Visual arts Christopher Allen and Public Works
Wallace & Gromit and Friends: The Magic of Aardman ACMI to October 29
One+ of the most fascinating things about narrative art, as we experience every time we read a book, or watch a play or film, is the way we can become emotionally engaged in stories we know very well to be fiction. Moreover, what we now call suspension of disbelief is not necessarily enhanced by superficial realism.
We all know fairytales and fantasy can be as suspenseful as naturalism. Often, in fact, the stylised, the formal and d the conventional can allow us to disregard superficial and distractinging aspects of familiar life and focus only on the important things. Thus whilele earnest educationalists s try to get young people to read drearily realistic stories they consider relevant to their age, class and cultural experience — and increasingly to the social messages the e authorities want to impart part — children would usuallysually rather read myth and fantasy. antasy.
Puppetry is a fascinatingating art in this respect, for in all its s manifestations, from the giant marionettes of Sicily, endlessly rehearsing the Christian struggle against the Saracens, to the shadow puppets of Java, recounting the story of Rama and Sita and other ancient Indian tales, the performances are always intensely stylised and conventional. The same is true of the English Punch and Judy shows, or a bloodthirsty if highly artificial rendition of the Massacre of the Innocents I saw in Brussels at Christmas some years ago.
Puppets remind us naturalism is not the only way to make good art, and that art is as much a matter of making strange, of making unlike as of making like. The greatest art is no doubt always in the balance between these two poles of lifelikeness and artifice, which represents the transformation of life into a form that can be assimilated by the imagination.
With any kind of puppet theatre — and the figures produced by the Aardman studio, like the famous Wallace and Gromit, are in essence puppets — there are two paramount conditions for success: the first is that the figures be artificial and conventional forms that are quite distinct from naturalism; and the second is that they and their narratives constitute a coherent, self-contained fictional world that parallels that of our everyday experience without matching it. In the case of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit, to take the most memorable of all the many wonderful creations covered by the exhibition at ACMI, the artifice of the figures is immediately apparent: Wallace is a gangly figure with a small bald head, big eyes, enormous ears and a wide, toothy mouth. Gromit is a dog with very simplified but surprisingly expressive features. The forms of these characters are inseparable from the material from which they are made and the animation process itself, and this is one reason for the broad and simplified shape of their fea features. For they are made of Plasticine, and the anima animation is a three-dimensiona sional form of stopmo motion, sometimes ca called claymation. In a normal stopmotion animation, the artist draws a figure which is photographed; then modifi fies the figure and ph photographs it again, and so on. In the end, hund hundreds or thousands of drawingsdrawin can be run together to prod produce the effect of bodies and facesface in motion. Some modernist artists, like William Kentridge, leave traces of their imperfect erasures to become part of the final sense of evolving form. In claymation, the figures are made of Plasticine and, as a demonstration video included in the exhibition shows, a series of shots must be taken of each one just to make it look as though it is waving its arm. It is much more complicated again when a scene, as in the Wallace and Gromit films, may involve more than one character in a dramatic situation and require the co-ordination of bodily movement and facial expression. None of this can be left to chance or to lastminute improvisation, and as many preparatory studies make clear, drawing is where the whole process begins. It is in this way that scenarios are worked out, and even figures invented and refined. As Park himself puts it, drawing is “the top of a massive pyramid” of development and production which ultimately leads not only to the animated figures themselves but to the extraordinary sets and models included in the exhibition.