Grundy Art Gallery
North West England

Some of the fundamental choices of travelling exhibitions can make or break them; it’s always interesting to see how they transfer from space to space, location to location. Puppet Show, at The Grundy, Blackpool was originally conceived at outstanding artist-led, Eastside Projects, Birmingham, curated by artists Tom Bloor and Celine Condorelli.

The Edwardian style architecture of the gallery within the context of this exhibition creates a visual harmony: puppetry, kitschy painting and sculpture, sardonic video amongst more confirms the origins of the puppet, successfully drawing upon Blackpool’s heritage and contemporary culture, an aim as stated on the gallery website.

As my hometown, I’m well aware of the complications of artwork that references any type of traditional entertainment that the golden-years of Blackpool shone like a beacon for in the UK, this ‘re-staging’ takes into account the wealth of Blackpool history and uses the role of puppetry for multifaceted ends. The succession of different languages and media keep the relationship to the concerns never one sided, some quite dark, some politicized, some crass, some whimsical.

At Eastside Projects, where A pristine concrete platform, installed for Mike Nelson’s solo show M6 became a stage, at The Grundy the two large blackened out rooms from Matt Stokes solo show Dance Swine Dance again become a stage, yet more theatrical, the audience sitting in the dark, awaiting entertainment.

A large burnt umpire chair in the foyer is part of an installation Empire of Dirt (2012) by Heather and Ivan Morison, the burnt wood a characteristic material of theirs evoking a potential terrible end for the puppets. The Grundy is a linear gallery, there are set routes that the audience can walk through, whereas at Eastside Projects the choreography of the space can be dictated at the Curators discretion. In the first room is Simon Popper’s Green-Eyed Ground Snake, Community (five Giraffes), Late Wind from the North or North West (two giraffes), Together (elephants) and Hedgehog 2B Lead (all 2013), fun, anthropomorphic assemblages made from pencils, walking sticks, watering cans, tea trays and rollerskates that begin the whimsical exchanges which this exhibition triumphs. Opposite Popper’s sculpture is a flurry of brash, kitsch paintings by Lisa Brice, Concrete Company, The Long Bedroom and For Leni (After Klee) (all 2014). No offloading of heavy didactic method or complex thematic, they revel in joyous, brash mark making and accessible narratives.

There is a real fight amongst works for attention in the main gallery space; DVD works are presented in stylized wooden constructions that affirm the monitors as a stage for entertainment – an interesting theme that runs throughout the show, considering the role of art for entertainment and the relationship between high and low brow art. With the medium of puppetry traditionally at the bottom of the brow, as a very kitschy seaside town format of entertainment, by utilizing the work of high profile artists and philosophers, the exhibition provide a cross-section of culture, providing enjoyment and insight for a very wide ranging audience.

While at the preview, silent felt costumed cats open their ‘office’. A recent characteristic of Edwina Ashton’s performances; the cats are dressed in doctor’s scrubs, administering ritualistic medicine to those selected and shyly interacted with, an uncomfortable delight, they move slowly and with trepidation throughout the gallery office, before moving throughout the foyer, inviting visitors to sign up for their ‘service’. They shuffle throughout, nearly bumping into Empire of Dirt and some kids as they do. The performance is akin to puppetry, using costume, narrative and a little bit of humour (how often to kittens write you a prescription?) but not completely sucked into it, which allows distance to explore the ideas further.

Anticipation has been highly considered in the curatorial direction (and touring) of this exhibition, with Ashton’s slow moving kittens and Celine Condorelli’s We just came to say No (2013) a 55 minute engrossing two channel installation that confronts and intermingles two separate histories of injustice, amongst the shorter, and equally politically charged Baby Marx series (2011) by Pedro Reyes reflecting the OCCUPY movement abdicate the ’15 second-per-artwork’ format of the visitor, watching narrative unfold. With the balance of excitement on a knife’s edge, the exhibition creates its own timeframe, as you lose track of time, you eventually get lost in the show.

By demonstrating political insurgence through the medium of puppetry, it creates a slow burning thought about the melancholia that this exhibition displays, it allows viewers to look beyond the Punch and Judy that we first think of when we hear Puppet Show and consider the strings that are attached, and in some cases, the complete lack of.