Michelle Oing (Stanford University)
"Towards an Art History of Medieval Puppetry in Europe"
Michelle K. Oing is an art historian, with a special focus on the art and architecture of late medieval Europe. Her current book project, Puppet Potential: Late Medieval Sculpture and the Aesthetics of Play in Northern Europe, 1300-1525, examines the role of moveable sculpture in Northern Europe through the conceptual framework of puppetry. At the core of this project is a new definition of puppetry that emphasizes the interactive relationship between puppeteer, puppet, and audience, as well the puppet's ontological status as both inert object and perceived life. By tracing the "puppet potential" of sculpture, this monograph places conceptions of representation and mimesis at the center of the turbulent changes in artistic and religious expression in late medieval Northern Europe.
She received her PhD in 2020 from Yale University, and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center as well as a lecturer in the Art & Art History department. Her forthcoming publications include a chapter on articulated sculptures of Christ in the Routledge book Puppet and Spirit: Ritual, Religion, and Performing Objects, and an article about carnival masking in late medieval Nuremberg in Sculpture Journal.
In addition to her scholarly pursuits, she has a background in puppetry and object performance with the Brooklyn-based collective Piehole.
In David Lowery’s 2021 film The Green Knight, puppets perform a reenactment of Sir Gawain’s encounter with the titular knight. In front of a spinning wheel marking the passage of time, we watch the Gawain puppet’s body take a final breath, next to its severed head. Though lasting only about a minute (in a 130-minute film), this episode points to the power of puppetry, both today and as a medieval form. In this lecture, I will explore what we know, or can know, about medieval puppetry in Europe, from courtly entertainment to sacred play. Ultimately, I offer a new definition of puppetry that recontextualizes premodern puppet performance, as well as the imaginative theatrical interlude in Lowery’s The Green Knight.