Just when you thought the general election campaign needed a spark, an unseen hand to shake the main players out of their lethargy, up comes some very entertaining ghosts from the past. Those latex puppets that got 15m viewers glued to the television sets in the 80s and 90s are back again for a cameo role in a lacklustre election campaign devoid of characters, candour and colour.
Echoing the garish photographs made by Spitting Image creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law before Martin Lambie-Nairn approached them to suggest adapting their creations for television, Fox and Bruce spent weeks in the studio working with a selection of the original puppets, crafting these ominous images. Photographed either against brightly coloured neon backdrops or shrouded by darkness; each image depicts a former Tory party member. Rendered in extraordinary detail on large format film, at times stripped of their clothing, every mark on the latex or foam is made visible and accentuated, including signs of wear, fragility and decay.
The puppets thus become evocative emblems of a past era and a faded power. There is an awkward tension in these photographs between the puppets as depiction of people, as cultural icons and also as crumbling modern artifacts. Key works in the exhibition include Margaret Thatcher, her predecessor Edward Heath and successor John Major, and cabinet ministers Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit, Michael Heseltine, Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd.
Fox said of the photographic experiment: “Once we had them out of their packing cases, lying on the studio floor, the puppets looked broken, aged, decrepit and lacking any glimmer of life. The orange latex protruded pathetically from underneath their clothing as we re-arranged them on the stand. At one point, Norman Tebbit’s head came off as if he was being decapitated by some unknown force. The glamour faded, the sheen gone. Failed characters abandoned in storage… Spitting Image was a great show that was made, in the wake of Python, at a time when humour really could be outrageous. These puppets, imbued with satire, represented our most significant politicians at their worst… Now, like all political fortunes, we are left with the remnants of a different age.”
Andrew Bruce commented on the collaboration: “Several years ago I visited 10 Downing Street to help on a shoot creating a portrait of David Cameron for a Sunday supplement. Throughout the shoot we were constantly watched over, told what we could and couldn’t do; where David could stand, how we could light him, it seemed like we were puppets. And so years later, when myself and Anna posed Maggie, an upside-down tripod running up her back for support, we rearranged her hair, depressed the plunger controlling the angle of her eyes and I unbuttoned her blouse to take in the crumbling foam body that lay beneath – then I thought about that shoot at Number Ten.
“I was born in the final years of Thatcher’s government; born into a generation of politics that seems quite unrecognisable from that of the politicians whose puppets we photographed. Now in an era where satire has become dangerous and appearances are guarded and cultivated with a clinical level of precision, it seems more important than ever that we remember to probe the imagery of politics we are presented with every day.”
Hyman added: “One of my favourite pictures shows the puppets dumped in a pile on the floor as though ready to be swept away as garbage. But whilst it may be true that these puppets have lost some of their shine, through Spitting Image and now these remarkable photographs, these politicians have achieved a form of immortality.”
James Hyman Gallery, 16 Savile Row, W1
Monday – Friday 10.00-18.00, 22 April – 8 May 2015