Monday, July 11, 2011

The Secret of Steinmeyer's Origami Box

Having an interest in magic is not that different from being a collector. Unless your interest is mainstream, you are better off with your own kind than trying to explain your passion to civilians.

Because I don't perform magic it is difficult to explain why I have so many decks of cards and a suitcase full of tricks. I suspect at some level it is like if you were John Wayne Gacy and had to explain away the clown costume: it's more than a little creepy.

Part of the reason I don't show people magic tricks is because they don't see them the same way I do. Whereas I might--and I emphasize "might"--be able to execute a classic pass and be totally impressed with that, what the audience will have seen is an uninteresting card trick made all the less interesting because I was staring at my hands the entire time.

After twenty-three years together, I have pretty much exhausted my wife's patience for magic. Her early introduction was my "performing" at family gatherings and the cringe-inducing response she had to that tough audience has carried forward. She thinks it's cute that I have a hobby and a good thing that I'm not bothering anyone, least of all her.

There have been instances, however, when she has seen an effect that has overwhelmed her cringe reflex and has registered as artistic or just plain pretty.

One such effect is "Origami Box" designed by Jim Steinmeyer.

On paper, the effect is simplicity itself: the assistant gets into a box and the magician folds the box on itself to an impossibly small size and then, to prove that there is no place for her to hide, he plunges a sword through the center of the box. The sword is removed, the box unfolded and the assistant emerges unscathed.

What takes this effect beyond the realm of the usual assistant-mutilating tricks favored by illusionists is the simplicity of its procedure.  I have no way of knowing what's involved for the assistant, but to the audience there is folding and there is unfolding.  Much like the artform from which the illusion takes its name, the power comes from simple elements being combined in an artful way.  Whereas you and I might just see a piece of paper, an origami artist can see a swan, or a crane, or even complex shapes.  As audience we see a small box, but to the magician it's large enough to hold his assistant.

I can remember seeing an artist paint a cherry blossom with a few broad gestures and a couple of colors.  There was no sketching, no recourse to reference works; none of the self-consciousness that has plagued my attempts to sketch.  A lifetime of observation translated into a certainty of brushstrokes.  And what was remarkable was that there was not one more stroke on the paper than was needed to convey the image. 

The first time I saw this trick was just like that.

I believe it was on the Arsenio Hall show.  David Copperfield was promoting an upcoming special and he did the trick to the Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." 

It was beautiful.

To give you an idea of the effect, let me just say that as one of those who knows just enough about magic to be dangerous, I stopped trying to figure it out and was just engrossed in the moment.  There has to be a ridiculously obvious explanation--there always is "once you know the secret"--but I don't care.  In that piece Steinmeyer and Copperfield had produced a true piece of art.  The method, the magician, the materials and the music took me out of my skeptical self and back to that place that could believe in real magic.

I have written elsewhere of magic as storytelling.  Copperfield's presentation of Steinmeyer's effect is a perfect example of this and what is most impressive is that it holds up after multiple viewings.  It's so well made that I don't care how it's made.

In the age of YouTube, it is possible to find clips of the illusion being performed by all manner of illusionists, including Copperfield, and what the non-Copperfield versions share in common is that they fail to understand the story of the effect. 

I can recall seeing video of the effect being performed not for its poetry, but for time.  It seemed to me that the magician and his assistant were trying to see how quickly they could get it done before moving on to the next piece.  In their hands it was no different than a magician plucking a card out of the air.  I have also seen clips of performers who try to ape Copperfield's presentation and they always fall short.  It seems as though they purchased the effect because it met some offstage criterion such as it fit in their truck, or their budget, and beyond that they have no special connection to it.

Sometime after that first viewing, we went to see a live Copperfield show.  When the time came for him to do the illusion I recall poking my spouse and saying something like "this is pretty."  After the show, that was the piece that she talked about.  She was impressed:  not easily accomplished when it comes to magic.

I guess it's not that in that moment she saw magic the way that I do--as a world of secrets--but that I was able to see it like a civilian once again.  And that, like the illusion itself, is a pretty good trick.

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