The shuffling gait of a fit man: performance as wilful ambiguity and deception
In: Staging Illusion: Digital and Cultural Fantasy, 8-9 December 2011, Sussex University, UK.
In The Prestige, his novel about two feuding stage illusionists, author Christopher Priest reveals a secret of the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo. Foo, Priest writes, performed an illusion in which he produced a large bowl of water from under an empty cloth; logically, the only place that the magician could conceal the bowl was beneath his cape, and yet this was clearly impossible for ‘it was obvious to everyone that Ching Ling Foo was physically frail, shuffling painfully through his routine’. In fact Foo had adopted the gait in order to conceal the enigma—that the bowl was indeed hidden beneath his cape, and that the magician himself was a man of great physical strength and fitness. He was therefore condemned always to walk in this fashion, performing or otherwise, solely in order to maintain the deception necessary to execute the trick.
In this paper I examine the concept of the artist-performer as a kind of border prospector, and I suggest that the counter-intuitive inversion of reality represented by Ching Ling Foo’s ‘shuffling gait’ underpins the perverse logics of both magic and art, being emblematic of the ways in which they often conceal and reveal meaning. In Performing Dark Arts Michael Mangan puts forward the case for the magician as someone who is ‘constantly engaged in boundary work: […] he brings us up against the limits of a culture’s beliefs and knowledge of its habitual ways of understanding the world’. For Mangan, the magician is a border prospector par excellence, trading on contemporary beliefs or superstitions in order to test or subvert them. The 19th century French magician Robert-Houdin had transformed the status of the stage illusionist when he declared: ‘A conjuror […] is an actor playing the part of a magician’, and Mangan extrapolates this position towards a more complex definition of acting ; he cites performance theorist Marvin Carlson who (pace Schechner) argued that, while performing, the performer ‘is not herself (because of the operations of illusion), but she is also not not herself (because of the operations of reality). Performer and audience alike operate in a world of double consciousness’.
Employing ideas about play (in particular Alfred Gell’s suggestion that play orients the agent towards a ‘magic standard’), and Victor Turner’s conception of the ‘liminoid’—a ludic zone or in-between state, which permeates not just art, but everyday life—I explore these ideas through the work of artists including Martin Creed, Mark Leckey, and Marcus Coates, as well as magician-performers such as Tommy Cooper and Derren Brown.
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