Posts Tagged ‘Derren Brown’

Orientalism, Magic, and Subversion


Western performance magic has long had an historical fascination with the Middle and Far East. The most ancient magic demonstration is arguably the ‘cups and balls’, which some have argued had its origins in Egypt in 2500 BC. The famous Lo Shu Square, which lies at the heart of modern demonstrations of the ‘mathmagical’ powers of mentalists is based on a pattern of dots seen on the back of a turtle in Ancient China.  Many tales of the magical arts (and the accompanying artefacts) speak of magic making its way West to Europe, where early practitioners brought unique forms of entertainment and wonder to audiences across the continent.

Across Europe, but in particular in the UK, as magic moved from the street to the theatre in the Victorian period, there was a competitive market for entertainment and magicians had to craft their performance personas and identities in ways that made them deeply mysterious, superhuman, and exotic. Some magicians turned their gaze Eastward to find inspiration in the Fakirs of India, the alleged secrets of the Pharaohs, and of course the natural appeal of ancient Chinese culture.

Famous London theatres, such as The Egyptian Hall, would be adorned with decorations, hieroglyphs, and images of pyramids to allure their paying guests inside for an evening of magic, wonder, and in many cases, demonstrations of spiritualism. Famous magicians Maskelyne and Cooke ran a successful show there for 31 years and the hall became known as England’s Home of Mystery. Sadly, the site is now home to a Starbucks.

Psychics and mentalists such as Alexander (‘The Man Who Knows’) would often dress as the famous ‘Swami’ and engage in feats of mind reading and divination complete with crystal balls on stage or large glass bowls filled with sealed envelopes containing questions from the audience for which the performer would provide inexplicably accurate and uncanny answers.


The most famous example of a socially constructed ‘Eastern’ identity for entertainment purposes is arguably that of the magician Chung Ling Soo. Inspired and in competition with magician Chung Ling Foo, Chung Ling Soo toured Europe and the US at the turn of the 20th Century, appearing on a full Chinese stage set, in a Chinese costume, and a long black pony tail, and performed a wide range of effects with Chinese props and apparatus. His act is even featured in the popular film The Prestige. He was in fact, an American by the name of William Robinson from upstate New York.

These uses of Eastern culture, constructed for Western audiences are examples of what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism’; or the appropriation, celebration, and depiction of peoples and cultures of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. For Said, this practice was both patronising and fictional, which taken to its extreme represented an imperialist project underpinned by Western power to the detriment of ‘real’ Oriental culture. His book has inspired many studies that have sought to deconstruct this misuse of the Orient across popular culture, society, and politics.

Whether magicians were wittingly part of this project, or whether Said is actually correct, remain open questions, but the use of such Orientalist practices continues to this day. Indeed, magicians across the world remain fascinated with Eastern history, artefacts, stories, clothes, and myths that provide countless opportunities to fashion shows that appeal to many different audiences.

In his show An Evening of Wonders, celebrated mentalist Derren Brown performed an extraordinary Swami act, which I had the pleasure of witnessing at The Regent Theatre in Ipswich. He appeared in formal attire, complete with white bow tie, starched shirt, and black tails, as well as a full head turban, along with a glass bowl and sealed questions from the audience. His performance was tongue and cheek, but enough ambiguity remained about how he was achieving direct mind reading that many in the audience exclaimed after the show that he was ‘the real deal’.

Eastern magicians also play to the audience through their own culture in ways that are selective, popularised, and much like their Western counterparts. Magic is hugely popular in China, which hosted the 2009 meeting of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM), while its 2018 meeting will take place in Seoul, South Korea. Famed magicienne Juliana Chen, originally a foot juggler from China who emigrated to the United States adorns her set with large Chinese umbrellas, silks, and other trappings as a backdrop to her extraordinary displays of ‘cardistry’.


My own travels to China, Japan, and Mongolia have taught me much about the appreciation of magic in the Far East. I have performed in a street market in Shanghai, private dining rooms in Beijing, a dinner hosted by the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the most amazing whiskey bar in Fukuoka, Japan.


Beyond magic, I have also noticed that Asian popular culture is vibrant and in many ways subverts its own history in playful and inventive ways. In China, tourists are free to purchase ‘the little red book’ Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and a variety of gifts that are adorned with pictures of Mao and other symbols of the Chinese Revolution. I have a collection of matchboxes, notebooks, and playing cards in this genre, where there remains an ambiguity about the true meaning and purpose of such artefacts.


