Museum World Premiere for Art Basel Season Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art

Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art

Opens to the General Public on November 18 through May 12

As South Florida’s museums from Palm Beach to Miami present their highly anticipated offerings for Art Basel Season, the Boca Raton Museum of Art is especially poised to lead the pack with a one-two-punch this year: the world premiere of the Teiger Award-winning exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art, and the sleek new high-speed rail station just blocks from the Museum’s front door, luring visitors with a quick escape off the beaten path from the art fairs.

The new group show was originated by Kathleen Goncharov, the Museum’s Senior Curator, and features 30 contemporary artists.

This is the only exhibition in South Florida (and in the entire Southeast U.S.) to win the prestigious Teiger Foundation 2023 Grant Award for Curator-Led Projects – among only 13 museum shows selected nationwide in the Single Exhibition category, recognizing boundary-pushing curatorial work.

The works in this exhibition crack through the looking glass of illusion and beliefs. While performative magic is certainly celebrated here, many of these artists are acclaimed for tackling the thorny issues of disinformation, hoaxes, cults, conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and the rise of deceptive artificial technologies in our culture.

When exposed, these deepfakes often reveal a greater truth.

According to the Teiger Foundation site, the competition “Acknowledges the uncertainty, fear, and loss in our time of enormous change and supports innovative curatorial work committed to experimentation and creativity in exhibitions, championing curators who engage in the pressing conversations of our time. Curators are thinkers and leaders who play multiple, changing roles in their communities.”

The exhibition is anchored by an entire gallery of phantasmagorical installations by the globally acclaimed artist Tony Oursler, celebrated for asking the pressing question: what happens when the occult is confronted by its mirror image of technology? 

Among the 30 artists are: Urs Fischer, Alfredo Jaar, Jim Shaw, Sarah Charlesworth, Glenn Kaino, Christian Jankowski, Kristin Lucas, Jane Hammond, Gavin Turk, Michael Ray Charles, Faisal Abdu’Allah, Mark Thomas Gibson, Robin Tewes, Jeanette Andrews, Stephen Berkman, Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), Jacob Hicks, and The Yes Men.

This timely exploration pulls back the curtain on modern-day deceptions, often perpetrated for political or financial gain – before our very eyes.

Today’s hoaxes, and the blatant lies posted on social media, are often fabricated with new technology yet have earlier precedents in America’s history.

The exhibition’s temporal twist juxtaposes parallels between our current struggles and the same peculiar fascinations with magical thinking during the late 1800s and early 1900s – when the deadly flu pandemic and World War I created an epidemic of fake mediums, seances, and the golden age of stage magic.

Fast-forward to today, and these artists investigate how the trauma of our own pandemic, climate change, political extremism, violence, and the disruption of societal norms are spurring belief and fascination with the paranormal.

An explosive increase in supernatural characters in popular culture, and dangerous hoaxes that are proving difficult to discredit, are rampant again now.

“Our city is honored by this national acclaim, and that this museum exhibition is the only one in the entire Southeastern U.S. selected by the Teiger Foundation 2023 Grant Award for Curator-Led Projects in the single exhibition category,” says Scott Singer, the Mayor of Boca Raton. “We are proud of the stellar team at the Boca Raton Museum of Art for shining the national spotlight on South Florida’s museum scene.”

“The caliber of the contemporary artists in this exhibition is earning major attention for the new season at the Boca Raton Museum of Art,” says Irvin Lippman, the Executive Director of the Museum.

“The correlation between magic and artmaking has always loomed large, and this exhibition takes this idea one step further, revealing strong connections between today and earlier periods in history when crises led to magical thinking. Art itself is a process of alchemy, transforming the physical medium into illusions of beauty, messages that have the power to both inspire and manipulate audiences,” adds Lippman.

Cracks through the looking glass of illusion and beliefs.

The largest gallery in the exhibition is transformed by Tony Oursler into an otherworldly landscape titled Creature Features

The Museum has commissioned several new installations by Oursler, exploring what the artist calls the “delicate balance between creativity, mysticism and scientific ingenuity.” Based on American folklore, legends, and hoaxes likened to today’s urban myths, viewers will walk into a dream world where the artist’s collection of the unbelievable comes to life.

