Years ago one of my younger sisters complained to me that there wasn't any real magic in the world. We were walking around my neighborhood and I had just found a four-leafed clover (I find them everywhere, all of the time) but that mysterious trick of mine has stopped impressing her, and this time sparked her lament: nothing special would come of it, nothing ever had. No, she had decided, magic wasn't real, not like the secret, epic, physics-defying things that happen to heroes and heroines in books and on screen.
It's the whole lament of the Peter Pan story, and perhaps most people who grow up to face the responsibilities of survival, pay bills, and panic-bustle through their adult lives. I get it. I've had the privilege, in my time getting to know artists and writing about their work, to have met scores of people who believe in magic -- not because they haven't had to grow up and face harsh reality, but because many of them, by nature, look at the world a bit askance and regularly experience private moments of glowing revelation.
British artist duo Anderson & Low, who are currently the featured artists at Eastman Museum, are without a doubt of that ilk. Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low have collaborated for decades, creating mind-bending bodies of photographic work and films that vary drastically in style from project to project. But the enduring common denominator in everything they do is observing some fascinating phenomena in the world, taking the deepest dive into studying it, and finding the cleverest way to share what they saw.
This entails expertly blending reality with artifice, and whenever a seam shows, it comes as a quick wink you're not even sure you saw. Take, for example, the dreamy, surreal, largescale photographs of their "Voyages" project, which is the body of work that fills the largest gallery at the museum. Each image holds one or more ships, seemingly suspended in or emerging from a milky, semi-opaque ether. If you'd told me the works were modern paintings made after J.M.W. Turner's romantic ship scenes, I'd have believed you. They're in fact photographs of model ships in storage at the London Science Museum.
Anderson & Low asked to photograph the models, but wanted to capture the scenes they saw when they peered into the plastic-lined crates and beheld the lovingly created replicas of ships bathed in the glowing, diffused light. In some images the wooden frame of the crate juts into the mist, and the fantasy slips slightly as the mind grapples with what it's seeing. The model-makers spared no painstaking detail in recreating the historic vessels, and though the technique of photographing them through the plastic veils diminishes the details, Anderson & Low have somehow activated the objects and given them the sense of adventure the boats lacked as pristine, static things.
The Eastman exhibit features images from several of Anderson & Low's other bodies of work, as well as fascinating images and objects the duo has pulled from the museum's extensive archives that fit their thesis of "Voyages and Discoveries," which they say is about the inner journey taken by viewers when they witness something magical. This includes Carlo Naya's 1870 albumen silver print "Place St. Marc avec'leglise. Venise (Plaza with St. Mark's Basilica, Venice)," which is an empty, ordinary image of a plaza until activated by the lantern projector that reveals a dazzling, fairyland-like scene populated by lights and night revelers. There are countless other works of interest, and the show is worthy of spending hours in discovery mode.
My sister was right: magic isn't like it's explored in stories. It's not something that happens to a passive character who's just going about their life. It's something we are only privy to from paying attention; it's a covenant created within us, between phenomena we detect and our unique, individual, processing capacities. It's about observation, imagination, and in the best cases, it's translated into shareable work.
A number of related talks and events will be presented during the run of the exhibition. For more information, visit eastman.org.
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts and entertainment editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.