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Monday, October 29, 2018

What Can Puppets Teach Us About Climate Change—And Ourselves?

By Robert Jackson Wood

Photo of Dai Matsuoka, courtesy of Phantom Limb Company



If you’ve seen the work of Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko—who come to BAM November 7–10 with their latest work, Falling Out—you know the sense of leaving a theater perplexed. You feel enchanted but also unsettled, as though haunted by the work’s subconscious. You feel stuck—pleasantly, productively—in the inbetween.


It’s the puppets. On the one hand, we disappear into them completely, empathizing with them, seeing our humanity and sentience as theirs. As Sanko has said, they are blank slates onto which we project our innermost selves. They are our uncanny mirror.

But we also experience puppets in the opposite way: as bundles of cloth, string, and hair, glued together as the profane truths of an illusion. In this sense, they represent an aspect of our humanity that we’d prefer to not think about: the fact that we, too, are made of mere matter, and will one day be nothing but. It is the flickering back and forth between those realities—absorption here, alienation there—that gives puppets their powerful, unsettling charm. In no other art form does disbelief suspend itself so tenuously.

In the context of Grindstaff and Sanko’s latest work, Falling Out, which deals with human vulnerability in the face of man-made and natural disasters, this double-faced nature of the medium has profound implications. What is a disaster, after all, but a moment in which we’re forced to confront our hubristic denial of our own mortality and transience?

In this, the puppets of Falling Out have a fitting on-stage counterpart: Japanese butoh dance, which takes the fine line between man and matter, culture and nature, as one of its implicit subjects. Butoh emerged in the 1950s, not long after another disaster of sorts: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Before the bomb, nuclear energy represented the pinnacle of our humanity—the ultimate sign of our triumph over nature. But the revelation of its destructive power changed that, suggesting that the highpoint of our humanness could also be the source of its undoing. The rational could be the most irrational thing of all. Try as we might to hubristically transcend nature—to repress our own puppet-like material basis—we remained just another species, vulnerable to forces greater than ourselves.

Butoh responded to the disorientation of this post-war reality by shunning traditional grace and beauty—themselves a kind of denial of death and transience—in exchange for the primal and the grotesque. It treated the body as matter rather than as a timeless vessel of meaning. It evoked transience and alternate temporalities by radically slowing its movements. In essence, it created a liminal space of its own in which the human was never far from the animal, nor life from death.

Falling Out summons the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through its references to the more recent nuclear tragedy at Fukushima. But it also spends time with an even more pressing problem: climate change. The issues are similar in that both are rooted in the unintended repercussions of human technological development. But our relationship to climate change reveals an even more telling dimension of our denials. Rather than face the fact of our own transience and potential demise, we project our unconscious fears of annihilation out onto non-human “nature,” where we show as much concern for an anthropomorphized “Mother Earth” and melting glaciers as for ourselves. By doing this, we merely perpetuate the problem of seeing nature as something that exists for us—for our postcards, for our aesthetic gaze—rather than as a mirror revealing our own potential fate. We fail to see its body as ours.

In The Maine Woods, Thoreau wrote:
I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound here become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one [...] but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. [...] Who are we? Where are we?
This uncanny experience of our own bodies is needed if we are to better understand what is at stake in the climate emergency. The puppets and butoh dancers in Falling Out allow us to do just that. If puppets encourage us to see the human in the material body, butoh encourages us to see the material body in the human. Together, the two forms  should make us question the hubristic distinctions we make between human and nature, man and matter. They should remind us of how interconnected we are with the world that we claim to dominate, and, relatedly, that to dominate nature is to dominate ourselves.

In essence, they should remind us that we, too, dangle from strings.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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