about ventriloquists, ventriloquist dummies, and puppets being able to communicate more succinctly and directly than real people it’s because, the operative in my work has always been that the unreal ultimately reads as hyperreal. I don’t think about making my characters talk (though I did that once in my film The Music Of Regret), I am ultimately a picture-maker.
Laurie Simmons. The Music of Regret (Act III), film still, 2006. 35mm film; 40 minutes. Directed by Laurie Simmons; Music, Michael Rohatyn; Camera, Ed Lachman ASC; with Meryl Streep, Adam Guettel, and the Alvin Ailey II Dancers. © Laurie Simmons, courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York.
MA: That’s wonderful. The centrality of image-making is a helpful contextualization. I’m wondering how the political undertones in your piece might speak through the puppets, Wyatt?
WK: I wanted to use this Performa Commission as an opportunity to do something totally different. My work doesn’t necessarily deal with overtly political issues. While there are some, it’s not as direct as in this work. I didn’t want to beat anyone over the head with anything, but there were opportunities for me to address certain things very gently.
LS: I think that your Performa Commission and my 2006 film, The Music of Regret, literally gives voice to things that we make in a very specific way. I finally had to face the challenge—what are my characters thinking about? I loved that besides reciting dialogue and telling stories they were also able to sing and dance like in a Broadway musical.
MA: I wonder if the puppets you’re working with, or the resulting artworks, are imbued with a quality of magic? I’m thinking about West African fetish objects, many of which are puppets. Performance objects could be understood as functioning like fetish objects in so far as memory and context are physically imbued in art objects during a performance.
LS: I think that artworks in general become imbued with a kind of magic, a type of knowledge in order to be accepted and ultimately believed in. I remember what it was like to first encounter Duchamp’s Étant donnés or the first black Frank Stella painting I ever saw. I was baffled, then dazzled, which resulted in an awareness that with some acquired knowledge I could get this thing—but it was on me. This made it some sort of fetish object, if we are all interpreting the word in the same way.
MA: Yes, brilliant. That engagement with materiality is also unstable and ephemeral no? It can change the next time you see the painting?
WK: Yes, that loss of control in the work is something that is present in this Performa Commission. It’s something that from the get-go I wanted to explore. While I think that I am in full control, I’m also equally aware that I have no control over how the puppet will come alive—these voices inside of them that are their own.
LS: By the way—what is the image of you with that little puppet in your shirt?
WK: That’s the puppet that I am playing. I made a miniature version of myself that I am wearing around my neck.
LS: This is interesting. Artists like Maurizio Cattelan or Pierre Huyghe or Dennis Oppenheim have all made puppets of themselves. I made a ventriloquist dummy and lots of dolls in my own image as well. What are we saying when we create puppet versions of ourselves? What is going on here?
WK: Well yes, it was really freeing and funny. It felt like something I should have done a long time ago.
LS: To make this puppet of yourself?
WK: Yes, to make a kind of doll, a puppet, a self portrait of myself—to more or less poke fun at myself.
LS: It’s so funny to hear you say that you should have done it a long time ago because you seem so young to me!
WK: It’s both referential to my own older work and also a nod to art historical work.
LS: I’ve always loved the idea that once you make your ‘grown up work’ that you are kind of in dialogue with yourself for the rest of your life.
MA: Are these just puppets or do they become art objects? Laurie you strictly make photography and film, but Wyatt I wonder if your puppets will have a life outside of the performance.
WK: I see them as something for my own archive, as something for me to have and enjoy. The artwork to me is the entire performance. The idea of splitting it up and starting to make the puppets themselves as the artwork, I feel this would take away value and also place a strange monetary value on these things within the performance. I think that the puppets themselves are kind of ephemera of the performance space.
Wyatt Kahn, Work puppets, 2015; photos by Genevieve Hanson, courtesy of the artist.
LS: Yes, and that’s always really tricky to understand what’ is your work and what are your tools and props? One of my favorite artworks that I’ve made involved six kid-size chairs, mounted at eye level on a wall with six identical dummies, dressed in six different outfits. The piece was titled, Clothes Make The Man (1990 - 1992), and it was clear to me that they needed to have a sculptural life. It sounds like you don’t yet know what these things are and what your intention is and that’s really great too. You’ll just see once they are out in the world what kind of life they will take on.
WK: Yes, it feels strange labeling them props. I know what that word means, but it just makes me feel a little… it makes me feel bad for them in a way.
LS: My props are so near and dear to me; my life-size birthday cake, gun, props that the dancers wore in The Music of Regret—I keep them close by. Nine years later they are in my studio. I’ve catalogued all my props in boxes. I am by no means a collector of toys or anything but I want to know they’re there in case their meaning or use shifts for me some day.
MA: How interesting that these objects retain another, almost uncategorizable, meaning and value for you. And so many years later! It was ten years ago, at Performa 05, that you premiered acts one and three of The Music of Regret, in which your extraordinary puppets were brought to life by Alvin Ailey dancers. Thank you both for speaking with me today. Any last thoughts?
LS: I’m excited to see your puppet show Wyatt! Are people holding the puppets, or are they wearing them?
WK: They are hand puppets. We had an audition and I couldn’t believe the quality of the actors. Our lead was in War Horse. Another was an actor on The Knick—I was totally blown away by the quality of the actors and puppeteers!
LS: Good luck Wyatt! I hope you’re not too nervous.