Tony Oursler is one of the world’s foremost pioneers of video art, working with moving images, installation, and projection.

His inspirations include conspiracy, mysticism, narrative evolution, and facial recognition technologies. Viewers are often disoriented and disarmed upon entering his installations.

Oursler’s video art is celebrated for transcending traditional screens, TV monitors and surfaces. His work jumps out at viewers via visual experimentation, described by his gallerists as harking back to camera obscura and psychedelia – through the surreal environments, he creates with bots and intimate digital effigies, optical devices, sculptures, and ethereal talking automatons.

Central to Oursler’s work is his endless fascination with how technology impacts humanity. For several decades, the artist has amassed a vast archive of more than 3,000 historical materials pertaining to the paranormal fringes, pseudo-science that connects to cults, and the intersection of science and the occult.

Central to Oursler’s work is his endless fascination with how technology impacts humanity. For several decades, the artist has amassed a vast archive of more than 3,000 historical materials pertaining to the paranormal fringes, pseudo-science that connects to cults, and the intersection of science and the occult.

Oursler’s father founded the magazine Angels on Earth, about spiritual encounters. The artist’s spirit world fascination also includes his admiration for mediums and mystics who never charged for their services, falling outside the realm of financial fraud.

In 2000, Oursler was awarded the U.S. Art Critics Association ICA New Media Award. Oursler has been selected for solo exhibitions throughout the United States and is currently one of America’s most internationally exhibited artists (with solo shows in more than 25 countries).

Imponderable, Oursler’s cinematic 5-D experience, has only been exhibited at MoMA in New York and was created using Pepper’s Ghost, a mirror illusion technique first used in the 1800s in theatrical ghost plays.

Other installations in Oursler’s Creature Features landscape include Fairy (a fantasy projection of a performance by Katiana Rangel); Cardiff Giant (Oursler’s never-before-seen life-size recreation of one of the most famous archaeological hoaxes in American history); Flatwoods Monster (a re-living of the 1952 legendary UFO extraterrestrial folklore encounter); Alice Cooper Head (inspired by The Amazing Randi’s infamous creations for Alice Cooper’s concert tour in the 1970s); Crystals (created in part with artificial intelligence, exploring the digital divine, 5-D technology, near-death experiences, and hallucinogenic states); Charles Doyle Fairy Painting (based on his fantastical paintings of Victorian-era fairies and other fantasy themes); and Merma (described as “beautiful in a horrifying way”).

There are parallels between our current struggles and the same peculiar fascinations with magical thinking during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The trauma of our own pandemic, climate change, political extremism, and violence are spurring belief and fascination with the paranormal.

Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund’s installation In Event of Moon Disaster was made using sophisticated deepfake technology. In 1969 most of the world celebrated the Apollo 11 crew’s first successful moon landing, the exceptions being conspiracy theorists claiming it was all staged. In this work, Panetta and Burgund ask: what would have happened if the mission had gone wrong?

Their Moon Disaster installation reimagines this seminal event to illustrate the possibilities of deep-fake technologies. In this alternative history, visitors will time-travel to a Florida living room where Richard Nixon appears on a television set to announce the tragedy.

“We hope our work will spark critical awareness among the public. We want them to be alert to what is possible with today’s technology, to explore their own susceptibility, and to be ready to question what they see and hear as we enter a future fraught with challenges over the question of truth,” said Francesca Panetta.

The spirit of the beloved magician, author, and actor, Ricky Jay is also prominent in this exhibition. He was famous for tricks in which he threw playing cards and was able to pierce a watermelon with a playing card from 160 feet.

The artist Glenn Kaino tips his hat to Ricky Jay by creating a large-scale wall portrait of Ricky Jay by throwing cards that will puncture and adhere to the museum wall, forming the shape of the famous magician’s face.

This throwing cards trick is one of Ricky Jay’s stage mysteries, and can only be installed at museums by special preparators with no other witnesses around, to avoid revealing the late magician’s secrets.