In return, much of western culture is appropriated in the East, such that processes of globalisation since the publication of Said’s book in 1979 may have challenged his view of the imperialist and hegemonic western project. Rather, the world has seen remarkable cultural miscegenation and a melange of symbols, images, customs, music, and ways of being that are inventive and in my view, healthy.


I thus will continue to celebrate this ambiguity and vibrancy of multi-culturalism, and its subversive potential. I have featured Oriental inspired demonstrations in my stage shows over the years, and my new show SUBVERSION will continue to use magic as a means to communicate and frame these larger cultural questions, making us stop and think, while being baffled and entertained.


The New Magic is the Old Magic

In a recent article in Prospect Magazine (May Issue 194, pp. 79-82), Laura Marsh argues that the world is witnessing a new kind of magic that is ‘far removed from the circus-style trickery of sawing women in half’, where the cutting edge performers (of which I am pleased to be one) seek to use the methods of magic and mentalism to address larger issues and deeper meanings in people’s lives. This ‘new magic’ is contrasted to the stage and TV magic that features ‘sparkly shirts’ and ‘rabbits being pulled from hats’.

While it is highly flattering to be included in this new category alongside such performers as Derren Brown, David Blaine, and Luke Jermay, I wonder if what I (and a few of my selected magical colleagues) are trying to achieve actually harks back to a much earlier period in the history of magic.

A little over a week ago, on his Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’, Melyvn Bragg featured a number of academics talking about the neo-Platonists who sought to rescue Platonic thought of the kind found in Timaeus, where he built a complete theory of humankind, the world, and the universe, with all its correspondences and underlying mathematical foundations.

The neo-Platonists spanned a huge period in history but had great influence on Renaissance magic, as well as the ‘scholar magicians’ of the time, such as Pico de Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee. These great minds engaged in ‘metaphysical plurality’ as they embraced scientific inquiry, philosophical reflection, and esoteric explorations.

Their work sought to address the working of nature and the world, as well as explore the human psyche as it relates to larger ‘unseen’ forces. Their tradition was to be carried forward by other such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, who in the latter years after he formulated his Principia Mathematica engaged in alchemical explorations and experimented with the idea of ether; and Jung who developed a large portion of work on psychoanalysis through the study of alchemy (physical and spiritual).

Throughout this period, magicians in many ways were displaced either by science or religion, and were cast out as evil, unacceptable, heretical or irrational. Magicians, witches, cunning folk, and ‘popular magi’ were ostracised, persecuted and even put to death.

In the middle of the 19th Century, a lawyer named Angelo Lewis published a book under his pseudonym Professor Hoffmann called Modern Magic. This book provided encyclopaedic coverage of all manner of magic tricks and led to the creation of the ‘gentleman magician’ who donned a top hat and tail coat, performed in respectable urban theatres, and made sanitized allusions to ‘darker forces’ in their stage shows.

Many have celebrated the advent of the gentleman magician, since it rescued magic from its ridiculed form and made it a respectable art. As stage magic, and its counterparts of close-up and street magic, have evolved, however, less savoury features have developed that culminated in the  very trappings of the ‘Old Magic’ to which the Prospect article refers. Gone were the top hats and tuxedos, dinner suits and bow ties. Sparkly tops, glamorous assistants, and cheesy patter took over.

The ‘New Magic’ to which Prospect refers seeks to recapture meaning, substance and mystery. But in my view, it is tapping into the much older tradition of the Renaissance scholar magicians. It is an axiom of the New Magic (or my own sense of the real Old Magic) that audiences are concerned with themselves that they want to learn about things that affect them, and want to explore deep questions and concerns that they have at the forefront of their minds.

There is a wonderfully creative and inspirational set of magical practitioners that are part of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers doing the kind of performances that achieve this kind of depth. Through the use of simple objects and a variety of different means, they engage their audiences in ways that go deep into perennial concerns such as nostalgia, fear, memory, childhood, travel, love, health, among many others.

They have a huge variety of substantive interests beyond mentalism, including philosophy, social constructivism, social science methodology, psychology, law, history of the book, Russian, drama studies, acting, horror, design, computer programning, motivational speaking, coaching, among many others. The intellectual and practical formation of such people means that they engage with their audiences in completely different ways than the mainstream magicians popular on television programmes of the kind referenced in the Prospect article.

And through their performances they are returning magic to its former self: an experience that is crafted to bring about transformation in an audience. Such a transformation can be unsettling and disruptive, but for the audience member (or participant as we prefer to call them) it is guaranteed to be magic with meaning.