What the Spectators See
Disappearances in magic shows partake in what philosopher Jason Leddington has termed an aesthetics of the impossible. “The distinctive aim of theatrical magic,” he writes, “is to produce an experience as of an impossible event.” 1 For magicians, learning to craft the spectacle of disappearance is a basic tenet of the art. “The fundamental principles of a sleight of hand trick,” wrote Ellis Stanyon in 1912, “practically any trick or stage illusion for that matter, are Three Only in number, viz., Production, Disappearance and Change.”2 Would-be performers thus spend many hours working on what magicians more commonly term “vanishes,” in-so-doing often developing atypical manual musculature, extraordinary nimbleness, and a capacity for bodily disassociation whereby covert moves can be undertaken in semi-autonomous ways.
This magical mortification often takes place alone in front of rehearsal mirrors, and here another kind of disappearance becomes a risk. “Magicians are good at blinking,” observes illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, describing how whenever practising a particularly hard move, performers often blink or squint: “Anything to help it along or avoid thinking about those messy confusing moments which are necessary to the trick.”3 In other words, conjurers can inadvertently invisibilize clunky technique, with often counterproductive results on stage when audiences turn out not to blink at the same moment.
A spurious graph could be drawn showing an exponential increase in the scale of objects vanished by conjurers over time: pebbles, coins, cards, birdcages, donkeys, cars, elephants and, in an era of mediated magic, architecture, including of course in New York David Copperfield’s disappearance (and reappearance) of the Statue of Liberty. Tellingly, human subjects are also commonly vanished, as Karen Beckman highlights in her important study tracking the disappearance of women’s bodies on the magic stage. “The spectacle of vanishing is politically useful,” Beckman notes, “because it provokes the viewer into a heightened state of visual awareness, arousing anxiety and curiosity about the status of the bodies of others.”4 It is significant too that whole categories of people have been largely missing from magic’s historical timeline, with the reappearance of many new histories of female performers and performers of color timely and long overdue.
How to visually represent the idea of magical disappearance has proved challenging. The artists who produced the glowing chromolithographic posters of magic’s fin de siècle golden era tended less to depict vanishes than draw those themes that provided manifest, and thus renderable action, such as levitations, productions, and magic’s complicated repertoire of theatricalized dismemberment. Occasionally, wisps of curling smoke, or two-frame before/after scenes, indicate that something or someone has just vanished from sight, but in general the complex semiotics of an “absent presence” seem to have been considered less practicable within a graphic genre whose job was to secure ticket sales.
An innovative solution appears on a small publicity card printed in 1899 for Belgium magician Servais Le Roy (1865–1953) aka, at the time, The Phenomenal Palmist. The card comprises a dozen or so photographic vignettes in which the magician’s cropped hands can be seen vanishing playing cards, coins, eggs, billiard balls and a pocket watch. The vignette given most prominence, however, simply shows a black square, and is subtitled “What the Spectators See.” What does this frame denote? The misdirected perceptions of the viewer? Their resulting bewildered psychological state? Or perhaps Le Roy’s own virtuosity which, being so adept, has proved undetectable even to the exacting new art of photography. The fact that no resolution fully lands brings this proto-abstract frame alongside other black squares within modernity’s conversation with itself over representational “zero-points.”
It is hard not to read magical disappearances analogically. One of the reasons that Copperfield’s vanish had the impact that it did—beyond the sheer scale of its ambition—was the suggestion that liberty itself had temporarily absented itself from the horizon of the American project. Magicians themselves can often encourage such associations. Historically, “coin workers” specializing in tricks using money linked their acts to the inherent insubstantiality and unpredictability of capital flows through show titles such as “The Aerial Mint” or “The Miser’s Dream.”
For decades, the legendary British close-up magician Fay Presto has held onlookers captive with deft close-up performances, often featuring the line “…And now the amazing vanishing audience trick…can I borrow twenty bucks?” When, finally, someone trusts her with their money, the bill is rolled up and miraculously pushed straight through a quarter. A recent publicity item—a “Ten Bitcoin Note”—offers “Faycoin” as an alternative investment option, while depicting the magician herself as the “Treasurer of the Bank of Prestodigital Currency.” Is the magician trying to tell us something about crypto that we should already know? Is the stage being set for another great financial disappearance?
- Jason Leddington, ‘The Experience of Magic’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74, no. 3 (2016), pp. 253–264.
- Ellis Stanyon, Magic (June 1912), p. 67.
- Jim Steinmeyer, Device and Illusion (Burbank: Hahne Books, 1991), p. 81.
- Karen Beckman, Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, and Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 190.