Movement, Aesthetics, Ontology (IV Annual Conference on the New Materialisms, Turku, Finland)

Art, Bodies, and Agency: Puppets and their Transgressive Force

[When] different combinations of materialities [in an artwork] engage with each other (the oil, the artist-body, the canvas, the movements and sounds of each, etc.) the agency is distributed across the assemblage that forms. No one element is in “control”. Or if it is, it does not reign for long. (J. Bennett 2012)

Art, according to Jane Bennett (2012), can be understood as a vital force and as having agency beyond its human creator. It is this force that I propose to analyze with the help of Maja Gehrig’s puppet-animation Amourette (2009), asking if it might allow us to challenge discursively materialized norms of human embodiment. In Amourette two wooden dolls are having sex on sandpaper; as a result of their wrestling acts and amorous play, they sand themselves off by rubbing the floor. Eventually, the love act turns into a race against time, in which all attempts to stay “in shape” – unimpaired, defined, autonomous, and alive – fail. The continuous movement, which is triggered by the interaction of the puppets with the sandpaper-ground, leads to a recurrent transformation of form, matter, and, as I will argue, agency. The force they exhibit in the lethal process, allows them to challenge the seeming stability and agency of embodied norms vis-à-vis non-human matter. In their vital materiality, the wooden figures are ontologically multiple and potentially productive in considering how the transformation of matter might lead to the transgression of discursive constructions of sex, sexuality, and subjectivity. I am interested in the productive potential of new materialist approaches to concepts of the human body by focusing on the non-human agential aspects of embodied experience. With the help of a queer-theoretical and disability studies oriented approach, I will ask how new materialist theory can account for so-called unstable bodies, in-between bodies, and multiple bodies.