magic?

There seems to have been a lot of magic in the air for art over the past few years.

I just got back from Europe, mainly to visit the UK with its annual art fair smörgåsbord, Frieze and Zoo. On my way home I stayed for a week in Switzerland (thank you to Marianne for the room) where I was able to catch the impressive SHIFT Festival, which took place in Basel last weekend.

SHIFT is billed as the “Electronic Arts Festival,” and my first experience of it was last year in Beijing where they organised a mini-festival at the Yugong Yishan club.

This year’s Festival theme caught my attention because it reminded me of something which has been annoying my contemporary art peripheral vision over the past few years, being as it was “Magic. Tech-Evocations and Assumptions of Paranormal Realities.” I’ve noticed a growing interest in all things “magic” in contemporary art. A small selection of examples: there have been many shows showing work dealing with or constructing alternative realities based on “magical” appropriations of historical styles and/or events. Just before I left for China I saw a solo show at Wilkinson Gallery (their site is blocked here in China so I can’t get the details just yet), through groups shows such as ”Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art” (one of whose 4 sections was titled “Magic and Belief”). There is also the “mythopoetic fictions” of Plastique Fantastique, and the shamanism and animism of Marcus Coates.

In China, the history of what constitutes magic is somewhat different, but Western ideas of stage magic are still popular here. The performance on CCTV’s 2009 Spring Festival Gala of Taiwanese close-up magician Louis Liu (刘谦) led to an incredible popularisation of magic. TV shows about all kinds of magic have become immensely popular and Louis himself has become a household name. Perhaps we can look forward to seeing Chinese contemporary artists taking the bait and start to address this development of society through their work?

8 thoughts on “magic?

  1. Just to draw a few more threads into this, how about the idea of paradigm-shifting radical politics as a form of art-world magic derived from media theory (The Center for Tactical Magic: http://www.tacticalmagic.org/)?

    Or it may be necessary to read all of this in light of a theoreticization of "magic" as rigorous concept potentially related to codework and science studies (Alan Sondheim's Notes on the Aetiology and Phenomenology of Magic: http://www.netbehaviour.org/pipermail/netbehaviou

    And, for a specifically Chinese look at magic, there's Adrian Wong's exorcism series: http://adrianwong.info/10.html or http://adrianwong.info/14.html.

    • Thanks for those links, Robin. The Center for Tactical Magic were also showing at SHIFT Festival, so it's apposite that you should have mentioned them : http://www.shiftfestival.ch/en/shift-2009/program

      On another strand, thinking about why magic has a hold on us, this from Wired (via Daring Fireball: http://daringfireball.net/linked/2009/10/29/wiredhttp://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_waronsci

      From that article: "The rejection of hard-won knowledge is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people 'know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling.' Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. 'A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,' Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. 'There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.'"

      • Hm, that sounds a bit too distant, anthropological, dispassionate to me. I think Songheim's text above approaches an idea that the conceptual basis of what we call magic parallels the logics of experimentation, art, and even non-methodological science (perhaps cliche, but think of everything from relativity to string theory–or this idea floating around that nature "ripple[s] backward through time" to stop the discovery of the boson particle by the LHC). My point being simply that we are very much in the midst of these things, and magic might act in less obvious ways. And cannot be reduced to the opposite of "truth," as the quote above suggests.

        Coincidentally, noise artist and experimental musician Zhou Risheng posted on his blog today about his research into the ethnomusicology of medically-oriented witches in China: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4b35fc980100fsr5.h… . He doesn't get far into specifics, but if you're interested perhaps this is something we could pursue with him.

  2. You write: " I’ve noticed a growing interest in all things “magic” in contemporary art […] work dealing with or constructing alternative realities"

    Same here. I came to believe that there are a few fairly prosaic motives for this.

    For once, it is increasingly possible to put together artifacts that demand reading as an alternative reality – at times this is their explicit claim to fame ['Second World'?].

    Secondly, (still) novel communication technicalities invited or forced that the practice of (some) arts rediscover their primordial social mechanics (enforcing intellectual property comes to mind, but also expanding market reach and dislocated standards of aesthetic evaluation).

    Put the two together, and you have a good reason to claim the world is changing – and as with any change, alternatives make reality appear tangibly as 'one of many' – and a good excuse to dwell on the sudden collective realization of this.

    [ctd.]

  3. [ctd.]

    I would have not looked for such a 'primordial' explanation if the phenomenon wasn't so large: even design goes into it [see a recent V&A summary of the taste in 'art-design', another at the NY Met dealt with architecture etc., then count how much of Hollywood's bartering with the game world took up old and new mythology.].

    If there were an anthropologist in the house [Hi, there?] I would ask whether the above doesn't remind him of some theory of 'magic' as an expression of social norms, or some such. I almost remember that this is the case.

    One more way to look at it…

    As long as specialists of science and magic no longer insist on burning each other at the stake, I would still find their cohabitation interesting. The present story of 'magic' makes me think that Science is selling its output under the colors of its alleged irrational nemesis. Not the worst irony of the year, so far!

  4. I would have not looked for such a 'primordial' explanation if the phenomenon wasn't so large: even design goes into it [see a recent V&A summary of the taste in 'art-design', another at the NY Met dealt with architecture etc., then count how much of Hollywood's bartering with the game world took up old and new mythology.].

    If there were an anthropologist in the house [Hi, there?] I would ask whether the above doesn't remind him of some theory of 'magic' as an expression of social norms, or some such. I almost remember that this is the case.

    One more way to look at it…

    As long as specialists of science and magic no longer insist on burning each other at the stake, I would still find their cohabitation interesting. The present story of 'magic' makes me think that Science is selling its output under the colors of its alleged irrational nemesis. Not the worst irony of the year, so far!