A classic marionette might have eight to 10 strings. Leah Ogawa’s latest puppet, an ethereal tree-shaped form, has more than 600: piled into thickets and tangles, threaded through eyebolts on the ceiling, and fanned overhead to all corners of the room.
Rope makes up the bulk of the soaring, 20-foot-tall white installation at the center of four performances Ogawa and her co-creator John Tsung staged last weekend at KinoSaito, a nonprofit art space in the Lower Hudson Valley town of Verplanck, NY.
You could describe the work of the duo, entitled “Divine Generations,” like some kind of ecstatic, abstract puppetry. Or you could call it a dance performed amid a landscape of strange props. Or a kinetic sculpture activated by the sidelines. During the 21-minute arc of “Divine Generations”, a silent four-person ensemble pulls and uncoils various strings around the room, to coax inert disc-shaped elements into a wakeful upward dance. Minimal sculptural forms are sent shivering and swaying overhead, keeping time to a live musical score by Tsung that mixes everything from snippets of spoken Japanese, to samples of city street noise, to John Adams-esque orchestral tagging.
Ogawa, who grew up in Japan, studied a form of puppetry known as kuruma ningyō, which loosely translates as “cart puppetry.” Practitioners of kuruma ningyō roll on stage seated on small three-wheeled carts that free the performers’ entire bodies—even their toes—to control their puppets.
But Japanese doll traditions are hardly Ogawa’s only source of inspiration. A downtown New York experimental sensibility haunts her recent work, and the spirit of Fluxus art feels very much alive in the inferior directness of gesture that she prefers. In an interview, Ogawa also credited the puppeteer Hannah Tierney as a key influence. The founder of the Brooklyn-based FiveMyles gallery and performance space, Tierney is an enthusiastic supporter of Ogawa’s practice, last year hosting the emerging puppeteer at FiveMyles as artist-in-residence. There, Ogawa developed a work consisting of a patch of pampa fronds, tied by rope to a grid above.
In that piece, Ogawa’s puppet was basically a field of grass. This time, it’s a tree. The piece – which was developed with support from KinoSaito and La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, and has also previously been staged at FiveMyles and on Governors Island – draws its name, “Divine Generations”, from a cherry blossom tree in Japan said to. to be 2,000 years old. The tree stands next to a temple dedicated to the branch of Mahayana Buddhism embraced by a revered priest whose prayers are believed to have saved the ancient cherry tree from death.
Buddhism was a presence in the childhoods of both Ogawa and Tsung, who are married in addition to being collaborators. Allusions to Buddhist mythology abounded, not least in a model of Buddha’s foot, about the size of a grand piano, filled with prayers written on paper, which Ogawa and Tsung had hanging halfway out the window, no matter the weekend’s torrential downpour. Near that foot, a pair of suspended puppet legs, made of plaster and salvaged cardboard, floated near the floor lifelessly until Ogawa picked up attached strings and demonstrated how they could be brought into a fluid, eerie stride.
Along the wall, Ogawa also mounted 21 plaster casts of her hands. She designed each piece to allow a slightly different axis of motion, controlled by strings that visitors can pull. The results are a set of eerie, disembodied gesticulations, intended to recreate mudras and other hand movements found in Buddhist prayer and supplication. (The waving of these sculptures might also bring to mind a short film from 1966 by the choreographer Yvonne Rainer, whose footage consists entirely of her right hand twisting into conscious poses.)
But Buddhist stories also seem extraneous to the enjoyment of this work, which was most interesting as a compendium of stripped-down movements. Ogawa moonlights as a model, a fact I was initially hesitant to share because it would foreground physical appearance over her art. But the relationship between Ogawa’s day job and her work is too resonant to ignore, if only because the work of modeling also raises a recurring question at the core of her genre-blending practice. Is her physical presence – and that of her performers – supposed to be central, or invisible?
“Divine Generation” walks a fine line: From its first moments, performers are placed in constant, coordinated motion. Sometimes, that motion is beautiful. Always, it’s unobtrusive, reminiscent of a team of caterers stepping in tandem to clear plates at a party. The four human bodies redirect the audience’s attention somewhere more important. The concern of “Divine Generations” seems to be the distillation of inhuman motion: how button-down shirts might wobble on the clothesline, for example, or how very old tree branches twist in a strong wind.
Right now, the people thinking most deeply about these things are animators, those who work with computer-generated images and game engine programmers who intend to turn the simulation of crashing ocean waves, undulating wheat fields and quivering mustaches into an accurate one. and a very profitable science. But everything they do is digital, and has a mechanistic, pixelated sheen. At a time when all focus seems to be on screens, and bodies – and bodies on screens (see TikTok) – I find myself wanting to lop it all off. How refreshing it is to spend 21 minutes in the north of the state, watching the small movements of the world around us recreated from cardboard and string bought from a hardware store.