The best part of revisiting any great piece of art several years after you first encounter it is that you inevitably see it differently. Inevitably, you come to realize that you are the one that has changed rather than the work – whether it is something as solid as a sculpture or as ephemeral as a single dance performance, it is acting as a mirror for who and what you are at that particular moment in time.
Such is the feeling I get when visiting Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, an exhibit on his life and work now showing at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. I knew what I expected to see there – puppets. And since my interest in puppetry has extended far beyond my childhood and has morphed and fused with my interest in live performance as a whole, I decided the exhibit would be “professionally” engaging.
Of course, being greeted by Kermit the Frog as I reach the third floor of the museum is immediately nostalgic and whimsical. But soon I begin looking closely at the marvelous simplicity of this puppet, constructed from nothing but felt and a ping pong ball. I read about how Henson purposely constructed the faces of his puppets to be soft, leaving them malleable to the hands of the puppeteer, who could mold numerous human expressions with them.
Making my way through some of Henson’s early experiments, it is fascinating to watch the creative thought process behind some of the zany Muppet and Sesame Street characters I once took to be as normal as anyone walking down the street.There is something so real and so fantastical about these characters that they fit right into your everyday world and simultaneously stretch your imagination. For this reason they are ideal for children’s entertainment. But they’re also ideal for an hour or two of observation by adults at a museum.
Then I come across the original cover of the proposal for the Muppet Show. It is hand drawn, and immaculately colored in with marker. It is an icon of another time – pre-digital design – when the artistry and craft in every bit of creation could be seen with the naked eye. I also marveled at the personal quality of such a proposal, submitted by Henson’s by then quite established studio, to a major network. Of course, a document operating at that level today would never be hand drawn for fear of being accused of lack of professionalism. But there is a vitality and care on this piece of paper that gets overlooked in the slick TV production we now experience daily.
Moving further on, the exhibit breaks with chronological order, and gives us the true gems of Henson’s now developed vision. An experimental film he created shows his interest in setting images to a certain tempo, something that gets utilized in a much more commercial way on Sesame Street but is actually quite hypnotic in the context of this more esoteric piece. Then there is the television show Henson conceived after the success of Sesame Street, in which he envisioned a basic structure and narrative that would be distributed across countries and continents, with the remaining segments then getting completed by local studios in each distinct culture. The idea behind this show was to promote cross-cultural exchange and understanding. It was at this point that I suddenly realized the scope of Henson’s vision. He wasn’t only an artist; he wanted to change the world.
With puppets, you ask? He wanted to change the world by making puppets? But the moment I realized this I thought of a comment from a well-known theatre director who often uses puppets in his work: “If you have an actual child playing a role in a show, everyone in the audience will say ‘that’s somebody’s kid.’ But if you put a puppet in that same role, everyone will look at it and think, ‘that’s my kid’.
With an entire generation of children growing up on Sesame Street and the Muppets, Henson had managed to get each of us to think, “those are my friends.” And I can’t help but wonder what the world may have been like without Kermit and Miss Piggy, Ernie and Bert and their motley crew, all of whom were friends to millions of kids who are now in their 20’s and 30’s. On many levels, Jim Henson probably did accomplish his goal of changing the world, undoubtedly for the better.
Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is at Museum of the Moving Image through March 4th. Admission is FREE with a CUID, as part of the Passport to New York program.
– Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA, 2013