Collaborators, manipulators and imagineers
There’s something slightly unnerving about these contemporary art forms. They wave no flags of jingoistic nationalism so labels don’t stick. They’re burdened by neither the dogma of religion, nor the baggage of ideology.
Though dumb they can speak to every one of the seven billion on this planet in a universal tongue of shared concerns and experiences. Though blind they can see what we wilfully ignore. Yet paradoxically they lack what we have: Life.
In the hands of talented artists puppets can reduce us to tears, or raise us to nobility, and next month (December) Indonesian audiences will get the chance to see some of the world’s best.
“Puppets are a blank canvas,” said Dean Petersen from Melbourne’s Cake Industries (‘Media Artists, Future Makers’) while tinkering with switches in a Yogyakarta workshop. “We can project our feelings onto them. We can bring the inanimate to life.”
Together with Jesse Stevens the two Australians, ‘heavily influenced by 1950s science fiction dystopia’, will be using robotics to animate figures and objects at Yogya’s International Biennial Pesta Boneka (puppet festival). This will be held between 5 and 7 December in the Central Java city and the nearby village of Kedek.
This is the hometown of Beni Sanjaya, one of the creative workers at Yogya’s Papermoon Puppet Theater. Recently he helped stage a carnival in Kedek using giants, showing that the traditional wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances aren’t the only way to entertain.
Papermoon is a group of out-of-the-box artists assembled after the 2006 Yogya earthquake. Their original quest was to help citizens reassemble shattered lives through brief escapes into fantasy and shared compassion.
In the Pesta Boneka Papermoon will be supported by performers from Australia, Mexico, Thailand, Spain, the Philippines, Hungary, Japan and Iceland. Like migrating birds, modern puppeteers ignore political boundaries and fly to where they are most loved.
What they have in common is passion, the desire to swap concepts, expand imagination, entertain and inspire. They graze the Internet as a garden of delights, a place to sow seeds and garner ideas. If a TV series was created about these fertile folk it would be titled The Collaborators.
Thai puppeteer Jae Sirikarn Bunjongtad (see breakout) was inspired by the work of puppeteers from Scandinavia. Some of her wayang kulit creations look Indonesian enough to alert the culture cops, but Jae said similar styles are found in Thailand and Malaysia. She’s stitched costumes and spun stories in Kazakhstan, Cambodia and South Korea.
The pockets of mannequin movers like Dean (left) and Jesse are never short of an AA battery or a LED light. They should be called The Adaptors, using old car window wipers to sway, rams to lift and toggles to twist, employing anything discarded that can serve a higher purpose. If the raw materials are from natural products then their contentment is sustainable.
Contemporary puppeteers tend to share, not lock ideas into cages of copyright. Some offer their work through Creative Commons, licensing that only requires attribution. While film makers like Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson offload millions on special equipment to quicken the dead and hire security guards to keep sets secret, puppeteers scavenge rather than spend, and welcome the curious behind the scenes.
“People used to say puppets were just for kids, and we had the same thinking,” said artist Iwan Effendi waggling one of Papermoon’s early glove creations. He started the company with his wife Maria Tri Sulistyani, a children’s book illustrator.
“Then we noticed how many adults were interested. We’d seen the same thing in the US where we met the family that runs the company of the late Jim Henson.
(Henson created the Muppets that revolutionized early childhood education through the TV series Sesame Street. )
“So Papermoon began developing new stories and characters, and then staged a R18 show. That was a success.”
Later the company produced and toured the US with Mwathirika ‘about the loss of history and the history of loss’, proving that this art form can share the sharp end of political comment along with experimental theater. This non-verbal play explored the genocide that followed the 1965 coup d’état, still a taboo topic in many families and communities.
Said one overseas reviewer: ‘Papermoon … has transformed puppets the way graphic novels changed comics.(Its work) is intellectually challenging, emotionally chilling and visually bold.’
Papermoon has no studio, just a decrepit rented house that serves as a maternity room for the dolls born through a marriage of nimble minds and fingers to match. After the applause some just hang around in corners, or take it easy in cupboards, smiling wistfully at the world through glass doors, their fixed expressions waiting to be liberated by a human hand.
In the dusty yard outside is a giant face built by Octo Cornelius who, like his colleague Beni, learned the hows and how nots through the University of Trial and Error.
“I started making puppets from vegetables,” he said. “Now I’ve graduated to rattan and bamboo.”
Chaos in the Neighborhood
The uncle loves growing plants. The green caterpillar likes eating them. The little boy wants to protect the insect from his vengeful relative.
Who can’t relate to such a tale whatever their background?
For the youngster understands that the caterpillar is on its way to become a butterfly and needs only a few more bites of uncle’s leaves before it turns into a chrysalis.
So at some cost to family harmony he stops the caterpillar from being killed. Eventually a beautiful butterfly emerges to the joy of all, and ready to help pollinate uncle’s plants.
Chaos in the Neighborhood is one of many stories in the repertoire of Thai puppeteer Jae Sirikarn Bunjongtad (above) (stage name Kankak Naga Tan), in Indonesia to perform at the Pesta Boneka.
In Papermoon’s workshop she drew sketches, made models, plotted moves, sewed backdrops, edited scripts and adjusted halogen light filaments she’s using to illuminate her sets.
“I have to do everything myself,” she said. “When I studied theater arts at university in Bangkok there was only one unit on puppetry, so I’ve had to develop my own skills. That includes management.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 December 2014)