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Blog // Artistry
1 month ago

Sympathetic Magic

Art is transformative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the idea of sympathetic magic which can help us be freer and more creative.

Every year, New York artist Tom Sachs leads a mission into space. After extensive training and technical preparation, the crew don their NASA spacesuits and, under orders from mission control, head out to visit the asteroid Vesta.

Except they don’t actually leave the ground. Space Program is an exhibition, a massive piece of performance art. The space suits are simple, stitched-together garments. The mission control is all made of plywood.

But the experience feels real.

This year, one of my favourite YouTubers, Laura Kampf, took part in the mission. Laura normally does DIY projects in Germany. She makes art out of leftover industrial products. Her craft is a kind of engineered alchemy, or performative bricolage.

As I watched Laura participate in Tom Sachs’s Space Program, it was clear the event was much more than elaborate cosplay. Something about the mission felt very real. You can get a sense of the scale of this project by watching the trailer.

The Power Of Sympathetic Magic

Tom Sachs calls this sympathetic magic. The mission is performed as if it were real. Though it is an imitation, or simulation, it can still be a transformative experience for those who participate.

The ideas behind sympathetic magic are ancient and appear in all sorts of religious and shamanistic beliefs. Joseph Campbell believed a kind of sympathetic magic was behind cave paintings. The images were created in a trance-like state as people relived the “magic of the hunt”.

Participation in the ritual, in the process of making the art, made the experience of a new reality possible.

Everyone Is In Drag

Masterclass is a somewhat absurd learning platform. But there are gems of wisdom to be found. Perhaps the most surprising “class” I’ve joined so far comes from famous drag queen and TV star RuPaul.

Mostly, the class is about learning to be yourself. Drag becomes a metaphor for all the ways we construct our identity, sense of self, and define our place in the world.

“Everyone is born naked and the rest is drag.”
– RuPaul

I love this idea. To me, it makes a lot more sense than the notion that some people dress up and others are just “normal” – whatever normal is. Rather, we’re all making choices; we’re all dressing up and creating an image of how we want to be seen.

Our identity is a performance we enact every day through the ritual of becoming who we are.

This Isn’t a Fake It Till You Make It Grit

I’m not suggesting some kind of “fake it till you make it” philosophy here. It takes a lot of work to put on Tom Sachs’s Space Program. Sure, in one sense, it’s “fake.” But, in a more important sense, it is full of art and industry.

RuPaul’s idea of drag takes work. It’s a journey into authenticity and vulnerability. Clothes and make-up are only part of the story. Discovering a deeper sense of self requires introspection as well.

I’ve written before about my dislike of the “fake it till you make it” idea. IL2 I like the way Joshua Medcalf puts it in Pound The Stone: 7 Lessons To Develop Grit On The Path To Mastery:

“The irony is that this ‘fake it till you make it’ tactic is the exact opposite of how truly successful people live. They live with authentic vulnerability because they know that the world always connects more with your grit than your shine. They might show up for the shine, but they will stay because of your grit.”
– Joshua Medcalf

I Made You A Camera

When my daughter was young, she made me a camera. She glued and stuck pieces of cardboard together and labelled all the controls you’d find on a DSLR camera. It even had a slot where you could insert a memory card.

This camera doesn’t make photos. But, on a purely philosophical level, “making a photo” isn’t the only purpose of a camera. The photographer is more than just a camera operator.

A camera is an excuse to observe the world. Or to create a vision of the world. A camera with no film (or memory card) still works.

I think about this every time I see people holding up their smartphones at concerts and other events. Do they ever rewatch those videos? How many times have you done that? Plenty, if you’re like me.

If a video is never watched after being filmed, then does it really exist?

Cinema As Participatory Magic

The Story of Film: A New Generation is Mark Cousins’ two-and-a-half-hour follow-up to the brilliant 14-part documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Watching this was a wonderful reminder of how many great films have been made in the past 20 years.

It was also a reminder of how magical the experience of cinema can be.

Great filmmakers don’t just tell stories with pictures and sound. They speed up and slow down reality, shift our perspective, challenge our way of seeing the world, and help us notice things about life that we might otherwise forget or overlook as we plough through our existence.

It’s a magical thing that we often make sense of our real life by embracing a made-up cinematic world.

Embracing A Little Magic

Too often our lives feel as flat as the screens we spend our days staring at. Repeatedly, we feel trapped, restricted, even repressed.
Maybe it’s time to embrace a little magic?

Let life enchant you again. Don’t just stop and smell the roses but let their smell take you on a journey. Dress up, dress down, or don’t get dressed at all.

Why not set out on your magical journey? Perhaps it’s not a mission to the distant asteroid like Tom Sachs’s Space Program. But there will be some area of life that could hold a spark of fantasy, imagination, or joy. We could all do with a little magic.

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