Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2018
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University The Transported Man East Lansing: Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2017.
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU, April 29–October 22, 2017
The Transported Man, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU, April 29–October 22, 2017 (photograph provided by of Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU)

The Transported Man, curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, posited metaphorically that art is magic. He did not mean that art is supernatural but that the process of making art—as the transfiguration of the common place—is like an act of stage magic. Through its analogy with magic, the show placed a curious spin on such established art-historical notions as illusionism, dematerialization, the ready-made, art as process, and art as participation. The Transported Man echoed the well-founded idea that the contemporary is anchored in the ever-changing intertwinement of the artistic legacies of American and European Minimalism, Land Art, Conceptual art, and Arte povera from the 1960s, as pioneers Piero Manzoni, Robert Barry, and Wolf Vostell appeared alongside new hybrid practices emergent in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

In particular, Christopher Priest’s 1995 neo-Gothic novel The Prestige (turned into a film by Christopher Nolan in 2006) and its trick of “The Transported Man” provided the conceptual framework for this exhibition of about forty international artists. Set in late-nineteenth-century Great Britain, when scientific inventions created wonderment, The Prestige tells the story of a destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, in an interweave of autobiographical recollections. Borden’s “The Transported Man” trick involves the appearance of an identical twin on stage after the first brother falls through a trap door. Angier’s altered version, “The New Transported Man,” is executed with the help of scientist Nikola Tesla. When Angier turns on his electrical machine, the machine creates an uncanny double of himself, to be killed after the act by the showman. The exhibition, then, links art to large-scale theatrical trickery with or without the aid of technology and science.

Borrowing more directly from the novel, Wahler considered art to be a three-part process: an artist-magician appears on stage introducing the illusion (“the pledge”), disappears through a door (“the turn”), and reappears magically through another door (“the prestige”). Art, in this line of thought, is a system of make-believe that shrouds the working process in mystery: only the artist is privy to the “trick” or “secret” on which it is built. To take a point in case, on opening night an alligator crawled through the exhibition space as part of Christian Jankowski’s performance What Could Possibly Go Wrong, 2017. Here, the voice of Wahler sounded live from the belly of the animal. An otherwise serene, meticulously ordered, and beautifully minimalistic show in feel, with a sense of dark humor and existentialist wit, was punctuated that night by a gimmicky relational aesthetics feel. More to the point, Wahler’s wall text foregrounded the twentieth-century legacy of the ready-made art as one reliant on mystery and mythology. This rhetoric casts the artist in the role of the all-knowing artist as trickster who uses everyday objects as “props,” just like a magician. The viewer, in turn, is “curious,” puzzling over the act of making in art the same way as in magic, when “a viewer might wonder what happened when a piece of soap, a mirror, or a shoe reappears as a sculpture,” as Wahler put it. In this line of thought, art is reliant on sensationalism, secrecy, and gimmickry: the viewer as dupe. This implies a qualitative judgment, as the curator stated without reticence, noting that “the wider the gap between what the audience sees and what it is asked to believe, the more efficient and spectacular the trick can be.” Emotive (and not philosophical) astonishment becomes the single measure of art’s merit: the more we are overpowered by surprise (and the more convincing and spectacular the rhetoric that surrounds it), the better the art. Unsettlingly, this equation between art’s merit and the effects of mass entertainment supplants established aesthetic categories of reception (such as that of shock or reflection) with the exhibition value of the commodity spectacle.

What one customarily associates with magic tricks—mirrors, portals, holes, trapdoors, hands, birds, acts of levitation, and the disappearance and reappearance of things and people—are easy-to-follow exhibition themes. The seven carefully crafted rooms in The Transported Man, which spanned both floors of the museum, reiterated these core motifs with a subtle yet crucial change in mood. Magic as theatrical illusion creates wonderment and amusement, but if a trick goes wrong, as the novel demonstrates, death ensues. Below, two rooms are described more closely to explore the two-sided intertwinement of pleasure and horror in the art of magic.

