The Blaine game

The best way to make a magician in a box disappear is to ignore him.

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

Londoners are facing a 44-day endurance test: how long can we continue watching a magician lying in a box?

The illusionist David Blaine is on day 13 of his fast, hanging in a Perspex box over wasteland at the south end of Tower Bridge. Blaine claims that his act is ‘the most extreme exercise in isolation and physical deprivation ever attempted’, and that it is taking him to spiritual and artistic heights (1).

Rather than the hushed reverence that has greeted his previous endurance stunts, however, Blaine has been met with a stream of eggs, insults and taunts. A man was even arrested trying to cut through the cable supplying Blaine with water. Some have suggested that this shows the long-standing yobbish element of the British character. The New York Times said that Blaine’s reception is the result of a ‘particular brand of British cynicism’ (2).

A better explanation is that Londoners are refusing to admire the Emperor’s new clothes, instead screaming that he is naked. Irreverence is sparked by the fact that what Blaine is doing is utterly pointless.

‘What is he doing it for?’, asked 23-year-old Bethan, looking up at the sleeping Blaine. ‘It’s a waste of time. It’s not admirable’, said John Foskett from Salisbury. ‘It’s not spiritual’, said one young Londoner – ‘if he wants a spiritual experience he should go to Tibet’.

This stunt will certainly be a test of will, but it is a peculiarly degraded one. Blaine has claimed that living without food and human contact will lead to ‘the purest state that you can be in’. ‘It will be like heaven’, he said. ‘It will be like being in the womb. No distractions, no bullshit…. I wish to remove everything to search for a truth.’ (3)

Perhaps there is an old Chinese proverb that says truth comes to those who lie in boxes, but I doubt it. There are no special insights to be gained into the meaning of human existence by reducing oneself to a state of just-surviving – rather than talking, walking or doing things, just being a solitary weak body, ticking over. Insights are gained by playing an active part in the world, not spurning it. Other people and activities aren’t life’s ‘bullshit’ – they are life.

The fasters who Blaine has been compared to at least deprived themselves for real reasons (some admittedly more admirable than others). Mahatma Ghandi went on hunger strike to force the British out of India, Bobby Sands to force them out of Ireland. Tibetan monks, ascetic medieval saints and others have endured fasting or self-isolation – but at least such religious ordeals aimed to subordinate the everyday desires of the self to a higher power, however illusory, while Blaine’s fast is about nothing more than himself.

And Blaine’s claim that he found inspiration in Primo Levi seems calculated to incite. Mr Clark from Kent fumed, ‘It is ridiculous that a man should do that to himself, should do that to his body’. Holocaust survivors did not choose or find ‘truth’ in their experience.

Some have pointed out the self-deifying allusions made in Blaine’s latest stunt; fasting by the river, in isolation, but outdoing the son of God’s ’40 days and 40 nights’ by four days. Along with arrogance, however, there also seems to be a kind of hankering after the presumed real experiences had by the likes of Jesus, Levi and Gandhi: ‘Those people went through real trials.’ (4) His fast is an attempt to cut through the indifference and superficiality of his everyday experience: ‘ I don’t have any feelings about it – that’s probably why I am doing it. I want to feel.’ (5)

The idea that suffering and self-denial for their own sake are in any way authentic or deep, however, is a delusion. Blaine will certainly feel things over the next 31 days, but it takes more than biological breakdown to make a ‘real trial’.

Blaine’s other claim is that his fast is ‘a piece of performance art…. I think it’s worth it for my art even if I drop dead’ (6). While we’ve heard of suffering for your art, it’s a strange idea that suffering itself is art. Rather than paint or use mime to convey his sentiments and experience, Blaine has made an exhibition of himself, in the raw. Every feeble wave, stretching exercise or rolling over that he performs is perhaps supposed to be part of the ‘piece’.

But here his ground had been prepared by modern art’s move to making the artist into the artwork. Tracey Emin has projected her affairs and depressions directly into the gallery space, in the form of soiled beds or lists of former lovers. Other artists have carried buckets of water around, laid naked in a glass case in a gallery, posted themselves to the Tate, or mutilated or performed operations on themselves. Describing Blaine’s prostrate wasting body as a piece of ‘performance art’ is not a huge leap from this. Both, however, represent a degradation of art, its fall from a creative activity that communicates experience in visual forms, to presenting the lives and bodies of those labelled as ‘artists’.

And Blaine is avoiding using his skills as a magician, emphasising that there is no trickery involved. ‘I enjoyed his street magic’, one bystander complained, ‘but anyone could actually lie in a box’. While ‘Houdini used to do things’, said British magician Paul Zenon, Blaine is just being ‘pretentious’ (7).

But perhaps Blaine is not trying to be judged by the standards of art or magic. ‘I don’t consider myself a magician or illusionist at all’, he says: ‘I consider myself a showman, and I love magic, and I love art, and I love performance….’ The showman’s prime aim is not to produce a particular kind of work, but to get a response from his audience – as Blaine says, to do ‘something that triggers an emotion or a reaction, whether it is cynicism or whether it’s not, or whether it is, you know, enjoyment or wonder’ (8).

So all the insults and flying burgers themselves become part of the spectacle, they help to make the showman’s act. Londoners may not buy the stunt, but many are certainly buying into it. In fact, were it not for the watching crowds, streakers and chancers, there would be nothing of interest happening. One man who woke Blaine up in the middle of the night by banging a drum said that he had wanted something to happen.

There is a strange, mutual contempt in this relation between the famous showman and the people who make him famous. The showman wants to gain a reaction from his audience, but doesn’t care what this reaction is. Meanwhile, much of his audience loathe him and think his act is pointless, but come to see him and sustain his fame. Most spectators said that they had come to ‘say I had seen it’, rather than because they wanted to see it. ‘He’s a knob, isn’t he?’, said one man. ‘I don’t like his personality. I find it farcical’, said 25-year-old Kelly Chapman. One young Londoner reflected ruefully: ‘I say it’s boring, but at the end of the day I’m here.’

Celebrity becomes self-perpetuating – once someone is famous, they just have to lie there to become a story. Rather than attracting us with his performances of magic, Blaine himself becomes the magic.

So perhaps Londoners are more in the grip of Blaine than he is of them, in spite of all the abuse that he is taking. In that corner of central London, there is a bizarre circus geared around his every need. While I was Blaine-watching, there was a surreal argument between Live TV representatives and one of Blaine’s bodyguards. Live TV wanted to send in their mascot bunny and a man bearing a ‘word of the day’ for Blaine, to stimulate his mind and ‘keep him sane’. The guard thought that the bunny might ‘send him over the edge’; Live TV argued that Blaine had found the stunt funny the previous day. What unsettles/amuses Blaine becomes the preoccupation of supporters and detractors alike.

Perhaps the best thing to do might be to turn off the TV and avoid Tower Bridge for the next 31-and-a-bit days.

(1) Blaine reveals UK crane stunt, BBC News, 19 August 2003

(2) Quoted in David Blaine v Britons, 16 September 2003

(3) Blaine’s risky business, Evening Standard, 26 August 2003

(4) Welcome to the world of David Blaine,, 4 September 2003

(5) Blaine launches cutting-edge stunt, BBC News, 2 September 2003

(6) Welcome to the world of David Blaine,, 4 September 2003

(7) Is Blaine magic just an illusion?, BBC News, 2 September 2003

(8) David Blaine: ‘I’d like to go as far as I can’, CNN, 30 August 2003

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