The ICA Philadelphia’s Puppet Show

Laurie Simmons, “The Music of Regret” (Act I), 2006. 35 mm film, 40 minutes. Directed by Laurie Simmons; Music, Michael Rohatyn; Camera, Ed Lachman ASC; with Meryl Streep, Adam Guettel, and the Alvin Ailey II Dancers. © Laurie Simmons, courtesy the artist, Salon 94, and Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York.

Opening tomorrow at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia is The Puppet Show, a group exhibition that looks at the imagery of puppets in contemporary art. Bringing together 29 artists (many of whom have been featured in Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century) and several generations, the exhibition concentrates on sculpture, video and photography. Some of the works involve actual puppets (marionettes, shadow puppets, hand puppets) and artists performing as puppeteers. Other images evoke topics associated with puppetry (manipulation, miniaturization, agency, control). Collectively these works show puppets to be provocative and relevant imagery that moves deep into social, political and psychological terrains.

The Puppet Show takes as a historic point of departure one of the first episodes of avante-garde art history: Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi that was conceived as a puppet show. Ubu’s reign continues with the work of the South African artist William Kentridge in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company. More recently, puppets have taken hold of pop consciousness by way of films, theater, computer games and animation. On a more political note, current events and national leadership raise questions of agency that cogently relate to puppets. Together with these collective points of reference, The Puppet Show poses a larger cultural question: why do puppets matter now?

Participating artists include: Guy Ben-Ner, Nayland Blake, Louise Bourgeois, Maurizio Cattelan, Anne Chu, Nathalie Djurberg, Terence Gower, Dan Graham and Japanther, Handspring Puppet Company, Pierre Huyghe, Christian Jankowski, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Cindy Loehr, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy, Matt Mullican, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Phillippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Laurie Simmons, Doug Skinner and Michael Smith, Kiki Smith, Survival Research Laboratory, Kara Walker and Charlie White.

A fully-illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition. After the ICA premiere, the show will travel to the Santa Monica Museum of Art; The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu; the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; and the Frye Art Museum, Seattle.

Related programs by Art21 artists:

Kiki Smith lecture
January 23, 5pm
Penn Museum, Harrison Auditorium

“Basically, art is just a way to think,” says Smith in her Art:21 segment. “It’s like standing in the wild and letting it pull you in whatever direction it wants to go.” Presented by the Penn Humanities Forum. Pre-registration required at or 215.573.8280.

Laurie SimmonsThe Music of Regret
Tuesday, March 4, 7pm
International House, 3701 Chestnut Street

Artist Laurie Simmons introduces The Music of Regret, a mini-musical in three acts. The film is inspired by distinct periods in Simmons’ work: vintage hand puppets, ventriloquist dummies and walking objects that enact tales of ambition, disappointment, love, loss and regret. Simmons’ puppets come to life in miniature domestic scenes, incorporating musicians, professional puppeteers, Alvin Ailey dancers, cinematographer Ed Lachman and actress Meryl Streep. Watch clips from the film and read interviews in which Simmons discusses the film on her Art:21 webpage here.

The Puppet Show is on view at the ICA through March 30.