courtesy the frye art museum

There's a shiver that happens. The shiver is inhuman; the whole body shakes equally at once. The puppeteer holding the strings doesn't intend the shiver, and you couldn't say the shiver is coming from within the puppet, dressed and dignified in his three-button suit and bow tie, though that might be the closest thing to the truth. The shiver happens in between the puppet's actions, when he's finished doing something and is on his way to being still. It is a surplus affect, the dangling remainder after you account for what the puppeteer intends and what the puppet is made to do: walk around, sit down, invent buildings—for it is a puppet of the architect Le Corbusier—and die. But not shiver. Would the towering figure of Le Corbusier himself ever shiver? And yet this shiver is what makes the puppet alive. This shiver is the puppet.

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There is a show now at the Frye Art Museum called The Puppet Show. It is not for children, even though it includes a video of a puppet conference moderated by a panel of puppets including Fozzie Bear, Lamb Chop, Grover, and an elderly turtle wearing a hat and monocle and going by the name of Mr. Shelby (evidently he is from a television nature program), all of whose appearance will certainly thrill children but whose discussion centers on metaphysics. "What is a puppet?" Grover asks innocently. He has never heard the word before. Fozzie Bear, meanwhile, not only knows what a puppet is but knows how best to market a puppet (funny hat).

The Puppet Show, a contemporary art exhibition that has traveled to the Frye from the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of those shows you can disappear down into, and at every level down you go, you will get something more. Because a puppet moves, on a stage, in a setting, the exhibition is designed as a series of stages putting you, the audience, in a series of positions with respect to these stages. You start, for instance, backstage, in a closetlike place where puppets stand, sit (sagging), and lie down on shelves, protected from interfering hands by chicken wire. The curators call this the exhibition's unconscious. When I previewed the show, the breakdown of a nearby installation (a puppet's head came off!) somehow caused the lights to go down in this closet, which turned it into a crypt-toy-box. Traditional Indonesian puppets (e.g., a god, blue and curly) and historical puppets (Pinocchio, nose long) are in there, along with new puppets from the videos in the rest of the exhibition and myriad other puppet-relics.

When you emerge from backstage, you are thrust in front of a group of little motor-driven marionettes cast to look like the artist Dennis Oppenheim, dressed in miniature black suits with crisp white shirts (pictured). Suddenly they begin a dance, but it's loud (are their feet bronze?) and spastic and intimidating, like a military event gone haywire. Next to it are photographs from Laurie Simmons's story of a girl puppet come to life, starring Meryl Streep (the actual). Welcome to The Puppet Show.

The Puppet Show uses internationally important artists—Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Kara Walker, Pierre Huyghe, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Bruce Nauman, Maurizio Cattelan, Nayland Blake, Nathalie Djurberg, Christian Jankowski, William Kentridge, Guy Ben-Ner—very, very well. This is not an excuse to round up big names; it's a fascinating new way of drawing them together. It follows up on strands of art history going back to midcentury modernism so easily—as cocurator Ingrid Schaffner writes in the really good catalog, "Speed up Hans Namuth's film of Pollock painting if you want to see a puppet show"—that it's hard to believe nobody's done it before. What better way to further the questions of pop and minimalism (and the entire political situation of the 20th century) than puppetry? It's the oldest question—which parts of us do we control and which parts belong to systems that pull our strings?—asked another way. And what if we know about the strings? What then?

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Pretend these questions are being asked by puppets, and you get an idea of what this show is like: McCarthy, in a video, stomps around wearing a bulbous nose and making a mess with paint while chanting, "Yooo-hooo, de Koooooning"; two hands wearing rhinestone eyes have a relationship talk (Cindy Loehr, Señor Wences–style); Ben-Ner's penis, wearing googly eyes, performs karaoke to Connie Francis's "Lipstick on Your Collar"; puppets of famous artists (Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno) that can be hired out for events sit on a bench watching themselves be (badly) ventriloquized on a video projection while you sit on another bench behind them, watching and watching the watching; Matt Mullican makes a painting in a gallery while under a hypnotist's spell not to obey the hypnotist; a "Negress Burdened by Good Intentions" reverses slavery—black women are in charge—but still gets ejaculated all over in the end (Walker); a vise wears a tiny pink sweater, and a bed and chair are linked, incestuously, by their legs having been inserted into a single pair of children's shorts (Kelley); a war is fought by carousel horses on sticks and men whose bodies explode then are reconstituted in order to be exploded again (Kentridge); and Le Corbusier's shiver looks you in the eye (Huyghe).

The puppet, mostly dead, makes everything possible. Go see this show. recommended