When Dorothy peered behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz and saw the nuts and bolts that created the 'Great and Powerful Oz,' all the magic deflated. We understood, like Dorothy, that the wizard was only a man and only capable of so much. Now imagine the scenario running backwards. We will start with a man, Erlich Weiss, and end up with the great Harry Houdini -- and even after learning how the rabbit gets placed in the hat, we will still be in awe.
The exhibition at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, Houdini: Art and Magic, tells the life story of Harry Houdini through his personal ephemera. The theatrically lit space is filled with wall-sized photographs of Houdini performances, show advertisements, video projections, and stage props. On one level the exhibit is the story of a man's transformation from immigrant to magician to film star to national icon. This story in itself is compelling on its own; however, another layer is added to the mix.
The curators have selected 26 contemporary art pieces and integrated them into the biographical show. The arts blend perfectly with Houdini's aged items. Fresh work not only breathes new life into the Houdini exhibit, but it also invites the viewer to question the relationship (as the title explains) between art and magic.
Whitney Bedford, Houdini (Upside Down), 2007, Courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
There are many similarities between art maker and magic maker. Both request the viewer to suspend belief and hand over control to the maker. Both use sleight of hand to create illusions. A life-size photograph by Tim Lee shows the artist bound while reading a book by Robert Smithson. Only upon closer inspection do we realize the photo is taken with the artist suspended upside down. The photograph exists as a magic trick complete with "ta-da!"
Another contemporary piece that is easy to overlook is the paper printout by Allen Ruppersberg. The artist framed an overdue notice for a book checked out of a local library with the title Houdini Escapes. With the aid of Ruppersberg, Houdini lives on to perform one more escape act.
WIkuo Nakamura, Materialization, 2009, Collection of the artist, Brooklyn; milk can courtesy of Cannon's Great Escapes.
Part of Houdini's allure as magician was his use of everyday items that he transformed into magic props. Milk cans and handcuffs are just some of the commonplace items that are transformed into sacred relics -- as if by alchemy. Everything in the show feels sacred, both art objects and historical objects. When walking through the show the line gets blurred as to which is which.
Houdini was the first magician to reveal the inner workings of his tricks by allowing the audience to watch his escapes firsthand. While most illusionists would step behind a curtain only to emerge moments later free of their shackles, Houdini created glass containers for the audience to watch his very human struggle to get free. As his career progressed, Houdini felt the need to outdo himself. He would escape from not one, but two, three, four handcuffs, jump off taller bridges, spend more time underwater, and dangle suspended higher and higher above his audience.
The idea of needing to constantly achieve grander feats is surely one that all artists, perhaps Matthew Barney in particular, can relate to. A minute long portion of Cremaster 2 featuring Norman Mailer as Houdini is looped next to archival footage of the real deal dangling above a black and white crowd. The Barney piece might very well be harder to comprehend than any of Houdini's legerdemain, but it stands as the perfect example of the legacy of Houdini -- a magical figure that contemporary artists love to not only reference but conjure and revive.
Houdini: Art and Magic runs through January 16, 2012 at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum. For tickets and information visit thecjm.org.