Magic Show at QUAD Gallery (NVA, 2009)
The conjuror and the conceptual artist, the con-trick and the act of construction: each shares something deeper than its ‘con’ prefix, a connection that goes beyond linguistic roots to evoke focus and misdirection, suggestion and the act of ‘making visible’, the arts of provocation and end-of-pier entertainment. It’s a range made explicit in Jonathan Allen’s catalogue essay, From Bosch to Blackpool, which begins with Hieronymous Bosch’s portrait of a street conjuror and his gullible audience, painted in 1500, and traces the idea of magic as it mutates across the centuries, from pre-Reformation Saints’ relics and miraculous cures to Victorian spiritualist séances and such present day exponents of theatrical magic as Derren Brown.
As Allen and his co-curator Sally O’Reilly explain, the concepts underlying Western magic split into three distinct streams in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, as occult sciences claimed hidden knowledge of higher levels of reality, various modes of Spiritualism drew on continued public belief in supernatural agency, and theatrical conjuring offered itself as pure entertainment, presenting the impossible while making no claims to do more than deceive its audiences into witnessing acts that apparently defy the laws of nature and science.
While Magic Show touches on elements of all three modes in contemporary art, it’s the theatrical conjuror who proves the most enduring artists’ alter-ego, and the selection of posters advertising such figures as The Great Sorcar, Carl Hermann MD: The Man Who Has Tamed Electricity and George: The Supreme Master of Magic all suggest an aesthetic of self-promotion easily comparable to images of artists surrounded by their works.
The difference between Adelaide Herrmann, posed in elegantly dynamic motion among her magical cabinets with a wand, and Jackson Pollock in his studio among his drip paintings, with brush in hand, seems almost negligible, and it’s a model of self-projection still visible today. In publicity shots of Damien Hirst, to give one current example, the artist is often framed as a kind of alchemist, surrounded by gold vitrines, mysteriously transmuting formaldehyde, spot paintings and cigarette-butts into inexplicable surplus value.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, that contemporary art and conjuring tricks share so many features. During the Renaissance, a painter with the ability to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface, or bring the heavens crashing through the ceiling of a chapel, so close we seem almost able to touch the garments of the Archangels and Saints swirling in the clouds above us, takes on something like the mantle of the early modern sorcerer. There’s also, of course, the general feeling among a broad public that modern art is often a trick, a scam perpetuated by present-day equivalents of snake-oil salesmen and fairground chancers, persuading us to put good money on predicting which of three cups the walnut is under as they’re shuttled dexterously around a green baize table.
Juan Munoz, for one, acknowledges this sense that artists both deceive us and reveal the nature of their deception. His Untitled photographs of 1995 show close-ups of a conjuror’s hand and the tiny drawing-pin glued to his thumb, able to pierce the cards chosen by his audience in order to pretend to a psychic ability that will always know which card was chosen, and draw it effortlessly from the shuffled pack. Bruce Nauman, too, in his double-exposed photograph Failure to Levitate (1966) appears to claim and refute his own magical abilities, his body simultaneously braced expectantly between chairs, and slumped bathetically to the floor.
The films of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva take a similarly absurdist approach, promising spectacles of gravity defiance and objects with minds of their own, but leaving the strings and blatant edits in full view: in Cinematic (or the log enchanter) (2006) we witness a middle aged man approaching a row of tree trunks, and after he has caressed and whispered to them, see the logs levitate against the blue sky in a spectacle that owes as much to David Lynch as Richard Long. The Rolling Stones (2007), meanwhile, parodies both Land Art documentation and films purporting to offer evidence of paranormal phenomena, as a series of boulders are dragged around a desert landscape on strings pulled by unseen hands. The initial mysteries expose themselves, yet the grainy, deadpan 16mm presentations suggest an authenticity that is nowhere present.
At the most basic level, there’s the ability of language to conjure objects and sensations from nothing, a point given its political dimension by Annika Lundgren’s Magic & Politics (2007), a fiction created using PowerPoint slides that tells the story of an orator-magician whose vanished rabbit returns unexpectedly to tell its own side of the story at a press conference. Suzanne Treister’s triptych of large scale watercolours, Alchemy (2007/8) is similarly political, reshaping newspaper front pages and online headlines into the forms of 16th century occult diagrams, each suggesting that the structures of present-day secular media manipulate our understanding of the realities we inhabit just as forcefully, and perhaps just as spuriously, as the magical thinking they have replaced. Media logic is undermined by rumour, smears and omissions, its worldview exposed as something every bit as self-servingly apocalyptic and tenuous as any model of the cosmos produced by long-discredited necromancers, kabbalists and astrologers.
The almost magical ability of language to manipulate reality is also seen in its more creative form, as in Tom Friedman’s empty white plinth, Untitled (A Curse): an eleven inch spherical space eleven inches above a pedestal cursed by a witch (1992). Here, the title does all the work of charging a spot of vacant air with richly potential – though entirely fraudulent – meaning. The end result is both a knowing confirmation of public prejudice about conceptual trickery in contemporary art, but also a mockery of that scepticism, introducing just enough doubt with that witches’ curse and evocation of a precisely-defined, magically haunted space, to recharge the trick at its imaginative source.
