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A Closer Look -- Dondoro

Dondoro by Estelle Hanania
Dondoro, a slim and elegant volume from Estelle Hanania, is a collaboration with the late master puppeteer and puppet maker Hoichi Okamoto. Named after the theater Okamoto founded and published after his death in 2010, the book is a meditation Okamoto’s on art -- strange and somber images of puppets that seem eerily alive while they simultaneously show the magnificently skilled hand of the crafter. A few of these images appeared in the wonderfully edited Myriorama, a mingling of several of Hanania's projects exploring the transformative power of costume and traditional means of storytelling. The puppets shown here are somewhat of a hybrid between puppet and costume, designed to use the body of the puppeteer to animate the character.

The book opens with images of puppets in situ – seated or hanging in storage, lit from unusual sources, appearing almost as if the light was emanating from within. Though we are clearly viewing inanimate objects, obviously hand crafted, it becomes evident in the first few pages that we are not merely looking at pictures of puppets, but portraits of them – something all the more personal and haunting. As the book progresses they become all the more alive – appearing outdoors and being skillfully performed by Okamoto. But while their postures shift, their faces don’t – their expressions remain unchanging. It is an odd tension, bodies that seem at once alive and full of emotion, powerful, but also fragile, yet entirely static, inert, though expertly posed. The constantly shifting balance between the real and the fabricated, the alive and inanimate, and the blurring of those lines makes this a quietly compelling series of images, and one that becomes richer on repeat viewing.

from Dondoro
 An image (also on the cover) features two odd forms, both human-like, but both a bit uncanny. We see the visage of a pale woman with flowing black hair, clothed in a white robe and exceptionally tall. Behind her stands a silhouette – a man, Okamoto, clothed entirely in black, including his face. He is a shadow lurking behind the woman, a spirit, almost invisible, yet eerily present. Quite literally, he is the man behind all of these puppets, imbuing them with life. Okamoto appears and disappears throughout the pages, and we never catch more than a glimpse of part of his face. The puppets borrow his hands and body, they obscure him while he brings them to life. While his form is only evident in flashes, in reality we are looking at him the entire time. These portraits of puppets cumulatively render a portrait of the artist himself and his power to sculpt and perform his creations of astounding resonant emotion.

from Dondoro
from Dondoro
 The inside covers of Dondoro feature contact prints of Hanania’s sessions with Okamoto – a few images from these series ended up in these pages. These contact sheets reveal the movement that is missing from the images presented in the book – the transformations that happen as Okamoto is performing, as the story is being told. I find these sequences of images fascinating – an entirely new way to look at this body of work – and am left wondering what could come of utilizing them for something more than intriguing end paper. -- Sarah Bradley

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