Puppetry of Shadow and Light

, a multimedia exhibition of traditional and contemporary shadow puppet artifacts and film, opens June 18 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The exhibition will showcase ancient, traditional, and avant-garde examples of an art form that transcends time and geography. Showing the range and diversity of this enduring international theatre, puppets and screens from China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and Western Europe will be juxtaposed with artifacts and performance videos from such contemporary innovators as Stephen Kaplin, Janie Geiser, Theodora Skipitares, Mireya Cueto, and Larry Reed.

The exhibition will feature over 150 traditional and contemporary figures, including items from the renowned Pauline Benton collection of Chinese shadow puppets. The most recent figures are from such contemporary companies as Puppetsweat, Underground Railway, Mabou Mines, and the Ming Ri Shadow Theatre of Hong Kong. The display will enable viewers to see the figures both in front of and behind the screens. Books, scripts, and scores from 19th-century European shadow puppet theatre, which was part of the popular theatre and cabaret of the time, round out the show. These last are from the Library’s rare holdings in puppetry materials.

Traditional puppets from India include 5' Tamil figures of Hanuman (General) and Sugriva (the Monkey King). Examples from Java and China include complete stages with puppets and scenic elements. Remarkably, the Cambodian puppet figures of Sita and other characters from The Ramayana were created in refugee camp Site 2 on the Thai/Cambodian border. They came about through a project of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, begun in 1989 after the near extinction of the Cambodian shadow puppet tradition by the Khmer Rouge. Whereas Asian shadow theatre is concerned with religious epics, Turkish shadow puppets come out of popular satirical theatre, and this tradition is represented by several figures in the exhibition. Contemporary shadow puppet theatre may be based on traditional forms but uses modern images and storylines, such as the Ming Ri Shadow Theatre’s Playing with Klee, inspired by the artist Paul Klee’s colors and shapes; or it may discard the old figures and reinvent the form, as Rudi Stern has done with a projection installation that features Haitian metal cut-out figures on rotating stands. The Puppetsweat Theatre has also done this with its installation of a 24'-wide triptych of screens that integrates projected image and films.

Video footage in the gallery will show many of the featured works in action, and will include excerpts from productions of Julie Taymor’s Juan Darien and some of the notable international troupes, including Gioco Vita of Italy and the French company Amoros and Augustin’s collaboration with Ki Yi M’Bock of the Côte d’Ivoire.

Puppetry of Shadow and Light will be on view from June 18 through September 16 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, in New York City. Exhibition hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 12 noon to 6pm; Thursday 12 noon to 8pm; closed Sundays, Mondays, and holidays. Admission is free. For exhibition information, telephone 212-870-1630 or visit the Library’s website.