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A 'Puppet' that won't come alive

June 30, 2008|David Pagel | Special to The Times

"The Puppet Show" isn't as much fun as you'd expect. And that's not because this exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is so serious and probing that fun is too frivolous an experience to expect from its mostly impressive inventory of works by 27 artists from around the world.

Despite the respectable number of powerful pieces, the show dies on the vine for two reasons: It treats art as props, inanimate leftovers from performances you can conjure in your imagination but never experience in anything like their original glory, and it treats viewers as isolated individuals, who don't come together as an audience (a group whose passions are stirred together) but remain disengaged, disconnected and distracted -- solitary consumers plugged into an institutionally scaled personal entertainment system programmed by someone else.

The installation, by exhibition designer Terence Gower, sets the tone. It's noisy and inert.

Much of the noise comes from the show's centerpiece, five motor-driven marionettes by Dennis Oppenheim that dance manically, stamping their pint-size feet to the pulsing beat of a rock ditty that, connected to a timer, switches on and off like an obnoxious alarm clock.

When Oppenheim's puppets are on, the pitter-patter of little feet is nightmarish, a relentless clamor that gets on your nerves and evokes all those moments when the quiet you need has been shattered by thoughtless neighbors, boisterous strangers, incessant car alarms and jackhammers beating away.

When the puppets shut off, the soundtracks from several other pieces can be heard. They fill the gallery with the acoustic equivalent of litter: arbitrary interruptions that are neither soothing, as white noise can be, nor sufficiently distinct to pique your curiosity or allow you to make sense of them.

These noises would be a minor distraction if the visual force of the installation were stronger. But it's too static and lifeless to make them fade away. Instead, you feel as if you have stumbled into a set designer's idea of backstage -- a generic space where props, costumes and supplies are temporarily stored in a fairly disorderly fashion. It's a neither-here-nor-there realm in which theater's willing suspension of disbelief collides with the here-and-now power of visual art, leaving viewers in a no man's land of unrealized potential.

The show, organized by Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York, divides into four basic parts.

The main gallery contains the three largest, each occupying roughly a third of the space.

Crowded around the entrance are seven rectangular boxes made of smoothly sanded, unpainted plywood. Set on end, with their lids removed and a small bench placed before each, these shipping-crate-style boxes resemble church confessionals or super-sized coffins or private viewing booths in X-rated theaters. Each houses two sets of headphones and a monitor on which videos play.

At the opposite end of the main space stands a motel-style or row-house array of rooms, also built from unpainted plywood. Each of the three little enclosures is a theater that features projected videos.

Sandwiched between the big crates and the little viewing rooms are prop-style sculptures. Some are set on pedestals, such as Mike Kelley's wickedly efficient "Gussied Up," which manages to hold its own. Most hang from the rafters, like Oppenheim's marionettes. These include Anne Chu's "Charming Girl" and Kiki Smith's "Nuit," four human limbs cast in plaster. Others, such as doll-like pieces by Nayland Blake and Louise Bourgeois, dangle from clothing rack-style armatures.

All but Kelley's come off as props, objects made not to stand on their own but to serve as supports for other stories. Most play off the idea that someone, somewhere else, is pulling the strings. Only Kelley's unholy amalgam of used furniture and secondhand children's and dolls' clothing insists that the interaction between viewer and sculpture is primary, far more important than the piece's role in the show's confused narrative.

As a whole, the installation favors video, particularly in the front, where you can put on headphones, block out your surroundings and get lost in the comic viciousness of Paul McCarthy's "Painter"; the robotic gladiatorial warfare in a documentary by Survival Research Laboratory; the poignant corniness of Nathalie Djurberg's off-key animations; the dopey naivete of Guy Ben-Ner's "Elia: A Story of an Ostrich Chick"; and the blunt formality of William Kentridge's collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company.

It will, however, take you more than five hours to see everything in this part of the show. Such a daunting time requirement invites sampling -- a-little-of-this and a-little-of-that nibbling that makes you wonder whether the artists' original intentions match those of the curators.

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