A puppeteer’s threads

Pigsy, a full body suit made of latex and upholstery. Photo by Travis Medhurst.
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"In puppetry you are a performer. You are on stage. You are nude in front of the people and their emotions are massive.” Argentinian born Gonzalo Valera talks to Travis Medhurst about art and life.

Wedged in-between a laundromat and a café beside the busy Brunswick Street in Fitzroy is a place both wonderful and strange. It is a slim bright red building lifted from another era and filled with oddities plucked from dreams. Inside, the dim lights illuminate the rooms with a soft orange hue and numerous collections of peculiar puppets and other works of art adorn the luminously painted walls.

Welcome to Magic Lantern: store, studio and family home of artists Gonzalo Valera and Lucy Parkinson. Together they pursue a variety of projects including painting murals and running workshops. Gonzalo’s latest passion however is puppetry, which he painstakingly crafts by hand.

“I studied to be a painter, that is my profession,” says Gonzalo, “but I think puppetry has given me more satisfaction. When you paint, if you don’t like you don’t show. In puppetry you are a performer, you are on stage, you are nude in front of the people and their emotions are massive.”

Photo by Travis Medhurst.

Gonzalo sits on a leather armchair in his living room. His hair is wild and curled and his glasses thick with rims coloured green. Around the room are boxes of toys from bygone eras scattered in various stacked boxes.

He was born in Argentina in 1970 and has worked as an artist for over 20 years in a variety of mediums. He would teach art at a tertiary level for six years at the Universidad de Bellas Artes en La Plata (University of Fine Arts in La Plata) in Buenos Aires before moving to Barcelona at the age of 29. There, he would meet Australian born Lucy and the couple have been together for 15 years. They would open Magic Lantern in mid-2010.

Photo by Travis Medhurst.

Among the puppets you may encounter in Gonzalo and Lucy’s sanctum of the surreal are a cowboy zombie bird made from the skull of a dead seagull and a robot made from an old vacuum cleaner still being built. Gonzalo enjoys making art from things others have thrown away. He fashions everything from traditional wood and string marionettes to wearable latex suits.

“I have a lot of appreciation for old technologies,” says Gonzalo. “I think it came from my confrontation with new technologies. I am not very happy with new technologies. I am not very happy with how the new generations are using the technology. I think people should be having respect and taking in the relevance of all these things that were mechanical, not electronic.”

Magic Lantern gets its namesake from an early type of image projector that consists of pictures painted on sheets of glass illuminated by light. Gonzalo and Lucy utilise this pre-cinema aesthetic in their works.

“Currently everything is fast and cheaper. Using your hands to take time in something is becoming romantic. We are living in this moment with this concept where everything needs to be very fast. Cheap, fast and good quality, these three things never go together.”

Gonzalo would not make his first puppet until immigrating to Australia with Lucy. One of his earliest puppets, his very own interpretation of Pinocchio, took him eight weeks to complete. Since then he has pursued a variety of projects including bringing life to puppets in promotion of Melbourne Museums Bug Lab.

Gonzalo recalls that Magic Lantern was originally Lucy’s idea and was inspired by her love of that technology. However, Lucy insists that you “can have an original seed but it grows”.

“I fell in love with Magic Lantern slides,” says Lucy. “The first set I bought was an Alice in Wonderland slide and then an obsession took root.”

“Initially, I really insisted on the puppets and Gonzalo wasn’t that keen on it. But then he really took it completely and utterly and I’ve moved away from them. It’s funny how things turn out.”

Lucy is currently undertaking a Masters in Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts. She first met Gonzalo when while traveling Europe. She was 26 at the time.

Photo by Travis Medhurst.

“Lucy was very weird,” says Gonzalo, his eyes lightening up as a slight smile creeps up on his face as though he has recounted this story a dozen times before.

Lucy had travelled to England to visit her grandmother in Kent. It was there she met Martin Hanford, author of the popular children’s picture books Where’s Wally. Hanford, a friend of Lucy’s grandmother had been visiting the family home. He found in Lucy a fellow artist whose work he admired and would gift her £1000 to travel in Europe and to find a studio to pursue painting.

“Walking on the streets in Barcelona she came to my studio. I remember she was watching very curious and when she came inside there was this typical Argentinian who had this attitude,” Gonzalo laughs and begins to melodramatically gesture, “pardon me, I’m an amazing artist!”

Lucy recalls being initially enticed by the presence of a Ken doll in the studio window with his scalp removed and a walnut positioned in place of a brain.

“I think she was curious with many things about me and when she returned one week after I asked for her telephone number and I invited her to this very dodgy and underground show. There were these old transvestites with big plastic tits and moustaches singing very bad quality covers and everything was covered in this decadence. But it was beautiful, like an Italian Comedy or a Federico Fellini movie. Lucy loved it for she was thinking I would bring her the difficult fashion and we had this amazing night having fun together.”

One of Gonzalo’s favourite creations is Pigsy, a large full body latex suit that some might find initially grotesque. He has a long, hooked nose and sports a fedora and suspenders.

“My key work as a performer is empathy,” says Gonzalo. “Pigsy is a disgusting looking character with a big heart.

“I think Pigsy can teach important lessons. For example, immigrants. Immigrants come from different places, they have different culture, different manners, but they are us. They are human. I’m working on this with Pigsy. The kids in the beginning find him very scary but soon they realise he is just shy.”

Pigsy has been featured at festivals such as Moomba and stars in the puppet show, Life is a Carousel.

Gonzalo often performs as Pigsy with his friend and frequent collaborator Lachlan Plain. He performs and helped make Pigsy’s partner Nanny the goat.

“Gonzalo is inspirational,” says Lachlan. “In our work we both tap into this surrealist conscious space.”

“I’ve been making puppets and things all my adult life. Gonzalo and I share a similar aesthetic and we get along on a personal level. So, it made a lot of sense to work together.”

Gonzalo’s distaste for new technologies extends to his parenting. His two children do not own any video games or tablet devices.

“I think because I say no they are more obsessive,” says Gonzalo. “But they have time to feel bored. I think boring these days is something good. Because when they are bored they make new things, they start to play with their hands and they grab toys and they make their own stories.”

Gonzalo considers Magic Lantern a result of his and Lucy’s art rather than a business. He finds it difficult to imagine a life where he doesn’t pursue his passions. His brow lowers and he becomes very serious. He leans forward out of the dim light and into the shadows.

“My family is very conservative. My family is all about business, making money to survive. They live in Argentina and life there is not easy. I remember telling my family I wanted to be an artist. My grandfather told me ‘you are crazy. You will be suffering all your life with no money.’ He didn’t understand. But I don’t understand people who just work in an office and make money. How do they kill their evil? Some people go to therapy. I prefer to express my miseries through art.”