An Interview with Tom Tuke

Tom Tuke discusses puppetry and his recent project, Paloma and the Do of Death.

Date 25 March 2021 Interview BECKY HEMUS imagery SUPPLIED

Hi Tom! Can you tell us about yourself?

Kia ora, I am Tom. I am an artist, puppeteer, and part-time high school teacher. I grew up in Ōtautahi and Tāmaki Makaurau. You can sometimes hear me interview other artists on 95bFM on Sunday mornings. 

You were touring the country last year, staging Paloma and the Do of Death, a puppet show written and (co-)performed by you. How would you summarise what the show is about?

Yeah we were touring around this time last year, and had to call it short because of Covid 19. We managed to get to play_station for the Wellington Fringe, and the Wunderbar in Lyttelton, but missed out on the Dunedin Fringe and a bunch of my favourite small towns in Te Wāi Pounamu. We have since shown it a couple of times in Tāmaki. 

The plot. Well, it revolves around Paloma, an elderly castaway, and a group of grim reapers who are fed up with work, and turn up to the same deserted island she has ended up on for a staff party. The reapers are enjoying their first proper day off since the dawn of time, therefore Paloma is not the top of their agenda. But when one reaper hasn’t met his KPIs, and is barred from entry, Paloma’s soul is on the line. 

Paloma and the Do of Death is a project you have been working on since 2016, and was first shared with an audience over a year ago. How has the idea evolved since you first started working on it? 

I started writing a comic, which developed into a script for a radio play. I recorded it for an exhibition with Hapori in 2016. The puppet construction followed down the track—I was teaching art in Hokitika in 2018, and I thought the department had run out of money. I tried to get everyone making puppets out of driftwood and clay. It was a minor disaster in the classroom, but I enjoyed it. Most of the marionettes were made down there, out of driftwood and debris from the dump shop at Runanga. It has been a long process, and the plot has changed a lot over time. 

Some of the objects in the show have really interesting backstories. I remember after watching one of the performances that you said the Old Father Time puppet was from Greer Twiss’ studio?

Yeah that’s right, I am borrowing this puppet from the renowned sculptor Greer Twiss. I don’t know how many people know about his early days as a puppeteer, but he was the real deal. He used to do live televised puppet shows, just when TV was kicking off in Aotearoa. Greer has lent me books and been really supportive. 

Some of the other puppets have interesting backstories in how they were made—Red’s hands are made of serving spoons, Paloma’s dress is actually sewn from the sleeve of an old work shirt, and the hair on the marionettes is all frayed rope from the beach.

Part of the charm of the performance is that there are highly refined, handmade puppets alongside readymade soft toys, such as the cat. Was it important to you that Paloma and the Do of Death evolved in a way that embraced the craft element of puppetry, alongside the crude and humorous elements of seemingly spontaneous performance? 

I guess I would like it all to be handmade, but I just ran out of time. There is quite a lot of shoddy stuff in the show, even though we have spent years getting ready, we are still just starting out. Neither co-puppeteer Ben Martley, or I, have studied puppetry. 

That being said, the naivety leads to quite a few funny moments. The cat is meant to be a capitalist “Fat Cat” so having them as a tacky, comercial toy cat makes some sense. 

Paloma and the Do of Death has a really interesting synergie with your recent art practice. Your exhibition The Apparent Path at Satchi & Satchi & Satchi in February of this year showed pencil drawings with figures that looked like they had pivoting, mechanical arms. One was singing by a campervan, another was walking through the air carrying a violin. There was a sense of theatrics in the way that you hand-drew ornate frames around each sketch. There were even two automated sculptures that used materials like pencils and rubber bands, rigged up to power to create movement. How did you approach this exhibition, and how do you think the idea of performance can be explored in your work, beyond a temporal show?

All the drawings were pencil rubbings, so I was relying on the lines and textures from surfaces around the house. This means there is a rigidity to the limbs—they are frottages of cutlery, library cards, shells etc. However, as I’m trying to capture motion using these rigid means, there is a sense of stunted or suspended movement, which is a bit like my ad hoc puppetry I guess. There are some similarities in themes too—the drawings are often mournful dreamy scenes, but with a twinge of humour. 

