The Stuff of Dreams: new work by Judith Cowan
Ann Elliot

Judith Cowan’s two new sculptural installations — collectively titled The Stuff of Dreams — are about displacement. In dreams where often the familiar is somehow linked to a new reality, known yet unknown, we accept them, and this is one way to engage with Cowan’s work. Here she has connected special things filmed in a special place to the corporate world, and she has also rearranged everyday objects that are altered by being shown in the different context of sculptural form.


Cowan’s massive sculpture and video installation The Palace of Raw Dreams 2012, is formed of a towering walkway that rises above and also supports a screen onto which a film is projected showing passages taken from Sicilian puppet shows. Cowan had made the walkway, the primary structure of the sculpture, some time ago, after seeing a puppet show in the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum of Palermo in 2003. Constructed in fine Douglas fir sourced by Cowan for its warm slightly red colour, it also alludes to the puppeteers’ stand and theatre. In the context of its sculptural com- position ideas of connectivity through bridging or passing through come to mind. And in its form, the framework also recalls part of a competitive assault course for dogs featured in her four-minute film  Oh no . . . it’s not dead, made in 2011.

In January 2012 Cowan again visited the Puppet Museum in Palermo to film the puppets for The Palace of Raw Dreams. Her film, however, is not so much about the antique puppets, some of which date from the eighteenth century, or indeed the narratives behind their dramas, but about the actual performance, partially seen in a  fragmented way due to her use of different cameras that show the puppets’ differing locations within the film. What has happened through both Cowan’s intention and her intuition is a great feeling of mystery and a sense of things being fractured, slightly concealed, off-centre, as the viewer is shown foreground, background, audience, front stage and back stage in seemingly chance sequences.

In The Palace of Raw Dreams Cowan also acknowledges other influences on her work, for example What are the Clouds? one of six episodes in the film Caprice the Italian Way directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1967. Here Pasolini shows a group of actors as puppets playing Shakespeare’s Othello. At one point the audience leaps on the stage and tear Iago and Toto into pieces. A garbage man throws them on the rubbish heap where the two actor puppets admire the clouds. Cowan uses this puppet and human interface in her sculpture through employing their random presence within her installation so that one observes her film of puppets and the people passing by the walkway simultaneously: reality and artifice combine as she engages an unconscious audience who become part of the spectacle. Cowan’s film, which features elements of dramas that the master puppeteer performed especially for her, is part documentary, showing not only the giant, almost human-sized puppets enacting both violent and romantic interludes, but also the puppet theatre and the master puppeteer at work, whose skill is consummate...

Extract published for solo exhibition catalogue, The Stuff of Dreams, Canary Wharf, 2012.

© Judith Cowan 2022