The German Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist wrote that the marionette has a grace that humans can never attain, since it performs without self-doubt. But Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller manage to make their puppets approximate awareness. In The Marionette Maker (2014), a cast of wooden figures, animated by mechanical arms, perform in theaters provided by the windows in a trailer. A lounge singer, a writer at his desk, and assorted monstrosities all simulate hesitation and fear, as if troubling the dreams of the human-size mannequin woman seen sleeping in a bed, or the marionette maker himself, slumped at his work desk. In the rear gallery, the installation Experiment in F# Minor (2013) fills a tabletop with speakers issuing sounds and strains of music in response to the movement of viewers in the gallery. Without the boxes that house the drivers in standard retail models, the speakers look like gaping upturned mouths. Here, as in The Marionette Maker, mechanical devices are made to seem mournful, more sensitive than their human beholder.
Pictured: View of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Marionette Maker, 2014, mixed media installation including caravan, marionettes, robotics, audio and lighting, 184 by 222 by 130 inches. Duration: approx. 14 minutes, looped. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York.