Emerging Wonder: A Shadow Ballet

There are some stories that you learn something new any time you read it, and re-reading Alice in Wonderland just before creating this piece, I found how deeply it related to the things I’ve been considering in my environmental and participatory work. While the idea of giving greater importance to nonsense has always stood out, in this reading, I paid attention to the ways that size and position alter one’s perception. 

Lewis Carroll played with time and scale throughout Alice in Wonderland in order to reframe the quirks of British culture. It’s publication in 1865 coincided with the end of the American Civil War, and despite optimistic framing at the time, vestiges of both British and American culture still contribute to inequitable systems of power. 

Carroll’s nonsense world challenged deeply rooted Victorian orthodoxy by using size to create changes in perceived importance. 

Carroll depicts not just changes in size for Alice, but the affect that it has on her psyche. As she is problem solving, trying to reach the key on the table, she eats too much cake and becomes giant, causing her fear and worry that is literally outsized, flooding the area with a sea of tears. Calming down, she continues to problem-solve, but makes herself so small that she gets washed away building a kind of empathy for the animals affected by her oversized human impact. 

When later stuck inside the Duchess’s house, she recognizes and uses the uses the destructive power of her human-ness to terrorize the residents of the Duchesses house until she finds a way to get her emotions under control.  

In Emerging Wonder, the transformation of each bug and flower into the next plays with scale. Sometimes a bee takes up the whole screen, while there is a tiny butterfly in the next image. In turn, projected at a ten foot screen, all of the bugs are larger than life, interacting with the swirl of puppets on the rotor created by participants, and audience members who stopped along the way to the nearby dance floor.  

It is always a pleasure to walk through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and even more of a pleasure to be able to collaborate with the community with an art project geared towards participation. By taking the frame of the caterpillar and other pollinator animals, this work creates space for participants to imagine a world where we prioritize our relationship with nature. Visitors to FOOL Moon, hosted throughout downtown Ann Arbor, contributed their own shadow puppets to the installation in the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.

I love making participatory art because my “audience” always teaches me something, and in this case, I loved watching the bugs, pets, objects, and designs emerge from the many families who stopped to create at the table. Some had luminaries, and many were dressed up with layered coats, as Michigan spring often demands. I myself was dressed as a flower garden with my Marimekko coat, purple flowered dress, and pink floral socks.  

Although it died down by evening, the wind on Friday around lunchtime was so strong that we only installed the projection screen and simplified the installation. The projector loaned to me by the Ann Arbor District Library was so much brighter than my own that it lit up the large silver rotor made of aluminum window screen. Even without curtains, it created layers of color and functioned both as the engine for the shadow ballet and a second, brilliant screen. 

In gaps between noises from the disco floor in the middle of the market, and my neighbors, the flute invited people who hadn’t yet made puppets to watch and created a performance space for each round of new puppets that added to the menagerie. The diameter of the rotor created the illusion of swirling around like on a dance floor, allowing the creatures and joys that people created to add to the story of butterflies, flowers, grasshoppers, bees, and caterpillars. 

Seeing things this size made me want to create an EVEN BIGGER projection.  Instead of ten feet wide, I want to make it fifty! Imagine 2” shadow puppets and 2cm bugs showing up on a screen bigger than people. That would really draw you into the dream of the world we live in. 

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