Chinese Opera Puppets, mid-20th century, Taiwan, Gift of John C. Henry
Punch, Judy, and The Baby Hand Puppets, circa 1900, Gift of John C. Henry.
What's a museum to do when between buildings? Pop up exhibitions, of course. And what could pop up better than puppets? The Gregg Museum of Art and Design, at NC State University, formerly housed in the Talley Student Center and not yet in its stand-alone location, has mounted a charming small exhibition, from its collections and special loans, in the highly simpatico Exhibit Gallery of D.H. Hill Library, on State's main campus. Life's Little Dramas: Puppets, Proxies and Spirits provides a surprisingly broad look at the objects humans make to tell stories and perform as surrogates.
It had been a very long time since I'd been in D.H. Hill Library, and I was astonished by the high-design and user-friendliness of its current arrangements. Entry is now only from the Brickyard, not from the Hillsborough Street side. The exhibit area is on the east end of the first floor, between the amazing Learning Commons and the Special Collections Reading Room. It is essentially a wide hall with a number of handsome wood and glass display cases. Adjoining is a comfortable sitting room with a view into the campus, and more displays. This exhibition is probably not worth a special trip from afar, unless you are seriously interested in all things puppet, but it is very much worth stopping for if you are in the area. Library hours for the public extend until 10 p.m.
The objects included in the exhibition indicate the nearly world-wide use of puppetry, as well as providing exemplars of several important styles. There are a number of exquisite Javanese shadow puppets as well as rod puppets from the same culture. There are Chinese opera hand puppets, with striking face paint and changeable costumes. There is a large and very fine rod puppet from Mali, of the Yayoroba (Beautiful Woman) figure, a beautiful Princess Sita marionette from Burma, and a wonderfully strange male figure marionette from Sri Lanka, with feet like flippers and pink toe nails. More marionettes hail from the Czech Republic and WPA-era US. Howdy Dowdy's there, too. And, wonder of wonders, there is a full English Punch and Judy troupe, displayed with its scenery and travelling trunk.
These diverse objects, along with a group of robots, are contextualized with thoughtful background imagery and additional related objects, and by the excellent texts accompanying the puppets, which explain their cultural uses. It's fascinating to see how these uses vary – and how they are similar. Sometimes mere juxtaposition jolts the brain. I had not previously made a mental connection between the robust Czech tradition of protest and political commentary through puppetry and the uses made of puppets by the theatrical arm of the US Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
The ideas touched on in the wall texts are further developed in two first-rate essays in the exhibition's small but well-produced catalogue. The essays (by Gregg director and chief curator Roger Manley and art writer Chris Vitiello) probe the uses and meaning – and psychology – of the continuum of objects from hand puppets to robots, teasing apart the distinctions between puppetry and masking, and between puppetry and robotics. You can read the gallery copy or step into the nearby reading room and ask for a copy at the desk.
Only one event associated with this exhibition remains: an interactive performance of some of Paperhand Puppet Intervention's compelling characters, led by the company's artistic director Donovan Zimmerman, on Nov. 12 at 6 p.m., in Thompson Hall.
Also on display, in the cases of the sitting area, is a delicious selection of ceramics from the Gregg's vast collection of North Carolina pottery. Should you happen to be in Seagrove between now and Feb. 13, you can see many more pieces in Object Lessons, curated by former Gregg director Charlotte Vestal Wainwright, at the NC Pottery Center. The new Gregg is expected to open in early 2017 in the former chancellor's residence at 1903 Hillsborough St. In the meantime, watch for more pop-up exhibitions drawn from the museum's dazzling collections (34,000 objects and growing).