CJ and I went to see the Houdini exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City on Wednesday. Apart from a horrific crush of people getting into the museum — made a lot worse by the metal detector and mandatory coat check — it was a pretty great experience.
I’ve never known much about Houdini, or fixated on him specifically — to the extent that I had no idea that he was Jewish until I heard about this exhibit — but he’s an interesting and impressive guy. The exhibit was a mixture of contemporaneous memorabilia, footage, and some modern art interpreting Houdini. In general, the actual artifacts were the coolest part. They had Houdini’s handcuffs, straitjacket, crate, milk can and so on. And lots of posters and photos from his early career.
The more modern art was mostly either uninteresting or just bizarre. That definitely includes the room full of jacobin pigeons pooping on a fake glass coffin, which was apparently one of the big draws for a lot of people. The one piece we did both like a lot was a painting by Joe Coleman (pictured here), which was great, and looked sort of like a carnival poster combined with lots of crazy Kabbalistic symbols.
But mostly the exhibit did a good job in examining and analyzing the reasons for Houdini’s appeal — most of which have to do with the basic Kavalier and Clay thesis that the immigrant’s story is already a kind of “escape.” And Houdini comes off really impressively, especially in his later career as one of the first public skeptics, debunking spiritualism and so on.
The Jewish Museum itself was also cool — lots of neat artifacts, and the building itself was interesting at least on the outside. It’s apparently an old converted mansion. I kind of wish more of the building had been preserved on the inside though. It seems like it was pretty much gutted and only the exterior shell was left.