David Ben is the artistic director of Magicana and a guest curator of Illusions: The Art of Magic, which opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Feb. 22.
“What’s old is new, and what’s new is old” is an appropriate aphorism for magic – that is, for conjuring.
It was true for the first golden age of magic – roughly 1880-1930, as depicted in the chromolithographs on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, drawn from the Allan Slaight Collection at the McCord Museum in Montreal. And it remains true for what can be described as the current golden age, ushered in by Canadian magician Doug Henning through his television specials in the early 1970s.
As every culture, every society, every country seems to have its own form of magic, magic was and is a global phenomenon. So much so that Charles Carter, for example, carted 31 tonnes of equipment over the course of seven world tours between 1907 and 1936. And the tricks – the effects – magicians perform today are essentially the same because, like notes on a musical scale, there are only eight basic effects. The first four are the ability to make things disappear and reappear; to transform a person or object into something else; to make a person or object pass through or penetrate something; and to suspend the law of gravity. The remaining four effects are based on purported psychic phenomena: divination, clairvoyance, telepathy and telekinesis.
Interestingly, these effects can be used for good or evil. Teleporting a playing card to an unexpected location can generate much mirth – but it can also determine who receives a winning hand in a game of Texas Hold’em. One can divine another’s innermost thoughts on stage in a grand feat of entertainment, or use that same skill to “advise” (more correctly, direct) a bereaved soul in deeply personal areas of love, life and financial affairs. The desire for spiritual advisers was particularly rampant in times of global conflict, such as the First World War. This same need for counsel is just as prevalent today as people seek answers to what magicians remind us in these posters are “the most enduring questions of all time.” READ MORE