As for the puppetry moving beyond a temporal show, that’s somewhere I would really like to explore. For this latest exhibition I worked with electrician mates Sophia Hattingh and Liam Haverkort, and craftsperson Ollie Roake, to turn the puppet into an automaton. 

I think artists, especially within a small community like Aotearoa, are often cautious of branching out into new territory in case this is seen to detract from their practice. But Paloma and the Do of Death has really been embraced by the gallery sector. I know people who have gone multiple times, and continue to ask you to put more performances on. Why do you think the show has been so successful? 

I didn’t really want it to be seen as ‘art’, because people take art very seriously and this puppet show is sometimes a bit daft. But people take everything very seriously I guess, theatre too. I think it has been best received when I have put it on in the backyard, or at the pub. Galleries have really embraced it too, as you say. They have a bit more experience in promoting shows and hosting audiences. The show combines voice acting, comedy, tragedy, carving, live puppetry, Madison Bailey’s original score… So there is something for almost everyone. There is something to be said for pursuing a slightly forgotten art form — you can learn from your elders, dead and alive, and then present a fresh thing to new audiences. 

Are there any points of inspiration that have influenced your recent work, and helped fuel an interest in puppetry?

There are a myriad of puppeteers and artists that I look up to. Locally, I have enjoyed talking to Nobert Hausberg in Reefton—a zany German puppeteer who lived near me on the West Coast. In Auckland, Greer Twiss and Jon Coddington have taught me a few things! One exhibition I wish I could have seen in real life was Charlotte Graham’s 2005 show, Ngā Karetao, at Oedipus Rex Gallery in Auckland. Graham created a series of karetao who each represented a prominent Māori MP. It is worth looking up!

In terms of the constant motion puppets—I quite liked those Smith & Caugheys/Ballantynes Christmas displays of moving figures when I was a kid, and was lucky to visit the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre in Glasgow just before Covid. The other big inspiration is Blair Somerville’s bus gallery in Papatowai! Check that out if you are in the Catlins. 

Tonight, you will be performing Paloma and the Do of Death at Artspace Aotearoa, as part of the public programme for Natasha Matila-Smith’s exhibition I think you like me but I’ve been wrong about these things before. For me, public programmes that are tangential to an exhibition are often a really intriguing way to think about each person’s practice in a new light. Where do you see the connection between your artwork and Natasha’s?

There are some crossovers, and some vastly different things going on too. I think both shows straddle the broad themes of love, intimacy, sadness, and both with a sense of humour. When the curator, Tyson Campbell, was putting this part of the programme together, he was thinking about character construction—how character is built up, and what is left in and left out. I think the writing and construction process of the puppet show shares similarities to Natasha Matila-Smith’s projection of self and the development of an online persona. Building a puppet is, literally, constructing a character, and I suspect that is what Tyson was intrigued by when he invited us to the party.

I really admire how Natasha puts it all on the line…sometimes my art is quite melancholic too, but I end up hiding it under layers of humour and visual trickery. All this being said there are probably more differences than similarities in our practices! Sometimes that’s not a bad thing in a show, let’s see how it goes.

You also run a publication called The Java Script. Can you tell us more about this?

The Java Script is a newsletter that combines art, poetry, reviews, comics, Aunty Bev’s star signs, and lots more. Our big nemesis is the Coffee News. It started in the middle of last year, when there was a bit of a void of such things. Suddenly there is Kuini Qontrol’s e-zine; and a rejuvenated Aotearoa-owned magazine industry, including Angels Rhapsody and your own The Art Paper. It’s exciting. We are on a hiatus as my $1 Trade Me photocopier is broken, but are about to launch into 2021 next month. 

Thanks for your time, Tom. And good luck for the (sold-out) performance tonight!

Tom Tuke, Paloma and the Do of Death. Photography by Zoë Dunster. 

Tom Tuke, The Apparent Path. Installation view, Satchi & Satchi & Satchi, 14 February–9 March 2021. 

Tom Tuke, The Apparent Path. Installation view, Satchi & Satchi & Satchi, 14 February–9 March 2021. 

Tom Tuke, The Apparent Path. Installation view, Satchi & Satchi & Satchi, 14 February–9 March 2021. 

Tom Tuke, Paloma and the Do of Death. Photography by Zoë Dunster. 

Tom Tuke, Paloma and the Do of Death. Image courtesy of the artist.