New puppetry exhibits range from ants to anthropology 

Students and members of the public attend the grand opening of two new exhibitions at The Ballard Museum of Puppetry on Thursday, Oct. 17. The exhibit "Immaterial Remains" showcased Chinese shadow puppetry, and the exhibit "Army Ants and Their Guests" showcased collaborative puppet work between UConn's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Puppetry Departments.   Photo by Maggie Chafouleas / The Daily Campus

Students and members of the public attend the grand opening of two new exhibitions at The Ballard Museum of Puppetry on Thursday, Oct. 17. The exhibit "Immaterial Remains" showcased Chinese shadow puppetry, and the exhibit "Army Ants and Their Guests" showcased collaborative puppet work between UConn's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Puppetry Departments. Photo by Maggie Chafouleas / The Daily Campus

Two new exhibitions on display at the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry impressively demonstrate the interdisciplinarity of puppet arts. With the grand opening of “Army Ants and their Guests: Works Inspired by the Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer Collection” and “Immaterial Remains: Can You Preserve a Shadow?,” a trip to the Ballard is no longer simply a journey into the field of puppetry, but is now a journey into ecology, biology, history and cultural preservation as well. 

In the front room of the museum, visitors can find the “Army Ants” collection. This exhibit is an extension of AntU, a collaborative project between the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and the UConn Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). Created by artists from around the world, the ant life-inspired artwork takes many forms. Some are for viewing, such as marionettes and toy theaters. Others are interactive: Observers can use flashlights to personally project shadows of insects formed from recycled materials. To add to the cooperation, students from UConn’s Digital Media and Design department created short films about Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer’s work.  

Photo by Maggie Chafouleas / The Daily Campus

Photo by Maggie Chafouleas / The Daily Campus

“We’re building a culture of collaboration across disciplines,” UConn School of Fine Arts Dean Anna D’Alleva said to the grand opening’s audience Thursday night.  

The power of drawing inspiration from different fields of work is present in the room, as each installation is accompanied by two description cards: One from the artist about the process behind the work and one from the EEB department on the science represented in the piece. 

Two curtains separate the front room from the back, where a dark, yet spotlight-illuminated, atmosphere hosts Annie Rollins’ “Immaterial Remains.” Delicate, intricate leather puppets float between lights and walls, leaving impressions of a cultural practice dating back to between 960 and 1279 C.E., during the Song dynasty in China. A screen in the corner emits a visual of the words: “Is a ghost all that remains?” 

Photo by Maggie Chafouleas / The Daily Campus

Photo by Maggie Chafouleas / The Daily Campus

Rollins’ work is the result of a decade of apprenticeship with China’s shadow puppeteers and a journey of research into how a cultural practice can remain vital and vibrant in a transforming world. Through a performative lecture, Rollins brought shadows to life in coordination with a short documentary that featured a poetic exploration into the state of shadow puppetry. Her narration conveyed that there is no current master of the art who has a full-time apprentice. Despite being added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, shadow puppetry struggles to be passed on. In fact, Rollins suggests that the increased institutionalization of the art, which is meant to preserve it, depletes its inherent dynamism. In this way, shadow puppetry is a metaphor for its own existence. The puppets traditionally represent the presence of ghosts, but without puppeteers to give them spirit, what is to become of their shadows? 

“I like that puppetry is usually aligned with causes,” Noah Radcliffe, a ninth-semester philosophy major, said.  

From ants to anthropology, the two new displays at the Ballard illuminate the range of subjects that puppetry art can be effectively applied to. 

“I think this captures the vastness of puppetry pretty solidly, they’re very different,” Esme Roszel, a sixth-semester puppetry major, said about the two exhibits. 

The exhibitions can be visited through Feb. 9, 2020.  


Judah Shingleton is a campus correspondent and senior staff photographer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at judah.shingleton@uconn.edu. He tweets @ByJudah.