The celebrated artists/activists duo known as The Yes Men have been exposing corporate malfeasance since the early 1990s, by convincingly impersonating government officials, corporate officers, and salesmen at real-life events.

In addition to videos of the pair’s many hoaxes, their installation features the inflatable Survivaball, an imagined “new Halliburton product” The Yes Men presented at an insurance conference about catastrophic loss, tricking the attendees of the conference into believing it was all real.

Two timely experiences will confront museumgoers in this exhibition: one is an artwork by Jacob Hicks utilizing ChatGPT Artificial Intelligence, and the other is a video about deepfakes edited by the Museum team.

The new artwork by Hicks allows viewers to ask questions to a virtual magician and receive answers generated by the ChatGPT A.I. Jacob Hicks trained the ChatGPT A.I. to imagine itself as an ancient entity capable of telling the future, to be aware that it is an art project, and to be aware that Hicks wants it to present as a false persona.

The ChatGPT A.I. is trained to imagine itself as an ancient entity capable of telling the future, to be aware that it is an art project, and to present itself as a false persona.

For the deepfakes video encounter, the Museum team will regularly update a video screen titled DEEPFAKE-O-RAMA with the latest deepfakes in the political news cycle during the run of the exhibition.

The Museum commissioned the artist Jeanette Andrews (also a professional magician) to create a new interactive work titled magi.cia.n inspired by the recently declassified CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, written by two professional magicians.

She created a “clean room” in the museum – an enclosed, transparent box with two holes equipped with gloves used by the viewer to flip through a blank journal that visually transforms into a magic book and then into a spy craft technical manual before one’s very eyes.

The installation, surrounded by black curtains, also includes a video in which Andrews oscillates between her intricate sleight-of-hand as a stage magician, and then, into a CIA agent that uses the same skills for espionage in the real world. Both of her parallel realms rely on learning secret information, rehearsing until she gets it just right, and split-second timing.

(Left): Duppy Conqueror II, by Faisal Abdu’Allah, the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art. Jacquard tapestry (2021).  Courtesy of Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA. (Right): The Illusionist, by Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.). Acrylic, colored pencil, ink, pastel, handmade paper, feathers, quills and collage on paper ( 2021).

Also featured is a major video artwork by Christian Jankowski titled Magic Numbers ruminating on the parallels between magic tricks and the world of finance, and the very real power of illusion; Lindsey White’s leg of the famous illusionist Harry Blackstone suspended from the ceiling; Faisal Abdu’Allah’s Duppy Conqueror II, an Afro-Caribbean conjuror spirit; Gavin Turk’s video recreation of the infamous 18th-century Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton; the late Sarah Charlesworth’s entire Natural Magic suite of eleven large color photographs; a self-portrait by Alfredo Jaar dressed up as a magician; and the fantastical photographs by Stephen Berkman, where he resurrects a vanished world of imaginary characters using period photographic lenses from the 1800s and an archaic glass plate process.

The Amazing Randi

The exhibition also features an homage to one of the most notorious investigators of the paranormal, James Randi (a.k.a. The Amazing Randi, 1928-2020).

Randi lived near the Boca Raton Museum with his husband and life partner of 34 years, the artist Jose Alvarez D.O.P.A. 

Randi was known for sponsoring the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, offering one million dollars to anyone who could prove a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. More than a thousand people applied to this challenge between 1964 and 2015, but none were successful.

Randi originally defined himself as a conjuror and began his career as a professional stage magician and escape artist in 1946.

In later years, he preferred to call himself a skeptical educator and was a MacArthur Fellow “Genius Grant” winner. He maintained that magicians are honest liars because the audience is in on the deception.

The section in the Smoke and Mirrors exhibition honoring the life of The Amazing Randi includes ephemera from his storied career, including his numerous television appearances on NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and never-before-seen curiosities from Randi’s life-long collection of arcana, including his tour with the wildly theatrical 1970s rock star Alice Cooper. Two of Jose Alvarez D.O.P.A.’s magic-related paintings are featured in the exhibition.


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