Sunday, August 2, 2009

On Shadows

Like most people, I have feelings about shadows that go deep back into my childhood. Children are fascinated by shadows because they seem to be both part of them and separate -- able to be stretched and shrunk and distorted in ways the body cannot be. I think of Peter Pan having Wendy sew his shadow back on his heels, ( first he tries to attach it with soap, but shadows don't connect through rituals of cleansing, only through pain) and of the poem in A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES: "I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me."

A friend's young daughter has recently become enamoured of her shadow; her mother discovered she has a whole troop of them because she gives them different names according to how they are shaped and shaded. One of them is named "Fady" because it is very difuse.

Of course as I got older I began to understand the idea of the shadow in Jungian psychology -- the dark self that we hide from the world, which holds not only our shame but also often our energy and power to change and create. Ursula LeGuin's essay "The Child and the Shadow" (collected in LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT, and available on line (mysteriously pdf'd in reverse) is one of the best explanations of this conundrum of self-integration I have ever seen. It is an analysis of Hans Christian Anderson's story, "The Shadow," another powerful connection for me. My gradmother gave me a tiny blue copy of his stories when I was 10, which I read over and over with mingled enchantedment and terror. Some, like "The Red Shoes" scared me so much that I only read them once. Others, like "The Snow Queen" I read over and over.

I was reminded of the power of Anderson's stories some years ago, in the summer of 2005, when I stumbled across the British Library exhibition celebrating his 200th birthday. The first thing one saw was a blank wall with a quotation from A.S. Byatt, dubbing Anderson a "psychological terrorist." Shocking as the statement was, I found myself laughing in agreement.

Anderson's story is about a young man who is too timid to go talk to the beautiful girl across the street and instead tells his shadow to go. His shadow leaves him, but as the man grows up he finds no joy or succes in the world. Finally he again meets his shadow who has become an elegant gentleman. The shadow takes the man as his servant, eventually marrying the princess and having the man killed.

I've been drawn to a number of stories and works of art that illustarte this basic theme. LeGuin's own WIZARD OF EARTHSEA is one example. Another is Charles Williams' powerful "spiritual thriller" DESCENT INTO HELL in which a young women who is terrified by repeatedly meeting her double is finally able to complete her spirtual destiny only by confronting and accepting the visitation. The works of Remedios Varo (such as the painting above and the one below) often engage powerful archetypal themes centered around women's quests for spritual identity
All of this does, finally relate back to the idea of puppets. A puppet is a kind of double, a shadow of ourselves. In one of the books I've been reading about Indonesion shadow puppets I found the the word for theater and for shadow are the same--wayang kulit refers to shadow/theater made out of rawhide. What a profound idea: Theater is the shadow world where our true selves act out their desires.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

First thoughts

I have been interested in puppets ever since my mom sent me to a summer camp at Volunteer Park when I was quite young. Recently, I went to an exhibit on puppets at the Frye Museum in Seattle that got me thinking a lot. Here are some links about that exhibition:

I particularly like Javanese shadow puppets (wayang kulit) and derivatives.

The intricacy of their lacey outlines appeals to my love of complication and my preference for 2D and pattern over 3D and volume. I bought a wooden rendition of one of these several years ago at an International music festival, and I need to re-look at the film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, where I think they play a role. It was fascinating to learn that Julie Taymor began her long career in puppertry in Indonesia.

One of the most impressive pieces at the exhibition was a video of a shadow puppet show by Kara Walker, giving movement to her intricate and grotesque silhouettes.


Contemporary Shadow Puppets for Sale: