Dark Creatures and Peculiar Beasts: Inside the Mind of Artist Carisa Swenson

With a background in design and illustration, Carisa Swenson discovered her passion for sculpture after studying with renowned doll artist Wendy Froud (the creator of ‘Yoda’ from the Star Wars franchise). Swenson creates intricate and disturbingly wonderful art dolls that tread a fine line between eerie and cute, asking the viewer to question preconceived notions and even to consider wider social issues at play. Influenced by a variety of sources including the stop motion works of Ray Harryhausen and the Brothers Quay, Carisa is an expert in formulating her dreams into reality, giving her audience a glimpse into an alternate world where perverted animal forms are brought grotesquely to life.

Hi Carisa, can you tell us a bit about what you do as an artist?

Hello, and thank you for this opportunity!
I create sculptures and one of kind art dolls based upon creatures both real and imagined. Most of my dolls are a combination of either Magic Sculpt or Creative Paperclay for the head and limbs, with a wire and fabric body. All are painted with acrylics.

How important is the incorporation of mythology and fairy tale in your work?

Both have been and continue to be a tremendous influence in my work, as I grew up in a household filled with books on Greek, Roman, Norse and Egyptian mythology. My father was a high school English teacher who taught classical mythology, and much of my childhood was spent pouring through his books memorizing the different gods, goddesses and most importantly the fantastical creatures that inhabited them. Not to mention the rather raunchy exploits of the deities…
While many of my pieces are not outright interpretations of these tales, the influence of mythological archetypes and magical creatures is there.

Let’s talk about your use of mixed media. Where do you find the materials that are used in your work and how much does that influence the final piece?

More often than not, the final sculpted piece and costuming tend to work together.  Most of my material is sourced from local fabric, vintage bead and art stores; and when beginning a piece, I have a general idea or feel for the personality or character. This often changes during the sculpting stage. I’ve found it’s better not to force a concept onto a piece that is taking quite a different path. Though I may have a specific textile or color palette in mind, once the sculpting phase of the piece is completed the final expression or attitude of the sculpture ultimately determines what costume and colors a doll will be sporting.

Where do you come up with the ideas for your creatures?

Where there is not a pen or piece of paper to be had! I’ve found that physical activity and leaving my studio allows my thoughts a sense of freedom. Running and taking walks through parks or forests clears my head and provides me with a source of ideas, often effortlessly. Of course, remembering them once I get home is another thing! I also find that going to museums creates an almost meditative atmosphere and allows my mind to wander, to pick up new concepts and ideas as well as break through creative blocks.

Your work often has an eerie quality that seems to pervert the traditional idea of a ‘cute’ animal or doll. To what extent do you think this impacts upon the audience and how important is it for you to play with ideas of culture and society in your work?

I’ve always appreciated the notion ocswenson_ahuizotl_lo_3.jpgf pairing traditionally “cute” animals with a disturbing truth. The book and especially the animated film “Watership Down” certainly speaks to that and not surprisingly has been a huge influence on me since a child. Because I grew up having to live with all the stereotypes our society projects onto female children, and which was in my nature to subvert, I build a sense of unease in my mice, rabbits and other “storybook sweet” creatures. A rabbit will resist and fight just as viciously as any other creature when it must.
Growing older, I’ve found that the desire to incorporate issues into my work, such as how humans treat the environment and wildlife; gender, gender expression and the suppression of, as well as bodily autonomy is becoming more insistent. There is a climate of anti-science, anti-reason, and a persistence of holding fast to tradition right now in the United States that is distressing and I expect that these issues will be explored within my sculptures and dolls in the coming months and years.

Do you have a favourite piece?

Yes. “The Mouse King”, a doll inspired by the Mouse King of The Nutcracker, and hairless mice used in lab experiments. This doll was my first serious attempt at using epoxy clay and a piece that I am truly proud of. Many of my pieces up to that point were sculpted in an air-drying paper clay and had minimal detailing. Working with this new medium allowed me to get lost in the piece and discover a new sculpting style. It is also my first creation that felt much darker than any of my former pieces and allowed for a greater expression of my somewhat morose nature.

What, in your opinion, does ‘creativity’ mean?

Allowing yourself the freedom to let go of self-conscious thought and briefly transcend the mire of rationality to produce something which taps into your passion and joy.

What is the future of your artwork? What would you like to do that you have not already done?

There is still so much to do, and I have an ever-growing list of projects to accomplish! Right now, I’d like to explore the lives and worlds my creatures inhabit and allow them to have more of an existence then just sitting on shelves…whether that is through animation, puppets, or a book, I haven’t yet decided—there is much I have to explore within my stable of characters and personalities. Outside of my dolls, I would absolutely love to put my sculpting talents towards film or education, such as museum work.

What would your advice be to anyone interested in getting involved in the art world?

Having talent is wonderful and certainly helps, but you need more than that to achieve your goals. You need to be willing to sacrifice time on a consistent basis in order to improve—at the very least commit to devoting a half hour of your day to your craft. Be open to constructive criticism. I’ve noticed this concept has been lost as of late, and the idea of “constructive criticism” is now seen as just “criticism”. If you ask for someone’s opinion, try to let go of your ego and just LISTEN instead of defending your art. Often I see young artists ask for a critique, but what they really want to hear is that their art is brilliant.
You must actively pursue artistic avenues…expecting to only do your art and have galleries, publishers, etc stumble upon your work and propel you to stardom is unlikely. Many artists I know who have reached even a modicum of success have been toiling and working for years (10+) on their art (often not even fulltime)! Always be a profwilliam.jpgessional in your communications and how you present yourself. Don’t take things personally. Get rejected? It’s going to happen. Not everyone is going to like what you do. While it’s disappointing, sometimes it can work out for the better and push you in a new direction. Most importantly? Find your own voice. To be inspired by an artist’s work is one thing…copying their style is quite another. Don’t grab that low hanging fruit — make your art truly YOURS.

MA Project Summary:

HOW CAN PROVIDING CHILDREN WITH A WORKSHOP PROGRAMME FOCUSED ON PLAY HELP TO OPTIMISE CREATIVE POTENTIAL?

 

By RALPH BARKER

 

          My project looks at the relationship between play and child development. The aim of the project is to boost creativity in children by introducing a play workshop programme into the current academic curriculum.

IMPROV 2 IMPROVE is a workshop programme specifically designed to optimise the creative potential of children in the UK school system and bring more play based learning into the current curriculum. This intervention is based on educational psychology and focuses on the 7-11 age range. My project aligns with the ideas of the Too Much, Too Soon campaign launched by the Save Childhood Movement. This political advocacy group seeks to ‘re-establish the early years as a unique stage in its own right and not merely a preparation for school’ and ‘reinstate the vital role of play’[1] as an alternative to baseline testing, although my project looks at the later years of primary education.

By providing a structured weekly workshop programme (minimum three weeks) the aim of this project was to enhance and develop the child’s own creativity, building on their social skills as an access point for unleashing their creative drive. The programme was well informed and developed by adapting teambuilding activities sourced from areas such as theatrical improvisation[2], and the business environment[3].

 I talked to a number of stakeholders[4] who informed me that we have a real issue in our national school system of denigrating creativity. Children are currently measured half-termly on the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), with creative play experiences valued lower than a child’s academic success. However, when you start to look at brain development and the psychological implications that lack of play has on a child, research[5] shows that the vocabulary developed in creative play contributes to the overall success of the child in the academic environment.

Working with schools in Surrey[6], Kent[7] and Greater London[8], I looked at the impact of play workshops on the creativity and social skills of children aged 7-11. Using creativity tests[9], I was able to judge the impact of the workshop programme on the children and the extent to which their creativity was enhanced. Comparing results from the first and last week, my findings indicated that incorporating more play into the school curriculum helped develop a child’s creativity, fostering new skills learned through creative play and helping to enhance the social adjustment of the child in the academic environment.[10]

My project continues to evolve with help from the Save Childhood Movement who have invited me to continue my work with them and publish my research in an educational journal. My programme seeks to optimize creative potential wherever it is needed and I continue to develop my project into a tool for use as a creativity boosting package for wider application. I have learnt a lot about myself over the course of this year, learning new skills such as project management and increasing my view of the role of creativity in all our lives. It hasn’t always been easy but even when I was stressed, I now realize how much it helped my personal and social development, enhancing my listening skills and forcing me to constantly re-evaluate and define what I wanted to achieve.


[2] Discussions with director Sasha Damjanovski, actors (eg. Imogen Vinden North) and using research into play based games.

[3] An example of this being the inclusion of research by strategist Giovanni Schiuma and his work on Arts Based Initiatives (Schiuma, G. 2011. The Value of Arts for Business. Cambridge University Press, UK)

[4] An example being Ofsted Inspector and Educational Consultant, Christine Newell

[6] Cleves School (http://www.cleves.co.uk/)

[7] Seal Primary School (http://www.sealprimary.com/)

[8] Wimbledon Common Preparatory School (http://www.wimbledoncommonprep.co.uk/)

[9] Tests developed using the work of Klaus K. Urban and based on the works of J.P. Guilford/Ellis Paul Torrance (http://www.pabst-publishers.de/psychology-science/3-2004/11.pdf)

[10] Impact discussed in debrief sessions with the teachers I was working for. Results inputted into spreadsheet to form holistic view of impact.

 

Society2100

A fellow student on my Masters course asked me to write a short story envisioning a future society in the year 2100. Here is what I came up with (thanks Kassi for the challenge!):

 

SOCIETY2100

 
I feel the rush of adrenaline as the caffeinator shoots liquid energy into my limp body, and my heart starts pounding at the same rate as my head.

Another goddamn morning in Machiavelon’s world’ I think bitterly to myself as the dress screen selects the day’s outfit for me.

I unhook the sleep machine from my head and stand up. Computer bugs scamper across the floor, already going about their business in preparing me for “A YOU KINDA DAY” as the campaign slogan goes.

I miss the old days.

It’s been twenty six years now since they came down and rearranged the planet.

Bastards.

I was only fifteen when they put us into the training camps. No one saw it coming. The influx of information they supplied us with was overwhelming and for a few years it seemed like our troubles were over. No one cared about climate change anymore. HE fixed that. All our worries seemed to disappear as we celebrated the coming of a glorious new age.

Then, slowly, things changed.

All our advances in technology turned against us and we were powerless to stop it. They used OUR creations as a tool to control us.

Jesus, just thinking about it gives me a headache.

I reach for the glass I keep beside my assigned sleeping pod and take a long drink of tepid water, or rather what they pass off as water nowadays. This “liquid energy” they provide us with is swimming with nano-bots and electro-spores that are supposed to numb us from any negative thoughts against Machiavelon, the central control hub that keeps us in line.

Jobs were eradicated years ago after the machines took over. Why waste our precious energy when they could do the dirty work for us? Nowadays all we can do is try to survive long enough to get the “CompPoints” needed for the flight away from this place. Not that that will ever happen.

Empty promises.

After taking my food pill for the day, I wander down to THE SQUARE for the daily newsfeed, hoping that today might be the day when someone gets close enough to pull the plug, although deep down I know it could never happen.

After the Knowledge Uprising was crushed, no one thinks much about hope anymore.

At least we have that I guess; our one twisted victory.

 

As hard as they try, they can never change our minds.

Central St Martins MA Project – APPLIED IMAGINATION

Hey everyone!

Wow, it has been a long time since I have updated my blog but I have been super busy with my Masters, working on some amazing projects and developing some of my own interventions in society. I want to share everything I have been doing with you all and will be updating this blog with all the latest news from my final project!

My Masters degree is in ‘Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries’, which is just about as cool as it sounds 😀 For the final exhibition, which we are currently organising as a group to be held in early December, we have to complete a creative project that shows how well we can integrate our creative ideas into society, preferably in a space where we see something lacking or needing some creative juice. 

For my project, I have been on a roller-coaster ride of ideas ranging from explorations in ‘pataphysics to writing my own avant-garde play. I have honed my skills and ideas and am currently developing a series of workshops for emotionally disadvantaged children to boost self esteem and confidence using creative games based on theatrical improvisation (among other things) and using a research base founded in psychotherapy, sociology and art therapy. I am in the exciting stage of writing out my lesson plans to be carried out in a few local junior schools who have asked me in to carry out my work with children aged 7-11.

So far, my research has led me down some fascinating roads and I am really looking forward to see how all of my hard work will benefit a young generation of future creatives!

THE TIGER LILLIES PERFORM HAMLET:

I was fortunate enough to get tickets for a limited run of the Tiger Lillies bizarre interpretation of the Shakespearean classic, a showing of only five performances in the UK. For those not familiar with the Tiger Lillies, they are a musical trio who play what is best described as ‘punk cabaret’; a blend of lead singer Martyn Jacques self taught castrati vocal style and the eccentric instruments used during a performance.

A profound vaudevillian, Jacques leads the audience through a darkly comical reimagining of the Shakespearean tragedy, holding together the key elements of the play with the combination of musical interpositions and a troupe of performers who fully engage with their characters, as well as imaginative stage design that often provides visual indications of the story.

The play begins with Jacques (complete in his customary fairground makeup) entering the stage in front of a large curtain, from which the actors heads protrude through various holes in the material. The characters are introduced to us with the recitation of key lines as Jacques barks a tale of sin and avarice accompanied by his accordion, which draws upon the audiences’ previous knowledge of the play, creating a sense of foreboding for the characters inevitable fates. After a soliloquy from Hamlet, the stage curtain is lifted to reveal one of the play’s most visually powerful stage sets, a large table set at a horizontal angle toward the audience. A dizzying sense of vertigo is achieved as Hamlet takes his place at the wedding party table with his mother and uncle as Jacques enters the stage to sing the song King is Dead. The actors move in slow motion as the song progresses, a stylistic motif that is carried through the play at certain stages to enhance or delay action sequences.

Moving on to the appearance of the ghost, Hamlet’s late father is presented to the audience as a projection on to the bare chests of the cast who form a group onto which the face speaks. As the dead king speaks, the group itself sways back and forth in a ghost like manner, adding to the surreal quality of the scene but also enhancing the feeling of anonymity one gets from the players themselves. They are in some ways interchangeable, often playing background characters or even set pieces as well as their primary role. This is seen most clearly with the introduction of ‘Rosencrantz’ and ‘Guildenstern’, two characters who remain mere whispers of themselves, performed through the character of Hamlet himself. He uses the actors around him to perform a sort of puppet show that reflects his most memorable conversation with his two old friends, a comic interposition and one that provides a light reflection of a later scene where the main actors apart from Hamlet are strung up like marionettes to perform the play-within-a-play.

One of the most visually decadent moments in the play is demonstrated through the character of Polonius, a masked player who is both comical and surreally twisted in form. The scene where Polonius talks with his daughter about the dangers of getting too close to the prince makes wonderful use of the recurring stage set; a large wall with areas cut out to create windows and doors. Polonius’ head pops up at the top of this wall as Ophelia runs about on stage. Suddenly, she is captured by two enormous arms that spill out from the same window as Polonius. Gertrude and Claudius take control of the arms and Ophelia is swept up with the use of wire rigging to be thrown about by Polonius’ all consuming hold. Wire rigging is used throughout the play to create several effects. During Ophelia’s ‘dream’ sequence, Hamlet and Ophelia perform a delicate and intricate aerial dance, a unique look at the intimacy between the two characters that is only hinted at in the original play. Similarly, Ophelia’s drowning is symbolised by the actor walking horizontally up the wall (via a wire) onto which an image of water is projected, a slow and powerful scene that is heartbreakingly emotional.

The final scene is one of the most interesting in terms of stage direction. Instead of facing each other during the final swordfight, Hamlet and Laertes stand toward the audience either side of Claudius and behind Gertrude who takes her place at the centre front of the stage. The action progresses in a series of slow motion sword attacks and parries toward the audience as the actors stare dead ahead, a Brechtian take on the memorable tragic end of the play. As the characters find their target, the action is suddenly played out in real time so that the silence of the previous action is dramatically disrupted with the cries of the actors. As the scene closes, after the death of the queen and the three final leads, the Tiger Lillies emerge for a final time to sing the breathtaking Desolation Song, a stunning finale with lyrics that sum up the play wonderfully.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, counting it among one of the top five most sublime and powerful plays I have ever witnessed. The direction was well thought out and invoked the Brechtian practice of ‘epic theatre’ to distort the audience’s perception of the theatre space, as well as beautifully designed stage sets that were simple impressions of a castle wall or the chambers of Ophelia for example. At times, the actors would engage with the audience, particularly poignant when Hamlet appointed the audience to almost sing along with the song 1,2,3,4. The actors themselves seemed to be occasionally aware of the Tiger Lillies but never directly interacted with them. This created an interesting effect as the band appeared as manifestations of the characters own inner beings, lyrically voicing their thoughts.

Coming Soon….

Hello all,

Just thought I would let you know that I will be adding more content soon. In the process of sorting stuff out before I move up to Colchester so I haven’t had much time to write anything recently. But, fret not dear readers, I will be challenging the ideas of art and the perception of creativity again as I discuss more Universalist theories with you all. As well as this, I intend to explore some more unusual artists working in different mediums such as dance and cake.

Stay creative,

Ralph

Jan Švankmajer – A Series of Short Essays looking at the use of the animate and inanimate bodies in Jan Švankmajer’s work and its effect upon the audience

Švankmajer’s work is inextricably linked to the audience’s own conscious experience of both the animate and inanimate realm. The viewer is presented with movement that does not belong in the same dimensional space that we as victims of time inhabit. In this way, stop motion animation creates a rift in our perception of what it means to “move”, causing a momentary dislocation of spatial reality. When we as an audience witness the animation of an object whose movement we know to be impossible, the attributes of said object that account for its forced “movement” suspend our ideas of what is deemed to be “living”, and thus an animation is produced. This interplay between the actual reality of a movement and the perceived reality of an animated object, presents the audience with a dilemma as to which reality they should commit to. Švankmajer plays with this dilemma, introducing elements of both animate and inanimate forms, as well as bodies whose movement comprises a combination of the two (see the large scale puppet films). Animation itself is a form of created “life”, which Švankmajer explores through both the human body as a paradigm of inertia, and inanimate forms as an access point to fluid, “living” movement.

The situations in which Švankmajer’s characters find themselves are somewhat Sisyphean. As their own microcosmic universe begins to collapse in on itself, they are unable to separate themselves from their own doomed situation. The progression of action within the films spirals towards a climactic tension into which the characters cannot help but be swept up. In some cases, they become aware of their fate and must gradually, painfully accept it. Other characters become so entangled within their ultimately self destructive world that they fade into the oblivion of the background itself, no more a protagonist than a pawn on a chess board, and just as unaware of their futile existence. The marginality of the story arc and the acceptance of the futile doom that the character faces are consolidated by the dénouement of the piece. However, Švankmajer perverts classical catharsis and leaves the viewer emotionally unfulfilled through the often unexpected tragedy that holds no hope for the characters in the film.

The Švankmajerian world is markedly Deleuzian; the movements that his films rely on are themselves built upon the physical manipulation of naturally static forms. As in a live action film, “pure” movement is created through the deliberate increments of space and time that are already pre determined; just as an actor in a live action film is told what to say and where to stand, the movement created reflects the same manipulation by a directorial force. In this way, it could be said that what Švankmajer creates in presenting us with for example, live actors who are manipulated in the same way as the animated models in his films, is an entirely different form of movement altogether. The blurred boundaries between the animate and inanimate realm are fused together through Švankmajer’s own interpretation of pure movement. What the viewer is left with is, as paraphrased from the writings of Deleuze himself, ‘an indifferent trajectory in an indifferent space’, (1) instead of what could be classified as a “pure” movement. This is not to say that the animation that Švankmajer creates is any less pure than his work with live actors, simply that the effect created by transfusing the animate into an inanimate arena, provides the audience with an emotional response of dislocated reality. The animation itself is movement redefined, as opposed to being false or non-existent. An animated movement is perceived even though it is logically false, and is ergo redefined as a form of fluid movement by the perception of the audience.

Švankmajer’s use of both animate and inanimate bodies is relevant to the audiences understanding of the films in a variety of ways. The theatrical approach with which Švankmajer accesses the combined use of live action and puppetry perverts how the audience sees the action within the film and often denies us access to any sentimentality for the characters. The way in which we as a viewer witness the animation of objects that would not naturally move, or the static way in which a man’s life becomes inanimate within the confined space of the flat for example, creates in us the uncomfortable feeling of dislocated reality. Cinematic techniques used by Švankmajer access Brechtian idealism, distorting the audience’s “placement” in the film and providing key elements of Brechtian techniques such as Gestus and the breakdown of the “fourth wall”. As Švankmajer has explained about his work:

‘I prefer objects which to my way of thinking have their own interior life. Along with the esoteric sciences I believe in the “conservation” of certain contents in objects that have been touched by beings in a state of heightened sensibility (…) It’s a game of internal truth, in other words – The Great Game.’ (1)

 


1.  John Grant, Masters of Animation (London: B.T. Batsford, 2001), 186

Jan Švankmajer – Puppets and People

In his first film, The Last Trick (1964) Jan Švankmajer’s fascination with the corporeality of an animated being is clearly being developed around a strong sense of traditional Czech theatrics. His work was largely being influenced by his own background in the puppet theatres of Prague and his educated experiments within the Theatre of Masks, the famous Black Theatre and later, the Laterna Magika Puppet Theatre. In the piece, two magicians perform an elaborate, theatrical competition to see who can deliver the best magic trick. The film begins in a unique way in that the viewer is shown the truth of what we are not meant to see. The live actors are briefly exposed, ‘as if in furtive apology’ (2) to the audience, who will not see the faces of the actors again, and must become aware of the animation as a form of heightened realism, that of surreal animation within the mental framework of live action. The audience knows that what they are seeing is an actor in a mask, but Švankmajer does not allow us to evaluate these thoughts, instead perverting the image he provides us with at the start of the film so that we are never sure what will be underneath the mask, whether it be cogs or violins .

This revelation of the inner workings of Švankmajer’s films is enhanced by the inclusion of various parts of scenery and props that will be used in the film, glimpsed briefly during the same opening sequence; a skilful preservation of the magic of the animated piece within the revealed truth of the tricks of animation he uses. The techniques of animation are here revealed to the viewer before the animation itself, in this case the “trick” is one of subverted theatrical animation; live actors in the guise of wooden stage puppets. The viewer is tricked by this blend of animation and inanimate bodies, confusing the senses as to what we know to be “real”. However, Švankmajer provides the audience with the extraordinary shot of one of the men before putting his “head” on, which is remarkably subtle in its delivery. This is not a largely important shot, in fact, quite the opposite. The man is being used as a mere visual channel through which the opening credits are revealed (one on his shoe and one behind his head). The inclusion of this shot is an exquisitely delicate yet undoubtedly bold directorial statement, and one that should be considered alongside his later works in the same style. It is not until his feature film, Faust in 1994 that we as viewers are allowed to witness the same type of access to the real becoming imaginary and vice versa in terms of the reality behind the show.

Another film similar in style to the large scale puppet work discussed is Švankmajer’s Don Juan (1969). In the film, the viewer is presented with a number of startling elements that enter the realm of distorted life, as previously discussed. The film itself starts with some cinéma vérité style camera work that leads us rather dizzily into a theatre, one that appears to run without human intervention. Candles light themselves, pulley systems are activated by moving stones, and the marionettes are freed from a control beyond themselves. The automated stage is Švankmajer’s first clue as to what we should expect to experience from the film. By offering up the idea of a self serving stage, he tells us that the story too will run its own course, and that the film should be treated as a mere performance piece in itself. This is largely what makes this film a particularly difficult one to decode. Not only are we presented with a variety of vastly differing dimensions within the space of the piece, but we are also made to believe that we are watching both a marionette show and at the same time, a live action piece.

The puppets are first shown to the viewer as inanimate and powerless, as the camera pans across the backstage area where the characters are neatly hung on a wall, and yet the marionettes in the film are not inanimate at all; they exist because it is necessary for them to. In this way, the characters are only bought to life when the narrative dictates it, and despite what it may seem, they are powerless to the fate that befalls them. Interestingly, the character of Don Juan is the only marionette that can choose freely between the worlds he travels in, and so to some extent dictate his own fate (though he is still ultimately doomed). He moves freely between the theatrical, stage world of the front of house set and just as easily amongst the other inanimate puppets backstage. Don Juan is similarly not affected by the constraints placed upon him by being a part of the theatre. We first see him standing in the auditorium, where the viewer should logically be, which also plays with the attention of the viewer in a Brechtian way. Not only is the space that belongs to the audience literally taken from us by the character of Don Juan, but the viewer is then placed in a meta-theatrical situation when the jester comes toward the camera with a ladder. The only place we could possibly be is where Don Juan is standing, putting us on the side of the protagonist and quite literally, in his shoes.

 

The temporal and environmental factors which the other characters are so afflicted by are not shown to affect Don Juan at all. In a particularly haunting scene, the character of Don Felipe waits for the clock to strike nine, the time when he has arranged to meet Doña Maria in the garden. The marionette leaves the stage to sit with an unnatural stillness, his eyes glued to the clock face in front of him. When Don Juan later travels backstage to find his father, Don Felipe is eerily still sat in the same motionless position, completely unaware of the events going on around him. He even fails to register the death of his father as Don Juan brutally murders him close by.

This “stillness” is one that heightens the marionette as an inanimate object, but, what is most puzzling about the action in the film is that there is no external force driving the characters into animation. The strings atop the heads of the characters imply a human interaction, but the animate life of the marionettes are purely their own. This is puzzling to us as a viewer, and Švankmajer allows the characters to act upon their own freedom, releasing them from the external control one would normally expect with a puppet. However the marionettes are still constrained by the “act” they play out. They are shown to the viewer to be clearly not human, made up of materials instead of flesh, highlighted with the close ups of the chipped wood that so closely mimics traditional eighteenth century puppets. As well as this, Švankmajer’s classic tactility comes into play with the wooden hand of Don Juan being literally burned by the ghost of the dead father, showing how these are merely objects that we are not allowed, in a sense, to feel any emotion for. The sentimentality of what we should, in theory, feel for these characters is blocked by the placidity in which they face what happens to them. They cannot react to situations which they would be able to if the film was a live action piece. It is, as Michael O’Pray notes, as if ‘their almost magical potential for life paradoxically conjures the sensation prior to their theatrical lives which will end in death’ (3). An example of this is with the tragic death of Don Felipe, where the strings are cut from his hands, falling lifelessly to his side. After this castration of Don Felipe’s own freedom to move, he falls to his knees and is stabbed without mercy by Don Juan. As the blood pours out of his wounds (another paradoxical statement by Švankmajer about the verisimilitude of animation) he remains passive to his own death, being instead physically rendered as nothing more than forgotten writing on crumpled paper that illustrates his last words.

Just before this scene, during the epic swordfight between the two brothers, Don Juan knocks down one of the pieces of scenery that are juxtaposed with the real world. The inadvertent destruction of the flimsy “pillar” could be read as representing an attempted rejection of the artificial situation which the characters are in. However, the direct engagement that Don Juan has with the background set seals his own fate as a character in the play, as opposed to an agent of free will. He is forced to accept his own pre-determined placement within the narrative, culminating in his meeting with the ghost of Doña Maria’s father. This is one of the only films Švankmajer made with such an apologetic ending in terms of cathartic closure. The jester, who provides the comic relief throughout the film as in Švankmajer’s later, feature length piece, Faust, concludes the film with a comical remark about his master’s debt to him, highlighting the indifference of the viewer toward these “inanimate” puppets, and drawing together the theatrical nature of the film. The apologetically comical last words are perhaps reminiscent of Puck’s final monologue in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear
And in this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream’. (V.i. 2274-2280) (4)

 

In another of his puppet films, Punch and Judy (1966), Švankmajer plays with the idea of primitive violence using the same motifs seen in The Last Trick of “man” versus “automata”. What is interesting here, especially when compared to the beetle in The Last Trick, is the inclusion of an animal. In the film, the characters of Punch and Joey fight over a live guinea pig that is blissfully unaware of its own significance. The guinea pig serves as a stark reminder of the inanimate states of the hand puppets and their existence in the pre-conscious world of anthropomorphic animation. The indifference the guinea pig shows towards the characters sets it aside from any moral responsibility in the film, in the sense that its only concern is for the grain it eats. It does not care what is happening around it, only so long as it is fed (an illustration of government of the time perhaps). This holds a few significant political messages, as most of Švankmajer’s work tends to do, demonstrating the reliance of the state (guinea pig) upon the “good worker” (the puppets), the difference in classes (Joey’s house) and the need to conform to what we are told to desire (the guinea pig). The creature acts out:

‘both untrammeled desire, unmediated by conscience, morality or convention and almost paradoxically, its opposite, order and innocence, which can never partake in the aggression of the “constructed creatures” (marionette-humans) whose world they cannot share’ (5).

In The Last Trick, the beetle glimpsed throughout the film is ‘essentially the catalyst by which the interface between man and machine fails’ (6). As a ‘Kafkaesque harbinger of supernatural change’, (7) the beetle is shown in the final shot of the film, dead. This shows the ‘inappropriacy of a (man-made) mechanism to accommodate the limits of human expression’ (8). By including the image of the now inanimate insect at the end of the film, Švankmajer makes the audience aware of the failure of trying to join man to machine (automata). This ultimately expresses the consequences of conflict as a resistance to social conformity, revealing an inevitable collapse likened to the socio-political conflicts within Švankmajer’s own government. The violent destruction and disembodiment of the two magicians is perhaps an illustration of what Švankmajer wishes his audience to feel; a dislocation from the events on screen and therefore a substantial reconfiguration of our own place as an audience within the film.

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