Where Friedman’s minimalist plinth uses language to invest its blank form with meaning, Susan Hiller’s Homage To Yves Klein (2008) draws on the iconic status of the French artist’s 1960 photograph A Leap Into the Void, which appeared to catch Klein impossibly suspended between the roof of a building and a deserted Paris street. In Hiller’s homage, a grid of 150 black and white photographs captures endless variations on Klein’s theme, as its dozens of figures seem to hover, fly and levitate, some self-evidently caught jumping in the split second of a shutter speed, others more mysteriously airborne. Where Klein’s photograph fakes a stark documentary realism to secure its effect, Hiller’s images seem more curiously dream-like, echoing the various photographic series showing hysteria among the patients of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris during the 19th century. The atmosphere conjured by her archive suggests that these images might, in other hands, have been presented as proofs of spirit possession and magical ability.
The connections between magic, science and technology offer another heavily populated junction in Magic Show, as the use of methods from theatrical magic’s box of tricks – notably hypnotism – by early psychologists such as Pierre Janet finds itself made over as a miniature sideshow in the cod-operetta of Zoe Beloff’s A Modern Case of Possession (2007), which re-stages two cases from Janet’s casebook inside a toy theatre using 3D video as its medium. The effect is part 1980s New York performance art, part proof of Arthur C Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology seems indistinguishable from magic” and part, as the miniature real-life figures perform their obscene songs of possession and mannered movement routines inside the tiny space, an opportunity to revisit the common childhood feeling that TV might really be a glass theatre populated by small living people. It’s an idea that quickly reasserts itself in the viewer here.
Similar confusions are explored in the self-fulfilling prophecies of the TV psychics featured in Christian Jankowski’s Telemistica (1999), whose upbeat answers to his phone-in queries about the future success of the artwork he’s making comprise the artwork itself, and in the weightless slapstick of Jem Finer and Ansuman Biswas’s Zero Genie (2001), which saw the two artists taking part in cosmonaut training programmes at the former Soviet facility, Star City, dressed in stereotypical Sinbad-style ‘Eastern’ costumes while attempting to pilot Persian carpets through an aircraft’s cargo hold during a zero-gravity flight. As Biswas drifts around cross-legged playing his flute and Finer determinedly steers his unruly carpet around the vast beige fuselage of their plummeting aircraft, the comedy emerges from the absurd contrast between the artists’ exotic garb and prosaic context, while also slyly noting that Arabic numerals formed the foundation of the science that allows these feats of ludicrous technological magic to occur.
Inevitably, given the non-rational nature of the subject, a few of the works here touch on surrealist approaches, notably Alexandra Hopf’s beautifully otherworldly portraits of magicians’ assistants and Colin Guillemet’s series of Polaroids showing a top hat and carrot paired with a range of objects that studiedly avoid the obvious connection,echoing the carrot’s shape with a fish, a parsnip, a piece of wood or a folded parasol in the places where the expected white rabbit might have appeared. As in Magritte’s paintings, Guillemet’s deadpan presentation generates its own free-associative logic, suggesting that the treacherous nature of images and language lies at the heart of our willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to acts of visual illusion. Brian Griffiths’ works create a similar mood, his empty cabinet and seemingly aged banners laying claim to a false unspoken history, while Brian Catling’s Notes & Bones from a Conjuror’s Table (2009) resembles a still from a Jan Švankmajer film or the interior of one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells, a gathering of fake bones, mechanical devices and miscellaneous objects seemingly poised on the verge – or abandoned in the aftermath – of animation.
One relic here with a genuine history in the world of theatrical magic is Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Arachnokitty, a 2001 over-painting of spiders’ eyes onto the kitsch image of a kitten, initially exhibited (and shown here, too) under the nonchalantly transparent pseudonyms of Jackie & Denise Chapwoman. Five years after it had been made and exhibited, the painting became part of a trick performed by Derren Brown in which art critic Adrian Searle was made to stab various concealed paintings, only one of which – Arachnokitty itself – was a genuine work of art. The image having come through the performance ‘magically’ unscathed, the Chapmans then urged Searle to stab the exposed painting anyway, which he did, resulting in the scarred canvas exhibited here, its diagonal slash and punctured surface now granted the status of completing the work.
With its combination of participation in a theatrical magic act and its minor TV celebrity, Arachnokitty is now changed in many more ways than one, its status shifted from that of a fairly standard Chapman brothers painting to a far more complex object – one genuinely transformed by the magic trick performed on it into something that remains an artwork while having mysteriously become something more. In some respects, Arachnokitty closes the exhibition’s circle, bringing us from art as a mode of conjuring to conjuring as an act of conceptual art-making in its own right. What, after all, was Derren Brown’s recent lottery numbers prediction routine, staged live on national television, if not a mass market work of conceptual art, produced in a mainstream entertainment context rather than the usual confines of the gallery system?
What remains in Magic Show after this circle closes are the many parallels drawn between conjuring, illusion and art brought to light by this exhibition. It concludes with the commercial magic tricks and curious artifacts gathered in the Conjuring Consent section of the show, a mini museum of archive materials and magicians’ curiosities with a presence and poetic quality easily comparable to the more deliberately constructed objects of a featured artist like Joan Brossa. There also seems little at this point to distinguish between the deliberately provocative artwork of Ian Saville’s Karl Marx Ventriloquist Prop (1980) and the inadvertently surreal evangelical conjuror’s crucifix of playing cards, or the unlikely magic set produced as a marketing tool by a US pharmaceutical company, for distribution to obstetricians and gynaecologists, with which it shares a cabinet. As Magic Show sets out to demonstrate, the membrane separating deception and art from our perception of the everyday reality we all inhabit is often far more porous than we’d like to imagine and suggests that, sometimes, sleight of hand offers the shortest route to a deeper truth.
Magic Show, curated by Jonathan Allen & Sally O’Reilly, at Quad Gallery, Derby, until 31 Jan 2010.