The life of Puppets


The current exhibition of a diverse range of puppets, automata, interactive installations and a shadow room at Z-Arts Gallery – ‘Dead Puppet’ – poses questions about the (in)animate quality of objects, with a particular focus on the puppet as archival entity.

IMG_8816     P1050481      IMG_9027

Photo credits: Z-Arts and Yemima Yong

Puppeteer and University of London Research Fellow, Nenagh Watson, has curated the exhibition, drawing from her AHRC funded research project entitled ‘The life and death of objects and puppets: immanence, intervention, presence and absence,’ in which she has examined the ‘Ephemeral Animation’ or ‘independent life’ of discarded materials (Watson: 2011: 6). The puppets are from Watson’s own puppet archive and some obtained on loan from the collections or bequeaths of other puppeteers or organisations, all of which appear to have at some point been used in theatre productions (including by Watson’s own companies – Doo-cot and Barking Dog). Although the puppets were used in a broad range of productions – from Macbeth to Muffin the Mule – there appears to be a recurring theme amongst the collection which connects the puppets to notions of homosexual othering or perceived deviance. This sense of the other corresponds to the overarching experience of looking at the puppets in an exhibitory context, not only in terms of their position as lifeless, useless or moribund entities in contrast to the active spectatorship of the viewer but in terms of how the puppets and/or automata invoke sensations of what Freud or Jentsch (1906) described as ‘uncanny’: a fear, misunderstanding, yet paradoxical recognition towards something unfamiliar and impenetrable. Jentsch suggests that we project semi-conscious emotions upon the inanimate objects (1906:8), perhaps reiterating our own fragile and/or feared identities. The life/death dichotomy is chillingly apparent within the exhibition space, contesting our binary understanding of still/moving (inanimate/animate) – particularly in the shadow room, where the viewer participates in the holding and directing of the torch. The Spook Room is for adults only (there is a puppet called Willy Wanker!) and works to orient notions of the uncanny in relation to the body and the grotesque.

The display of ‘dead’ puppets, plucked from archives then placed into glass cases, projected from and within computer screens, suspended from walls or moving erratically and neurotically across the floor – in the case of the ‘trolley-bots’  – creates a contemporary gothic experience within the Z-Arts gallery space; provoking a sense of voyeurism, unpredictability, terror and excitement. Where do these puppets now belong; why have their masters/mistresses left them and who are we to speculate in relation to them?

2013-12-16 17.40.35        2013-12-16 18.07.54

 Own photos: Muffin the Mule and Puppets from The Shadow Room.

For more and clearer photos:

For more info on the exhibition: 

Twitter: @NenAGHWatson  @EB_QueenCotton


Ernst Jentsch (1906) ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny, translated by Roy Sellars, art3idea [online],, accessed 16/12/2013

Nenagh Watson ‘Ephemeral Animation,’ Puppet Notebook, Issue 19 / Summer 2011



About Art Theory and Practice

BA Contemporary Art History Manchester School of Art

One comment

  1. Nenagh Watson

    Just want to say thank you for this thoughtful and provocative ‘review’ of DEADpuppet. Very interesting reading your thoughts and you really engage with my curatoring of DEADpuppet. Fantastico! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: