Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

'Phantom' Puppetry in Stelarc's Work

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

'Phantom' Puppetry in Stelarc's Work

Article excerpt

Stelarc is an internationally known Australian performance artist who uses his body as medium and site of artistic exploration. Stelarc became prominent in the 1970s for his body suspension pieces (1972-75), in which he was suspended in the air by ropes attached to hooks piercing his skin.1 In the same period, Stelarc also developed the Third Hand project (1976-81), a series of performance events featuring a custom-made robotic arm that was attached to his right arm.2 Since then, Stelarc has continued to explore the interface between body and machine through robotics, virtual reality, the Internet, medical instrumentation and biotechnology.

Stelarc is one of the most celebrated artists working with technology. His work is usually discussed in terms of performance art and often in the context of the nexus of arts, science and technology. In this essay, I instead analyse the complex relationship between actions, objects and affects in Stelarc's technological performance in terms of puppetry. The word 'puppet' can be used in pejorative ways to mean 'not real' and 'mere representation', as in the phrase 'puppet ruler', referring to a person whose actions are controlled by others. Stelarc sees the body as inferior to technology, calling it 'the obsolete body'.3 In his technological performances, Stelarc treats his own body like a puppet - a site for manipulation and signification within the work's technological setting. Arguing for an expanded notion of puppetry, I examine the puppet-puppeteer relationship in Stelarc's techno-digital performance, including The Prosthetic Head, his latest interactive animation-installation.

I also discuss Stelarc's work as an entertainment occurring at the intersection of his provocations and art performances. Despite the intended seriousness of Stelarc's work, his performances often display a cheeky and amusing quality. Steve Dixon, for example, analyses Stelarc's robotic-walking machine performance in the 1990s in terms of 'metallic camp performance'. For Dixon, the zoomorphic nature of these robotic works and 'their exaggerated gaits and gestures emphasize the same sense of theatricality and artificiality in movement that we find in camp'. I will examine Stelarc's locomotive-robotic works in detail shortly. This essay, on the other hand, highlights a puppetry-like quality in Stelarc's work in terms of the metaphoric and symbolic meaning of puppetry, and its operation in the work. If puppetry was traditionally thought of as a children's amusement, I also speak of Stelarc's work as a puppetry of evocation for adults, highlighting a grey zone between the phantom and the felt within the terms of technology-as-performance environment. Importantly, Stelarc's technologically sophisticated performances and his flamboyantly provocative manifestos work side by side. This essay examines how Stelarc's writings and theories work as a backdrop to his performances to generate, for the intellectual audience, an imaginary of the phantom body as a puppetry construct. ?

Marionette of own performance

When we spoke traditionally about a puppet in the past - for example, a string puppet (or marionette), rod puppet or finger puppet - we usually meant a small figure of a human or animal moved by a human operator. For a cross-disciplinary examination of Stelarc's work, the notion of puppetry needs to be expanded and complicated. Puppetry in the contemporary performing arts has been expanded by a sophisticated adoption of the form by contemporary visual theatre-makers such as Philippe Genty in France, or Nigel Triffitt, Peter J. Wilson or Kim Carpenter in Australia.5 These artists create hybrid works combining various arts disciplines such as theatre, mime, dance, music, animation and scenographic design, which indicate the influence of shadow puppetry, black theatre and Bunraku.6 The value of considering Stelarc's work in relation to puppetry becomes apparent when we examine the fundamental operational principle of puppetry. …

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