April, 2011 Archives

I always thought that puppeteers are supposed to be (or at least aim to be) invisible during the performance. Even though you may see their arms, or get a glimpse of their feet, they stay largely hidden behind the screen. They are out of sight in order to be out of mind. When I saw this picture, I was taken by surprise. My friend Vida, who is Chinese-Canadian, said that Chinese puppeteers are usually very obvious. She said that there isn’t the attempt to hide them like there is in some kinds of western puppeteering, so, “you just ignore them and it’s no big deal if you see them by accident.” This image is of Bunraku, Japanese puppet performance. While these puppeteers are noticeable, the guy on the right is less so. So, when I first glanced at the picture, I immediately saw absence of his face. Why is he nearly invisible? It turns out that visibility (i.e., exposing the face) is a form of honor to the skill of Master puppeteers, whose character is major in a play. Invisibility here is both literal and metaphorical. Absence is an indicator of insignificance.

Insignificant face

In ordinary life, virtually all objects we encounter are occluded. For example, I am in a cafe now and not a single chair I am observing is in full view. Moreover, a lot of large objects are cut off by my visual field. None of this, however, is particularly attention-grabbing. In art, occlusion and what is outside the field of view is confrontational, loaded with meaning. Sometimes, abrupt cut offs direct our eyes to what is in the field of view – what is truly salient. Sometimes, they offer an analysis of what is not seen, endorsing the invisible.

This picture does both. Much of Roy DeCarava’s work was driven by his sense of injustice that the black Americans “should go through life unseen.” However, his way of making them seen was not relying on references to stigma or trauma. He wanted to show “a life force that each of us has, a will to live and a will to be here.” Paradoxically, by letting the edge of the frame cut off human parts (bodies, heads) in this picture, DeCarava made that life force and humanity most visible.

PS The empirical prediction here is that most people will report seeing absence of the baby’s head and not absence of the body of the person who is holding the baby.

Bill and Son

If you ever wondered what silence looks like, there you go! This absence initially is a bit of a riddle. The easy part is understanding the expression on her face. Then you need to interpret the empty balloon. Those who know anything about comics, will know that it’s not just a weird ellipse, but a bubble that’s missing words. Also, this is a speech, rather than a thought, balloon. So, this absence denotes speechlessness or silence. You may then just conclude that it’s her silence. Her emotions took the place of words. But it gets trickier. The tail of the bubble is pointing away from her – which standardly means that the bubble belongs to the “off-screen” character – one who is not a part of the visible scene. So if it’s not her bubble, this silence belongs to the person we don’t see! A double absence.

Comics are hard.