“The underlying assumption of magic is the assertion of will as the primary moving force in this universe—the deep conviction that nothing happens unless somebody or some being wills it to happen. To me this has always seemed self-evident. A chair does not move unless someone moves it. Neither does your physical body, which is composed of much the same materials, move unless you will it to move. Walking across the room is a magical operation. From the viewpoint of magic, no death, no illness, no misfortune, accident, war, or riot is accidental. There are no accidents in the world of magic. And will is another word for animate energy.” -William Burroughs in “Rock Magic”
Ben Russell’s solo exhibition Uh-Oh It’s Magic, at threewalls, contemplates the world’s relationship with magic by evoking the specialized language of his primary medium: the magic of film.
In threewalls’s entrance gallery, chroma key green paint cover the walls and floor, creating a transitional space of endless compositing possibilities. Five framed photographic images from the series Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation: Hanoi (2011) are installed within this introductory space. Initiating Russell’s interest in levitation, a theme resonating throughout the entire exhibition, these images show Vietnamese martial artists in action, rejecting the pull of gravity on their bodies. Recontextualized amongst the painted greenscreens, these documentary images appear transcendental, recalling Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void.
On the record player, sitting atop a green pedestal in the middle of this room, Ascension (2011) is a blue chroma key custom-pressed 7-inch record that features a loop of the deep and oscillating first ten seconds of the Cars’ song Magic (1984)—the exhibition’s namesake. During my galley visit, Russell described that the theme of this song, love, is the only type of magic that still exists within Western society. Under these influences visitors are invited to will the impossible as they are surrounded and consumed by the paranormal green color.
Separated from this entry space are three auxiliary blackbox galleries, each with its own installation or film.
Installation view of Ben Russell's An Incantation For Eternity (After Abbie Hoffman) at threewalls. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.
The film and sound installation An Incantation For Eternity (After Abbie Hoffman) (2009) includes five outward-pointing 16mm projectors installed on the floor’s center. Each projector is set with a film loop that is fully opaque, except for one empty frame. As each empty frame is played intermittently, a white light emits from the projector onto the wall, reflects off of a mirror, and is directed through a prism hanging from the ceiling, transforming into a rainbow that flashes on the wall at about eye level. Russell has left an element of chance to the synchronicity of the projections, but if each of the empty frames are activated at the same time five beams of light will meet directly above the projectors in the room's center and create a spectacular hovering pentagram throughout the gallery space. The title of this installation refers to the anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman, who in 1967 organized chanting Vietnam War protesters into a demonstration that attempted to levitate the United States Pentagon and “drive the evil spirits out.” Russell’s use of film to invoke and contemporize the peaceful wish of this historical event is a poetic gesture that calls upon cinema’s ability to actualize the improbable.
Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation: Knossos/Drekkingarhylur (2011) is a 16mm looped film of man’s existence between the heavens and the underworld. This film splices together three scenes: the artist at the Palace of Knossos in Greece reenacting Icarus’s effort to escape from the binds of Minos, a long take of the Drekkingarhylur of Iceland where accused witches were tied into sacks and drowned, and a reflection of the sun off of a pool of water that visually connects the depths of the water to the heights of the sky. As the scenes of flight lift the viewer upward towards the bright sun, the allusion to the depths of the dark pool pulls the viewer down. The scene of the reflected sun on water represents a location both above and below. Filmed off-kilter, the disorientating sensation of the scene itself similarly exists in a marginal space in between the frames of the film. Retracing the link between the worlds above and below, Russell draws out ancient spiritual concepts that play an important role in cultures throughout the world, such as the architecture of Egyptian pyramids and the Mayan temples.
Installation view of Ben Russell's Seven Dogon Magicians at threewalls. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.
Russell’s latest work, Seven Dogon Magicians (2011) is an immersive two-channel HD installation that goes beyond aural and visual stimulation by including heat lamps and desiccants, Montmorillonite clay, that suck the humidity out of the enclosed gallery. Directly below the screen, a strip of the clay is piled on top of a long mirror like a sort of ritualistic offering. This detail draws attention to the physicality of the screen which seems then to levitate.
The video itself depicts two different edits of footage that Russell shot of a contemporary Malian tribe. Presented simultaneously on either side of the hanging screen, viewers are encouraged to alternate attention between the two projections. What at first appears to be simply a delay between the two videos is revealed to represent distinct perspectives that frequently communicate concurrently with each other. Confronting the traditional gaze of ethnographic videos and questioning the fusion of magic within habitual activities —as well as video’s ability to record these subjects at all—the shots here shift between portraiture and documentary, proposing mediated and real spaces. The individuals in this film are not performing but they are conscious of performance; they are not magicians yet there is magic.
Uh-Oh It’s Magic is an excellent display of Russell’s current work. Each of the works are densely layered meaning that this article only begins to explore it. However, Seven Dogon Magicians seems to be the closest that Russell gets to capturing the act of magic itself throughout this exhibition. Yet this capture also appears to defeat itself, as what it really shows magic to be is not a suspension of disbelief or a compositing of the otherworldly within the concrete, but rather the essential intervention of human will into everyday life.
The Artist's Talk As A Disappearing Act (With Live Video Feed) will be conducted in the gallery on March 31 at 7pm.