Strangely torn from their life – that seems to be the case with theatre puppets within our collection, unable, since they are inanimate objects to tell us a story. As a museum for theatre puppet, we are always faced with the question of how we can not only display an object, but also bring it to life as it were through its own stage presence.
We seek to decipher puppets from Europe piece by piece. We have no access whatsoever to many puppets from African and Asian countries. We don’t know where exactly they come from, who made them or for what purpose, even how they moved on stage.
The telling proves my existencE
When Chinese puppeteer Shasha Li first read that we house more than 20.000 exhibits in our collection and that more than 900 of them are from Asia, she was “astounded” by the enormity of this cultural treasure, coupled with the dauting task of making it accessible. The young artist, who makes her own puppets, likes to draw inspiration for her modern interpretations from the traditional puppet theatre of her country. She feels the different types of play, which often conceal a certain philosophy, faith, a connection to nature and the earth convey a special closeness to the people. She has made it her task to track down these traditions, some of which have already disappeared and many of which eke out a niche existence, to document them, to tell their stories.
“Lao Mei Chun Xiang” – the stage curtain conceals the name of a theatre group
One line – one journey
No wonder, then, that our invitation to engage with our collection as part of the Who’s Talking? project aroused her curiosity. “However, the spark didn’t want to jump immediately,” recalls our museum director Antonia Napp. Corona made face-to-face meetings impossible. Shasha Li could only experience the objects through photos. Not a particularly good basis for passionate research.
And yet sparks soon caught at the sight of a red lacquered wooden stage, which has been part of the collection since the 1980s together with around 60 figures measuring just 30 centimetres tall. Their heads and bodies are partly interchangeable and are made of different materials. They are played with thin iron rods attached to their hands:
When I met the unknown figures, I was excited (…) It was a meeting made possible by a mysterious force. (…) Sometimes I ask myself why the puppets crossed my path? Are they trying to tell me something? Are they looking for their descendants?
Shasha Li answered the call and began her journey with a name embroidered on the stage curtain: “Lao Mei Chun Xiang” – old plum blossom, spring fragrance. Plum blossoms appear even at low temperatures and are considered the first delicate harbingers of spring. In our case, the lettering above the stage announced to the audience the name of a theatre group from the Chaoshan region. So much for the assumption. A first approach for the artistic exploration of our object was found.
White-nosed clowns and cultural heritage
Shasha Li dived deep into the world of theatre with iron rod puppets. Her contribution to the virtual exhibition of Who’s Talking provides extensive and also very personal notes on each figure in the collection. We learn that some are much care and precision while others are of very simple quality. A white patch between the eyes indicates a particular clown puppet, while the shape of the eyebrows reveals whether the figure is female or male, civilian or military. Some headdresses and garments, which are supposed to represent ministers, for example, must have been sewn before 1966, because they disappeared with the Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse-tung. Since materials became very expensive over time, torn dresses or parts of the stage decoration could not simply be replace, but repaired with similar fabric remnants.
Most importantly, we learned that this art has survived. Although there are currently only about 30 people who earn their living with iron rod puppets, the art form is now considered a cultural heritage worth protecting in China.
Almost forgotten – yet very much alive
And the journey continues: Shasha Li recorded her research in a film documentary that will premiere on the 4th of June at the Koki cinema in Lübeck. In it, she takes us to the village of Dawu, where a fourth generation craftsman; Wu Hansong makes the heads of the iron rod figures out of clay. She can prove that his father was involved in the construction of many of the figures in the KOLK 17 collection. We get an insight into the elaborate work necessary to create the wooden puppet bodies. We follow the manufacture of the colourful clothes and symbolic headdresses.
In particular, we get to know the people who keep this tradition alive. Of course, the play itself must also be seen. Finally we see what our sometimes lifeless-looking objects are capable of. The pictures are impressive. Recognisably, they tell the story from a puppeteer’s point of view, an artist trying to capture not only information about an almost forgotten form of Chinese puppet theatre, but also a feeling. A bridge is built between the past and the present.
We would like to continue building this to Lübeck and into the future. Shasha Li will continue to accompany us with her knowledge and experience of Chinese puppet theatre. It is precisely this polyphony, the change of perspective, that we would like to see in the exhibitions at KOLK 17 Puppet Theatre & Museum.
Insights into the documentary:
Film premiere is on the 4th of June at 11:00 at Kino Koki, Mengstraße 35 in Lübeck followed by a talk with the artist.
You can reserve tickets via the cinema’s website.