Giant Tony Abbot puppet: Liar, liar, pants on fire!

At the rally

Liar, liar, pants on fire! Giant Abbott puppet at Bust the Budget, Parliament House, Canberra, 6 July 2014

Over the last few weeks I’ve been involved with the making of a giant 3 metre tall protest puppet of the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, with the theme of Liar, liar, pants on fire. Matthew Armstrong, who came up with the concept, brought together the skills of a number of Canberra artists to make, assemble and perform the puppet within a pretty short timeframe. Thanks, too, to Dario Vacirca and Mark Timberlake from KneeHigh, now Open Space,  in Adelaide who hired us the frame and advised us on various aspects.

The Abbott puppet debuted at the Bust the Budget anti-austerity rally on an icy cold day at Parliament House, Canberra, on 6th July. Matthew is now improving the puppet in a number of ways, ready for more appearances.

I made the head of the puppet from foam sheeting. Here are some photos of the process.

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Mass shootings: a cultural narrative

The rest of the civilised world and particularly Australia (with the smugness akin to the reformed smoker), see gun control as the blindingly obvious solution to mass shootings in America. I certainly do, and I’m aware many Americans do too.

Aside from gun control, though, I think there is also an issue to do with narrative within the culture. By this I mean that certain narratives arise within and help to define cultures. They follow an evolutionary path – diversification, sifting, and selection – and those selected for steer societal mores. Once embedded they can be powerful and hard to shift, as each new instance of the pattern beds it in even more, making it seem more just the way things are, and people use it to their own ends.

Mass shooting is now a powerful cultural narrative in the US for the disaffected of a particular type to use like an unimaginative recipe, so that ‘while all the stories are true, some names and identifying details have been changed.’ This knee-jerk narrative has to change, so that going on a shooting spree isn’t the obvious first port of call if you are deeply at odds with the world.

It also has to be said that the public response to these events has also become it’s own narrative.

I don’t know how you go about changing these cultural narratives – we have ones of our own in Australia; I wish I did.

Stephen Mottram’s The Seed Carriers

I was excited to find this video about Stephen Mottram’s strange and beautiful show The Seed Carriers via Siân Kidd on Twitter last night. It’s amazing puppetry that I would love to see live one day.  I was also interested in his comments about it being essentially live animation on stage, and distinctly related to installation art.

Light-up emu egg prop

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This is the finished emu egg prop made for BiamiThe story recounts how Biami ‘created the emu Dinnawhan, the female emu, whose spirit he used to create the Wiradjuri people; who now believe they are of the egg of Biami and the female spirit’. This is symbolised by the shadow of a baby in the coolamon within.

The egg is made from Plastimake, small pellets of plastic which soften when heated and can then by modeled. I this kind of plastic at Philip Millar’s puppet doctor session at the puppetry conference in Melbourne last year, and have been itching to have a good reason to use it! Peter, who I contacted at Plastimake, was very helpful, and it turned out to be a great material for this project.

I found it quite tricky to think through the various steps in how to make this, as it had to light up from inside but be self-contained, and you have to be able to access the batteries so they can be changed.

I started by making a polystyrene egg about 20 cm long as a former. Here it is with Special Tool A, a bit of plywood with some blunt sandpaper gaffered onto it, which happens to be ideal for smoothing  polystyrene once you have carved to roughly the right shape. Then I cut the egg in half lengthwise and put a bit of polypropylene in between so that I could later split the egg in half easily, and also cut away a small section at each end so that the ends would end up thick enough to hold screws to keep the two halves together.

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I used small quantities of Plastimake, heated in boiling water. The pellets turn transparent when they are hot enough to fuse, and then you can fish them out with a spoon and mold them to shape. I found that squishing them together a bit with the spoon while they were still in the water was a good idea too. (The little bag of black pellets are colouring pellets of Plastimake which I didn’t end up needing).

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This photo shows the egg completely covered with plastic, in various stages of setting. The opaque areas of white at the large end are set, but in other places where it is still warm you can see right through to the gladwrapped polystyrene inside. Once the egg was covered roughly, I spent quite a bit of time heating it with a hairdryer and then smoothing it out. One of the great things about Plastimake is that it can be reheated and reused, as well as added to, drilled and cut.

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The egg has a flattened part for it to rest on so it doesn’t roll around, and into that I set some polypropylene sheeting with the black contact cut-out of the the baby in a coolamon. In the other half is an led light unit from the dollar shop, with it’s switch button rewired to fit into the right position poking through to the outside of the egg. I also replaced the batteries that came with the light with button batteries instead as it seemed neater, hacking a tealight battery holder so that it held two batteries rather than one. (Thanks Zaiga!)

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Once the egg itself was made and joined up I paper mached the outside with white tissue paper because although paint takes well to Plastimake it can rub off fairly easily with wear. The speckled finish is spray paint and a little green acrylic paint.

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Grey felt

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I couldn’t find any fur fabric that was right, so opted for felt for covering the kangaroo mask. I was actually happy about that, (although it still leaves the question of what fabric to use for a tail), because I loved the masks using this technique that I made some years ago. I built a section into the inside of the mask that will fit the wearer’s face comfortably and firmly. There’s still quite a bit of detailing to be done on the ears, eyes and mouth.

While the mask was drying I went back to  making an emu egg for the same show, Biami. I’d already made a polystyrene form for it, but had set it aside while I considered how to make it light up inside. Today I finally covered the egg in Plastimake. I’ll have some photos of the egg later as it progresses.

And now a kangaroo mask

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Today I’ve been making a kangaroo mask. This is for the Biami production I blogged about yesterday. I decided to use paper mâché even though it’s a little time consuming. For something fairly small like this it’s fine, and I am pretty quick. I like doing paper mâché very much and find it meditative. I’m not sure on the final finish yet – fur or felt?

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Goanna puppet

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I’ve been making some puppets for Biami, the creation story of the Wiradjuri people, by Duncan Smith and Maitland Schnaars, which will be performed  for the Kids, Creatures and 100 Harlequins - Centenary Children’s Week Celebration on 25 & 26 October in Glebe Park. (It’s part of the Centenary of Canberra project.)  Today I finished the goanna!

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The Rock House

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This is the little ‘rock’ house I made for the play I blogged about last week, Joy McDonald’s The (Very) Sad Fish Lady. It is made from sheet polypropylene cut to suggest rocks , and was covered with gauze, so that it could appear solid when lit from outside, but could also show action inside when lit internally.

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Here are a few making photos.

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