Feet bolted in stocks, he is slowly lowered upside-down into a chamber filled with water. Two minutes. His body writhes back and forth as he scrambles to escape. The orchestra lifts into an eerily calm rendition of “Asleep in the Deep.” Blood rushes to the brain and lungs begin to run out of oxygen. Three seconds. Ten seconds. Harry Houdini emerges from the tank, completely unscathed, as audible exhales and wild applause echo up from the audience.
The exhibition “Houdini: Art and Magic,” which opened at he Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on October 2nd, captures the brain-twisting mystery and theatricality of a Houdini performance. The show consists of 26 contemporary artworks contextualized with 160+ artifacts from Houdini’s life, including posters, photographs, props, and film footage.
Watching an act on film, reading a headline, and seeing photographs of Houdini shackled in handcuffs, the viewer stands face to face with the magician, then witnesses how he ignites the inspirations of other artists.
In “Houdini (Upside Down),” 2007 Whitney Bedford paints Houdini – in black pants and a white shirt leaking yellow paint – hanging limply by his ankles. Arranged in an upside down cross, the figure asserts its haunting power in the composition. Bedford also creates her own disappearing act by using ink and oil on unprimed paper, so the lifeless form will eventually vanish from the canvas.
Ikuo Nakamura, too, performs a vanishing act in her sculpture, “Materialization,” 2009. Hologram electric green hands, clenched in desperation, attempt to break free from a metal milk jug, one of Houdini’s famed tricks. As the viewer walks around the jug, the hands alternatingly disappear and reappear depending on the angle. “Upside-down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913,” 2004 by Tim Lee is a self-portrait of the photographer roped to a chair reading a book by earthwork artist Robert Smithson. Upon a closer second look, the viewer will notice a strain in Lee’s mouth and eyes, and suddenly discover the illusion: Lee is actually hanging upside down. Both Lee and Nakamura recreate the tension-filled wonder an audience member would have experienced at a Houdini show.
The exhibit illustrates the constant creative interchange between artists – performing artist and painter, photographer, sculptor. Houdini’s preoccupation with fantasy, illusion, and metamorphosis continues to provide powerful inspiration to artists of all media and perspectives. On Halloween, the 85th anniversary of Houdini’s death, the world remains in awe of this icon of magic and mystery.