Magical is a word I’ve used too rarely lately instead my conversations have been laced with dark words such as demonic, crazy, and tragic. They are my response to the bad news that floods in daily on local and global fronts. Magical is a word at the opposite end of the spectrum- and I’m talking about white magic– describing the luminous powers of the human imagination to totally transport us, and allowing us to see what was not there before. But this summer I had two art experiences that were just that- magical, and thus worth sharing because we are all in need of being reminded of the wondrous things humans do.
In early June I was touring galleries in the Chelsea district of New York with my daughter Sofia and her Danish friend, Magnus. Thanks to Magnus we stopped in to see “The Marionette Maker” at the Luhring Augustine gallery created by Cardiff and Miller, a Canadian artist couple known for their sound and theatrical installations. We’d just left the Gagosian gallery which was exhibiting Richard Serra’s mammoth metal slabs positioned like giant dominoes that could easily topple. We’d tread nervously and briskly through fearing our minor weight could create just that tipping point. The mood in the Luhring Augustine gallery was altogether different, the audience there looked spellbound and like they might never leave.
We too began to circle clockwise around the vintage camper trailer parked in the middle of the space. This was the stage for the Cardiff- Miller drama. With each loop around we noticed new things, we saw the marionette maker, a small puppet hunched over his drawings and imagining new designs. In different parts and windows of the trailer other small marionette figures gyrated each in their own reverie. Animated by simple robotic technology, a musician strummed obsessively at his electric guitar, an opera singer and her pianist practiced, then there was a life size woman sleeping. She was so real we watched for her chest to move up and and down, holding our own breath for a long time as we studied her. Our voyeuristic trance was interrupted by the convincing soundtrack of rain and wind that filled the space outside the trailer. We were no longer inside the white walls of a gallery in New York, what forest clearing had we landed in? Who was creating the weather?
At the end of summer I drove through hundreds of mile of forests on I-95 to get to the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. I was traveling up with a good friend and her daughter to visit the Bread and Puppet Theater at their home in Glover. We didn’t want to miss the last of their Sunday outdoor performances. I have been a Bread and Puppet theater fan for most of my life and to see them at their home base was one of my bucket item lists. Once off the highway you follow a small road for miles, and then without warning you cross their threshold. There is one of their painted school buses- with CHEAP ART painted big over the windows. Their home base is a large farm which has a natural amphitheatre perfect for an audience of at least three hundred and more to sit. Behind the amphitheater is a pine forest that has been planted. The forest is now at least forty years tall.
In the amphitheater we watched the drama of Gods and men of our contemporary world being played out by puppeteers wearing large masks and simple cloth costumes that stretched out dragon-like with several people in them or soared skyward thanks to the use of poles and stilts. And of course there was lots of music and words. Some of the words lingered like a chorus, paraded in and out on cloth banners painted with big wet brushes, positive words such as Courage, Hope, Awe, Listen.
A huge barn on the farm is the repository for decades of paper mache puppets of all scales waiting to come to life again, each a character in a timeless story. New puppeteers continue to come in waves to animate the paper mache into stories for today. The planted Cathedral forest on the hill holds a more permanent and sacred stillness, here shrines and commemorative huts have been built for the puppeteers who have died. With each name and their dates we sense the shortness of their journey, the time-sensitive element of our existence. Who would have thought that paper mache would outlast flesh and blood?
Both experiences, one confined inside a New York gallery and the other on acres of farmland were a full immersion for the senses, leaving me with a sense of wonder and awe. The creators of the Marionette Maker were not present in the gallery but their cosmic mind was in every element of the installation. I could imagine them at work on their next creation in their studio in British Columbia, somewhere where they can see the open expanse of a starlit sky every night. At Glover, I did see Peter Schumann the wizard behind Bread and Puppet. If you didn’t know him you would have thought he was just a rumpled old man with his battered hat helping to cut bread, behind him a huge earth mound oven built from the soil there. But here was the sour dough bread of the Bread and Puppet, the simple sacred offering that he has made for over fifty years, baking and sharing it with almost every performance. The recipe is his mother’s. So I too broke bread with the many others who had been transported by the magic created that day – with such simple materials and such a wondrous mind. Thank you, please keep doing your work, we need it now more than ever.