Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Toy Theater of Terror as Usual" at Queens Museum of Art

In the mid-19th century, home entertainment often involved toy theater: a mass-produced proscenium theater performed on a living room table with flat cut-out characters and scripts based on the popular hits of the day.  The tradition thrived in Europe and the United States until it was superseded by film and television (a different kind of box that sits on the living room table). In the early 1990s, an experimental theater group now known as Great Small Works rediscovered the medium as a tool to address major contemporary events shaping New York City and the world. Using excerpted philosophical works and cut-out images from newspapers and magazines glued to stiff backing, moved expressively and given voice by five visible puppeteers hovering around a tabletop proscenium stage, The Toy Theater of Terror as Usual (1991- 2002) satirized with Dada-inspired photomontage the run-up to the first Gulf War, the L.A. riots, and intersections of art, AIDS, and real estate that characterized New York in the Bush Sr. and Clinton years. For the Curse of Bigness, the group restages selected scenes as tableaux in 13 rudimentary theaters installed on the walkway surrounding the Panorama of the City of New York, in a dramatic juxtaposition of miniature spectacles. Recreated scenes include a moment from Episode 7: Metro Section, in which Olympic athletes soar above a two-level backdrop of New York City's skyline while at ground level a recumbent skeleton marks the 1991 discovery of the African Burial Ground and the final scene from Episode 9: Doom, which illustrates an urban utopia as described by downtown artist and visionary Jack Smith, with a chorus of Greek women atop an old Bronx bank building rebuilt as a cultural center; a gaggle of naked babies and yellow baby chicks; two giant hands with crossed fingers for luck framing the top of the stage opening; and a herd of cows draped with dollar bills. "I can imagine a million ways," Smith writes, "for the world to be completely different."

Although most New Yorkers now associate the word terror with the September 11th attacks, the majority of these works were created before that date.  The title and content of the series were inspired by anthropologist Michael Taussig’s essay “Terror As Usual,” which drew on Walter Benjamin’s 1940s idea that “‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule."  Great Small Works combined this concept with the group's own perception of the media complicity in the run-up to the first Gulf War, and discovered that re-using images and texts from the daily news on a toy theater stage allowed them to articulate and communicate their own sense of what was taking place all around them.

Video footage of performances at venues such as P.S.122, the Bread and Puppet Museum, the Henson International Puppet Festival, and 1991 anti-war events will also be on view. The group’s reinvention of the toy theater form spurred a world-wide revival, which Great Small Works showcases bi-annually with an International Toy Theater Festival, the ninth iteration of which will take place at St. Ann’s Warehouse from May 30 – June 13th 2010. Great Small Works will create first new episode of the Toy Theater of Terror as Usual since 2002, to be performed at both QMA and St. Ann's Warehouse on June 6th.

Larissa Harris
Queens Museum of Art

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