Complete with a straitjacket and live pigeons, Harry Houdini has made an entrance at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Houdini: Art and Magic, organized by The Jewish Museum in New York, traces Houdini’s development from a little-known magician and circus performer to a world famous escape artist and popular star on film and stage. This is the first large exhibit focusing on Houdini’s life and lasting impact, according to MMoCA’s website.
The exhibit is tangible and interactive, including many historic artifacts and 23 works by artists from the 1970s to present day. With historic photographs of Houdini, sculpture, posters from his shows, Art Nouveau-era posters, historic and modern film, holograms, and an installment complete with live pigeons, the exhibit demonstrates Houdini’s cultural influence in the past and present. Magic apparatuses, such as a straitjacket, handcuffs and a packing trunk are featured as well.
The exhibit is immediately gripping. Viewers are welcomed into the large room with gray-blue walls and yellow text introducing the exhibit. All the rooms of the exhibit are open, allowing viewers to look ahead to the various media relating to different aspects of Houdini’s life or influence ahead.
A visitor to the exhibit is drawn into the story of Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, one of the most incredible magicians and escape artists of the 20th century. Propelled into popularity by the mass media, Houdini’s performances were theatrical and terrifying. His outdoor performances attracted unheard of numbers as his popularity spread worldwide.
According to placards placed around the installations, Houdini gained fame from feats that required immense amounts of strength and endurance, such as the straitjacket escape, which became Houdini’s most chronicled performance in 1920. The exhibit includes archival footage of this feat — footage that Houdini himself hired cameramen to record.
The exhibit includes a life-size black-and-white photo of the escape that makes viewers feel as though they are on the street, joining the back of the crowd in Boston. It is not initially clear where Houdini is. Visitors have to follow the immense crowd’s gaze to spot a small blur in the right corner: Houdini in action attempting to get out of the straitjacket while suspended above the street.
Another of Houdini’s tricks included swallowing needles and thread, and extracting them from his mouth all threaded. Jane Hammond, in an untitled oil painting from 1990, documents Houdini doing so on a tightrope in a black suit and bow tie. In front of a vivid red background and full moon, Houdini is painted pulling a string out of his mouth, surrounded by women holding needles. Next to this painting are needles and thread from 1899 — the exact type Houdini would have used in this trick.
Another photograph in the exhibit is by contemporary artist Vik Muniz, titled “Houdini, Pantheon (from Pictures of Ink)”. It is a black, white and navy blue photograph of Houdini’s face slightly obscured by his hand, and has the look of a pointillism painting.
Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, according to the MMoCA website. Fittingly, the exhibit holds Matthew Barney’s Ehrich Weiss suite, an installment representing Houdini’s grave, complete with Kite Jacobin pigeons — it wouldn’t be true Houdini without the elements of shock and surprise.
The holistic demonstration of Houdini’s life, works and lasting influence ends with guests exiting under a black velvet curtain through a small passage with a timeline of Houdini’s life on one side, and a video on the other. The curtain was reminiscent of a magic show, and so too was the captivating exhibit.
Houdini: Art and Magic will be in the MMoCA’s main galleries from Feb. 11 through May 13. This is the only Midwestern venue for the exhibition.