Walker Art Center

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CommissionsPrelude to Faust

Michael Sommers

Puppetry’s extensive history as a vital, often sacred, art form is due in part to its simultaneous ability to convey hard truths while propagating the fantasies and myths that have long sustained cultures across the globe. It also has a distinct tradition of social subversion couched in comic barbs and double entendres. Michael Sommers, together with partner Sue Haas, has played a vigorous role in the development and sustenance of the Twin Cities’ puppetry/performance community, jointly directing Open Eye Figure Theatre and other independent theatrical projects with a sensibility that makes the static kinetic. Of particular importance to the artists are the sociopolitical possibilities of performance, and the belief that communities benefit from simple but profound ideas introduced via artistic practice.[1]

The Walker-commissioned A Prelude to Faust (1998), Sommers’ prequel to Goethe’s paradigmatic tale of the ultimate conflict—whether to make a deal with the devil or not—is no exception. The outer and inner worlds of the human condition are embodied, respectively, in the sly machinations of Kasper, Faust’s comedic servant, and the existential struggle of Gilgamesh, a contemporary Everyman. Sommers’ rendering takes a populist approach to the heady debate on the existence of free will, using the rapid-fire meter of ribald vaudeville and satiric musical interludes performed live. The artist’s scopic knowledge of theatrical, musical, and visual arts is evident in this hybrid of marionette puppetry and experimental object-theater that reads more gestalt than postmodern. Ingeniously compact, yet decadent set/figure design is marked with signs of crumbling decay, a visible meditation on humanity’s perpetual materialism and the fragile spiritual state in which it mires us. Poignantly illustrated by the mortal Everyman, this conflict is manifested through archetypal Western symbolism: the apple, the quill, the egg. Not unlike the painter’s hand made visible through the brushstroke, the marionettes are vitalized by the clear manipulations of the puppeteers, conscious breaks in verisimilitude acting as deliberate reminders that philosophy (as well as theater) is also the construct of man.

It may seem incongruous to claim that bits of painted wood effectively convey the very essence of what makes us human, but this contradiction feeds Sommers’ narrative and visual style. In the Walker’s 1993 exhibition Michael Sommers/Susan Haas: The Question of How, the gallery was divided: one half of it featured the interactive Kopfspiel, an arcade with numerous portals whose hidden contents could only be revealed by human hands; the other was a laboratory of live performance, music, and various creative activities. Because the role of the viewer is essential, the exhibition’s final content was ultimately determined by the visitor’s experience.

These dichotomies end in a collision of forms that are inanimate and sentient, age-old and modern, and cannot be traced through a direct creative lineage. Sommers creates machine poems for a new era, returning repeatedly to classic allusions in a continual search for universality. His work bears the imprimatur of an artist captivated first by visual poetry, but who holds fast to the potentiality of the human heart.

Notes

  1. Open Eye Figure Theatre annually presents Driveway Tours, a traveling puppet play able to be mounted anywhere a given host requests. In exchange for a guaranteed audience of fifty, the artists accept donations rather than a set fee.

Diana Kim, “Michael Sommers,” from Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 524.