In a room on the right side of the museum’s upper floor, Piero Manzoni’s Base Magica—Scultura Vivente (1961)—a trapezoidal wooden pedestal with the silhouettes of two felt feet glued to its surface—allowed viewers to imagine themselves in place of the absent figure. To the left of the Manzoni sculpture was Adam McEwan’s Shoegazer (2002). Leaning against the wall toward the floor, a long narrow mirror reflected only the visitor’s shoes, in a distorted and muddied image, ironically debasing psychoanalytic theories of the role of the mirror in processes of subject formation to the lower realm of feet. Presented as a historical progenitor to an art of participation as mirror reflection, Marcel Duchamp’s Miroir (1964) hung in the show upstairs. In this work, a common mirror is framed like a precious painting and signed backward. Standing in front of the mirror, the viewer switches into the role of the artist, becoming the subject of the self-portrait by means of projection. Thematizing a dialectics of presence and absence in light of an overcoming of the confines of material reality (as opposed to an act of literal and imaginative projection), one of Robert Gober’s sink holes (Drains, 1990) penetrated deep into the white gallery wall. It neighbored Tony Matelli’s hyperrealistic installation of bronze flowers (Weed [#384], 2016) that grew out of crevices and corners and looked like organic, inverting notions of inside and outside, visible and invisible, real and illusory, nature and culture. At the back of the same space was a set of false cedar door partitions by Oscar Tuazon (Rooms, 2012) that led into Ryan Gander’s Nathaniel Knows (2003), a purpose-built darkroom space with a crumbling corner that revealed a (fake) miniature garden behind the broken plaster wall. In another attempt to break through the white cube as cultural and perceptual construct by incorporating nature, Fernando Ortega’s Untitled (Fly Electrocutor) (2003) hung unobtrusively from the ceiling. It plunged the space into darkness every time it killed a fly with a disorientation effect. His use of an old-fashioned plaster-of-paris technique first employed by archaeologists when preserving bodies of volcanic-ash victims in Pompeii implied the human body in a state of unnatural petrification. Rendered a spectacle of horror with exhibition value, death was tangibly present in this room in uncanny ways.

By contrast, the second room downstairs and to the left emphasized a more lighthearted notion of magic as unbridled astonishment spawned by forces of nature and technology. In a pretense of transcending gravity, one of Roman Signer’s balsa-wood tables (2009) hovered above the floor, connected only with nylon strings and placed above an industrial air vent. Daniel Firman’s Loxodonta (2017)—a lifelike polyurethane, resin, fiberglass cast of an African elephant—dangled on a rope like a performer in a circus show. Hung by its trunk, it exuded an air of precarious balance that bordered on pain and absurdity.   

The general claim behind Wahler’s show was that twentieth-century art, like magic, confuses the boundaries between nature, culture, science, and technology for the sake of the spectacle. The term magic presented a general metaphor for a more intensified viewing response as the viewer entered into a more active relationship with the works of art. Art as magic seeks to modify perceptions of everyday objects and reality, the exhibition stipulated, by lending the banal an air of mystery while simultaneously activating a compulsive desire to know the secret behind the cunning illusion. This returns us to a view of art as appreciation that favors affect over cognitive experience (as the “secret” to art can never be known, unlike in a stage trick). Consequently, the philosophical self-reflection and epistemic thrust of modern art since the ready-made is shrouded in a renewed mythology of creation. Wahler’s curatorial strategy couched a post-Renaissance mode of enlivened interaction in a rhetoric of astonishment: the rapt attention and deep emotion caused by the sight of something extraordinary that mixes surprise and reverence. The exhibition’s reinstatement of an aura for found-object art connects an experiential phenomenon of awe (similar to but unlike that of the sublime) to a complex aesthetic history that warrants more critical attention than the metaphor of art as magic can provide, one which only seems to blur existing aesthetic and historical categorizations and distinctions under too broad and reductive an analogy. To conclude, the premise of this engaging show with excellent works might have been more satisfying to art historians if the source and the target domain of the analogy had been reversed. Instead of an explicit promise to learn something about art, we should have been asked to look at magic through the lens of art.

Nadja Rottner
Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Literature, Philosophy, and the Arts, University of Michigan–Dearborn