Grand Canyon Journal 3: The Painter of Video to Life

Our previous guest blogger, Karthik Pandian, continues his Grand Canyon journal in the following post. — Ed.

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Has there ever been such an elegant dramatization of the power of illusion as David Copperfield’s “The Painter”? Art and magic share the stage (which strangely recalls both David Letterman’s set and Monica’s apartment from Friends) in a trick that only gently conflates the initial discomfort of Harold and Maude with Copperfield’s problems with the law. This trick has surprisingly old-fashioned art direction compared to the techno-industrial fetishism we’ve come to expect from Copperfield. Perhaps this is to suggest that art is the dustier of the two illusory practices, in need of far more maintenance by doddering old maids. Indeed, in the first few moments of the video, Copperfield’s artist puts down the paintbrush in favor of the magician’s rose. While “The Painter” is certainly not his most spectacular trick, it thematizes an emerging struggle between art and magic that is surprisingly relevant to the experience of post-thematic Las Vegas today and does so through a romantic vision of geriatric love without recourse to even a single bathtub!

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“Video to Life” provides more evidence to support our hypothesis that members of the Italian architecture collective Superstudio art-directed Copperfield’s performances after they disbanded in 1978. The recurrence of the motorcycle in his oeuvre (it’s one of his go-to entrance and exit strategies) also warmly reminds us that we got here not only from the Grand Canyon on David Copperfield’s magic carpet, but also Ed Harris’s trusty steed. But what “Video to Life” also brilliantly dramatizes is how video as conjured by television, and not painting or even performance, is the central medium of Copperfield’s work and of the countless magicians that follow in his footsteps to take advantage of this already deeply illusionistic medium. However, rather than play with the formal codes, framing and documentary pretentions of television in the age of the flatscreen á la David Blaine (who is the verité-dedicated Jean Rouch of illusion) and Criss Angel (the more gothic Grunewald-ian who gets extra points for location scouting and the use of available light), Copperfield is more like the Nam June Paik of magic, preferring to use TV-like objects in his performances. The box in “Video to Life” is in between an inverted rear-projection TV (with the projector on the outside) and a magic hat which Copperfield pulls televisual objects out of. Copperfield works his magic by conducting the beliefs and disbeliefs that are entangled in this strange object. These include our belief in the light projected from a projector and the shadows cast by a body moving before it, our disbelief in the images projected from that projector or any TV, but also our totemic belief in television as a medium that speaks to us and that we have the potential to occupy. Thus, there is another immaterial projection, embodied by the physical projector at the bottom of the frame, that speaks to our desire to enter the image, to get on the motorcycle, to be Copperfield: “David Copperfield.”

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With images of David Copperfield floating over the Grand Canyon floating in my head, I headed to Las Vegas on my way to TGC a few weeks ago to see DC perform live at the MGM Grand. In an uncanny inversion of my experience of the Canyon, I was deeply disappointed by Copperfield’s performance after having seen his videos on YouTube. His tricks (including the one above, which was his entrance at the MGM) not only rely on these TV-like structures, which have since become more elegant backlit shadowboxes, but also seem to rely on the frame of the TV or computer screen itself. Of course, Copperfield is not exactly in his prime anymore. I don’t know if it was exhaustion or his scandalous fall from grace in 2007, but he was bleary-eyed and his flourishes were flaccid at best. The entire show seemed to rely on these shadowbox tricks (which seem less relevant since the demise of the big-box TV), vanity video projections that were time-fillers as much as illusionistic feints and endless repetitions of the name “David Copperfield.” The show could be summed up by the opening two videos that preceded Copperfield’s appearance on the motorcycle. The first, which looped while the audience was getting seated, consisted of a series of laudatory epithets endlessly scrolling across several screens such as, “Magician of the Millennium,” “Only living magician to appear on postage stamps,” or, more succinctly, “European Oscar” (those must be the older, more prestigious Oscars), “Madame Tussaude’s,” and my personal favorite, “Largest amount of money earned by a magician” (it’s not often that someone takes your money and gloats about it so quickly afterwards). We were then treated to an interminable video that painstakingly catalogued every time the name “David Copperfield” was uttered on TV. I don’t know if it was an aggressive attempt to hypnotize us into going to the Bahamas with him, but seeing and hearing his name over and over again come out of the mouths of Jay Leno, Homer Simpson, George from Seinfeld, etc., etc. simply told me that Copperfield would have rather been on television (or in the Bahamas) than in the theater that night. Even as propaganda, these videos can’t compete with the one that “Xtreme” big cat magician Dirk Arthur plays mid-show over at the Tropicana which, in telling us over and over again that he doesn’t hurt any of his animals, kind of makes us suspicious that he just might. Maybe Dirk should figure out how to make animal rights activists disappear.

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Speaking of disappearing rights, how about David Copperfield making Liberty disappear faster than the Patriot Act? But seriously, folks…Isn’t “Vanishing the Statue of Liberty” critique? Doesn’t “Walking through the Great Wall of China” eerily anticipate and embody a kind of creeping economic anxiety? Aren’t these classic works of Copperfield doing what we want contemporary political-conceptual-performance-based art to do? While the downward trajectory of Copperfield’s career may be a sign that the magic is fading in Vegas or that he was always a talented video artist and never a great performer, I say artists could still learn quite a bit from him. Could this be the perfect opportunity for “The Painter” to make a comeback?

David Copperfield and "David Copperfield"

Next week, we will stay in Vegas to explore what it means to make art in the shadow of magic.


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