Archive for the ‘Puppets’ Category

The magical Strandbeests – art comes alive

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen

strandbeest_jansen_drawing

The kinetic sculptures of Theo Jansen are unlike anything else in the world. They seem to defy category, they are art and machine, but also works of theater on a grand scale. And although they are are not sentient beings, they seem to have a life all their own, and people connect with them.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is featuring the first major American exhibition of Jansen’s work, before it travels on to Chicago and San Francisco. In a statement on his website, Jansen says he is trying to create “new forms of life” with his sculptures, and seeing them in action makes you think he might actually get there.

Part of the magic of these creatures is that they are self-propelled, and their limbs seem to move like those of animals or insects, and yet their movements are unique to themselves. It is truly like seeing a new species, and it makes us think about what it means to be “alive.” Designed to walk on the beach, some of his creations can detect when they are walking on wet sand, and thus avoid going into the water. There is a kind of artificial intelligence here. How much “intelligence” is necessary before we say that something is alive? Computers have far more artificial intelligence than the strandbeests, and yet because they move around like giant animals, we somehow relate to them more as intelligent beings, we want them to be alive.

From a purely visual standpoint, it amazes me how “natural” these creatures appear, both in their structure and movements. Despite the fact that they are entirely built from human-made materials (PVC pipes, plastic bottles), they seem like creatures that could occur naturally in the world. And yet some of their parts are purely mechanical — no animal uses a wheel and piston to propel their legs.

Here is a short documentary on Jansen and his art:

In the film, Jansen says, “To make my animals, I try to make a new nature, I don’t want to copy the existing nature, but it’s hard to avoid that.” He finds that when he designs the working parts of his creatures, he inevitably winds up with elements like those of living creatures — bones, muscles, legs — because that is the most efficient way to propel an object over uneven ground. He thinks of his creatures as going through their own evolution as he perfects them, much the way nature itself has gone through evolution over a much longer period of time.

The exhibit will run from September 19, 2015 through January 3, 2016 at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Here is a TED Talk by the artist:


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And here is a lecture by the artist at the University of Michigan in 2008.

 

A Celebration of Flight

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

A Celebration of Flight

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of A Celebration of Flight by IBEX Puppetry, directed by Heather Henson. Featuring a blend of puppetry, movement and music, it was an inspiring spectacle that beautifully depicted the natural world through the life-cycle of a crane.

The performance followed the young bird as it hatched from an egg, discovered the world, and learned to fly, while meeting various other creatures along the way (fish, dragonflies, turtles, birds.) The ending featured a gigantic white crane that flew majestically across the stage. A thundering percussive soundtrack and soaring vocal performance added to the magic.

The setting for this visual and musical feast was an outdoor amphitheater on the gorgeous campus of Swarthmore College, as part of the Puppeteers of America national festival. Surrounded by towering trees and lush greenery, with the audience seated on the ground, the connection with nature was even more profound. I even saw a real hawk soaring high overhead, as though joining in the spectacle.

At various points in the performance, children in the audience were invited to participate by waving their own paper birds and fish in the air. At the end they were all invited down to the stage to join the performance in a joyous finale that brought tears to my eyes. It was a celebration like no other – a true blending of art and nature, reaching towards a deeper understanding of both.

A Celebration of Flight

Majestic crane puppet flies over the audience

A Celebration of Flight

A Celebration of Flight

Photographs don’t do justice to the puppets, because their movement was what made them so magical. Below is a video trailer of the show performed indoors, which will give you a better sense of the overall production.

Learn more about IBEX Puppetry at their website or Facebook page.

The Snowflake Man

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Wilson BentleyWilson Bentley was a Renaissance man. He had no formal training in science or art,  yet he had a talent and a passion for both. In 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal, and would go on to photograph more than 5000.

His story is just as inspiring as his work. His father, a farmer, did not appreciate his son’s scientific ambitions, but his mother encouraged him. Bentley later recalled, “When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”

But it was snow that fascinated him most, and he spent over a year experimenting with a bellows camera and microscope trying to photograph the elusive crystals. Once he succeeded, it was thirteen years before he published his work in Popular Scientific Monthly and caught the attention of the scientific world. Photograph by Wilson BentleyYet he never sought to make a profit from his work, and sold prints of his photographs for pennies because he wanted people to enjoy them.

He wrote, “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

It is all too true that often the most beautiful things in life are with us for the shortest time. Luckily we have the photographs of Wilson Bentley to preserve at least some of them.

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

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The following video report gives a brief overview of his life:

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The story of Wilson Bentley has inspired other artists as well. He was the subject of the Caldecott Award-winning book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.

Snowflake Bentley book

He also inspired an award-winning solo theater production, created by Sarah Frechette of Puppetkabob. Using Czech-style marionettes, miniatures, pop-up paper art, music and live storytelling, she brings Wilson’s story to life. You can learn more about the making of her production here.

Snowflake Man by Sarah Frechette

You can learn a lot more about Snowflake Bentley and his amazing work at the official website.

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It’s not that easy being green

Friday, November 6th, 2009

In honor of Sesame Street’s 40th anniversary, I present one of the best “green” songs ever, performed by the one and only Kermit the Frog. Written by Joe Raposo, the song is deceptively simple but contains a powerful message about accepting who you are, with poetic references to nature (as befits a frog).

This video is from the very first season of Sesame Street, and is even more poignant with the passing of Jim Henson, who left this world too soon. I’m sure he would have loved this 40th anniversary celebration, and I’m sure he would be gratified to know that his amazing work lives on.

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