“My goal has always been to use magic as an artistic tool to create moments of constructed amazement to then shed light on truly amazing things.” Learn how Jeanette combines the worlds of Magic + Art, plus more in the below interview with independent curator Bella Anastasio.
Also this week, join Jeanette on Instagram Live for her first Meet-the-Artist Q&A, Thursday, July 16 and her second Coffee Chat, a conversation with curator Sara Raza, Friday, July 17. Neither event requires registration. Just follow @ahml on Instagram to watch - and bring your questions to both events!
Jeanette Andrews: On Magic in the Art World
Interviewed by Bella Anastasio
Bella Anastasio is an independent curator living in Queens, New York. She is currently working towards her M.A. in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts. Anastasio has developed a curatorial practice that allows her to work closely alongside artists to research and evolve their ideas. Anastasio co-curated an exhibition at Burlington’s Fleming Museum and seeks to engage audiences from beyond the art world in the discourse surrounding contemporary art. Additionally, she is Jeanette Andrews’ remote studio assistant/intern for the summer of 2020.
BA: What are some of the distinctions between your practice of magic as an artist and the practice of magicians who are more strictly performers for entertainment?
JA: I try to do deep dives into both what is at the core of individual pieces of magic and also the surrounding narrative of what that piece of magic is about. For example, I’ll use a piece I did for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s 50th anniversary. It was, in a very watered down nutshell, essentially a really big piece of cloth that two members the audience cut in half, tie the pieces together, and then it is instantly fully restored. So at its core, we within magic categorize this as a cut and restored effect. When you look ‘cut and restored’ as a concept, what is at the core of that? What is relevant in that concept? What are things that are implied by destruction and regeneration? This is such a massive archetypal theme. I love to research the history, science, psychology, sociology of the core thematic elements that are expressed in magic effects. It then prompts me to think about what particular interesting aspects of the larger idea I want to share with people. I also try to take a really purposeful approach to aesthetics. I try to be very mindful of a lot of the stereotypical imagery associated with magic and magicians. I'm trying to make references to that, but then also kind of reconstruct that in ways that I feel are really contemporary and kind of modulating the expected with the unexpected.
You have said before that you have been practicing magic since you were very young, so I’m curious at what point you decided to practice magic as an artist, and what originally inspired you to do so?
Yes, I started performing magic when I was four, and I did my first performance for my preschool class. I was always performing this in a theatrical, entertainment-based context. The older I got I found myself being really drawn to trying to be more creative with what I was doing, which in those early days, really took the route of theatre because that was the only sort of example I had to be creative in a stage or performance. When I was about 12, I met my friend and mentor, Arthur Trace who is a brilliant magician out in Los Angeles. We were performing in a show, and just out of kindness he started talking to me, and made a passing comment that “you can use magic to express other ideas”. I thought that was fascinating, and it really opened my eyes. Then in high school I got really interested in philosophy, and in aesthetics in particular. I saw that a lot of the questions that philosophers were exploring in terms of visual aesthetics were the same questions that were lying at the heart of magic, and the same questions that I had. So I thought, “Wait a minute, people are exploring these ideas through artistic and philosophical lenses, it feels very natural to me to shift magic to examine these questions through an artistic lens as well.”
Does your practice change at all depending on the setting where you’re performing? That is to say, are you thinking any differently about your performances at corporate events vs performances in art spaces like a museum?
Completely. The spaces that I perform in dictates the people that will be there, and that’s always at the forefront in my mind; who is going to be watching this, and what are they bringing to the table? Because magic, at its core, can only exist in the mind of whomever is watching. I’ll compare three different types of spaces.
If I know that I'm performing at a corporate dinner, that is a very specific context where people’s minds in that moment are geared up for information. Or perhaps they are there more to have fun, or to talk with people within their community. So I’ll prepare by thinking about things like: ways to bolster this sense of community that already exists, how to transform concepts that people are already familiar with in the business world in more creative ways, etc.
If I’m performing at an educational or historical site, I know that people are expressly here to learn and re-discover or have an experience with the past. That's when I'll try to dive into the history of my work and then also the history of the space that we’re in. I enjoy researching the cultural landscapes surrounding the space and being able to extrapolate information that will be relevant to viewers.
In an art museum, I know people are coming into that space often explicitly to think, to have their ideas challenged, and to be open to new experience. So that's where I can definitely take more license in terms of people’s expectations and construct more adventurous work.
What are the biggest questions you are trying to answer or investigate through your practice as an artist? In other words, what are your driving artistic goals?
For me, I think there's one big one, I find the word an insanely amazing place. The fact is, right now there is an infinite number of processes that are making this possible. It’s mind boggling when you stop to think about any single one of them. For example, I am in a multi-story building right now. A structure that was able to be designed that can support the weight of all these people. I can be sitting in this chair and the chair is exerting force against my body. Let alone the fact that we can hear each other's words, that are being produced by our vocal chords, etc. I find it so deeply incredible. We know this, and we understand this, but don’t always pay attention to it. My goal has always been to use magic as an artistic tool to create moments of constructed amazement to then shed light on truly amazing things.
When I think in terms of other questions, I feel like, for me, anything to do with mystery is fascinating, I think the idea of the unknown and uncertainty is something I personally struggle with immensely, probably for more than most people. I think looking at how we as humans navigate not knowing things is a really interesting concept, especially in our hyperconnected, instant gratification world.
How do you feel visual aesthetics play a role in your art practice?
I try to be extremely conscientious in my aesthetic choices because I know there is so much stereotypical imagery associated with magicians. (Which has a fascinating and bizarre history.) Many aesthetic choices that I make are almost always functional as well. I get asked more often than I would like about my choice in clothing, which is black and very minimalist . You shouldn't notice it. I wear things that I think are well styled, but my body is literally a backdrop for whatever I’m doing, because as a performer I'm usually standing and holding objects in front of myself. If those objects are small, then I want those objects to be a light color and in front of an all black background so they’re more visible. Within clothing here is another funny stereotype of magicians, which is people asking what I’ve got up my sleeve. For years I’ve always worn short sleeves or sleeves rolled up, and people always comment on it. Every simple thing like that has a psychological function. I've always used a lot of glassware and that has steadily been increasing. I’ve been transitioning things from other materials and moving them to materials that are transparent or sheer, in terms of optics, weight, a psychological sheerness, etc. Within magic, there's this idea of cutting off the mind from places to go for potential solutions. So, if you're looking at an object that you can very clearly see through, the mind moves on. A lot of times people think that the tables that magicians use have something going on with them, so I had a table made that’s clear acrylic, so it’s like “here’s my table, it’s totally clear,” (and it’s just a beautiful table honestly!). I feel like things like that, to me, serve numerous functions in terms of the psychology aspect of it, the aesthetic aspect of it, and then also the overall conceptual aspect of what I'm trying to convey.
One thing that I've been big on in my work in recent years is the use of transparency. I've been really interested in this in the contexts of education, psychology and aesthetics. On the educational aspect of it, I’ve been really interested in trying to bring more transparency to my own process and sharing that with the public. Obviously I can’t share the technical workings behind any of what I do, but I’ve been trying to make the public more aware of some of the behind the scenes that I can ethically share. I have been eating, sleeping and breathing this every day of my life for over 25 years, and I feel like I am barely beginning to scratch the surface of understanding any of it. Magic is deeply complex and nuanced and that's a conversation that's missing in the cultural understanding of magic. In the last 50 years or so we have seen the rise of “easy to do” type of magic. This is necessary, as an entry point into the field. However, because professional magic secrets must be kept secret, the general cultural references often end with the easy-to-learn idea. I am constantly trying to understand the root causes of what makes magic work and what makes it good, because those are different things, and share some of these ideas. Psychologically I try to boil and strip down to it’s essence so there's nothing superfluous. I like to think about the idea of if one could really do magic what would that look like? This then usually also demands a visual response. If you really could do magic, you wouldn't need all kinds of extra paraphernalia. It's a balance of making things compelling to watch but also with extreme clarity.
After a performance you did at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), an audience member pointed out a connection between the themes of illusion and perception that you address with your work, and more traditional art history. She pointed out the ways in which visual artists like painters and sculptors relied on illusion and tricks of perception to convincingly represent that world. I’m curious if you’ve thought any more about this relationship?
With the Renaissance, when we look at things from a more formalized perspective, so much of this is training the eye to see. Throughout art history, we’ve seen the evolution of this idea of learning to look, what that means. This idea has evolved both in how people understand that in a biological sense and then also how that is at play in a social and cultural sense. I think obviously painters, photographers, or people who are image creators are the masters in understanding the visual process in these creative ways. I think magicians have been extremely interested in a deep understanding of this sort of learned way of seeing. I am interested in how vision can be directed, changed, and shaped, and adapted. I have found a lot of inspiration from looking at contemporary sculptors and how they have explored ideas on learning to see. Within sculpture there is an added time/space element to it in terms of having a 3-D object. I see a lot of connections between that and magic. There are a lot of artistic movements that have run parallel to magic in terms of ideology, Surrealism aspects of Dada, etc. Art encourages viewers to engage in a new way of looking and seeing that has been really influential for me.
For further reading please visit my Magic + Art book list and other recommended selections from the AHML collection, as well as:
Western Philosophy: An Anthology by John Cottingham
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016 by Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, et al.
The World of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Performa 09: Back to Futurism by RoseLee Goldberg
The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 - 1989 by Vivien Greene , Harry Harootunian, et al.
Studio Olafur Eliasson. An Encyclopedia by TASCHEN
Experience: Culture, Cognition, and the Common Sense (The MIT Press) by Caroline A. Jones, David Mather, et al.
Look for the above at your favorite independent bookseller. I recommend Semicolon, A Black Woman-Owned Bookstore and Gallery Space in Chicago.