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Albany Times Union
January 9, 2005


Special to the Times Union

Albany International Airport Art and Culture Program Director Sharon Bates could tell you how all the tricks on display in ``Now You See It,'' the airport's magic and illusion exhibition, work.

But she won't.

``I am sworn to an oath of secrecy,'' said Bates, a sly smile crossing her face on a recent midweek morning visit to the airport's third floor, where the Airport Art Gallery is located. ``People do ask and I say, `I can't tell you. It's magic.' It is magic.''

Magic plays a major role in ``Now You See It,'' from the display cases filled with wands and silver-plated magic tricks from the early 20th century to a pair of local magicians performing tricks in video clips that loop every few minutes.

But magic also shares the spotlight with illusion, in pieces such as Michael Oatman's ``Syzygy,'' a hypnotic installation set into one of the museum's walls. Visitors peer into a 4-inch circular hole and look down a tunnel at a small screen flashing a spliced sequence of films with a time-travel theme, set to dizzying music.

Then there's ``Sentinel,'' a carved wooden box with a knothole large enough for a roving glass eye to peer through. Created by artist Steve Hollinger, ``Sentinel'' is powered by solar panels on the back of the small box to slowly shift the eye back and forth.

``It creeps people out,'' Bates said of Hollinger's work. ``I love it.''

So did travelers killing time between flights on a recent morning. Kathy Krathwohl of Boston milled through the exhibition with her family, smiling as she watched a video of magician David MacDonald appearing to make a skull float in midair.

``This is wonderful,'' said Krathwohl. ``If you're in an airport and you have a choice between television and a museum, this is much more entertaining.''

Sheer entertainment was a prime reason for ``Now You See It,'' which opened Aug. 16 and runs through Feb. 6. Bates hatched the idea for the show after meeting Bob Connors, a Round Lake magic memorabilia hound who let Bates borrow his collection of carnival items for a 2001 exhibition.

But Bates really wanted to showcase Connors' magic stuff, which fills an entire room in his house. Connors, who has collected magic items since the late 1980s, agreed and told Bates she could take what she wanted for ``Now You See It.'' She took him at his word.

``At first, she said, `I want it all,' and I said, `Aye, yi, yi!' Connors said, laughing. ``So I spent a few nights sitting at the kitchen table with little tiny screwdrivers, re-springing my old magic tricks.''

Connors' magic collection is intriguing, filling a half-dozen display cases with curious gizmos, such as the Mysto Magic Exhibition Set, an early 20th-century magic kit that bills itself as ``a fascinating collection of tricks, sleight of hand and illusions, etc.''

A wooden Oriole Ouija from the 1920s is on display, as is a large five-pointed silver star called the ``star card trick.'' A magician would throw a deck of cards at the star, causing cards preselected by an audience member to spring up on the stars' spikes, Conners said.

A glass case hanging on the wall is filled with magic books from the 1930s and '40s, with titles such as ``How to Tell Fortunes by Cards as Told by The Gypsies'' and ``Carter's Magic and Magicians: A Full Expose of Modern Miracles.''

Next to them, a half-dozen framed broadsides from the late 19th century outrageously promote magicians of the day, such as Prof. DeLaMano, a ``prestigitateur'' who promised to amaze with tricks such as ``The Enchanted Cross.''

``They just look fabulous,'' said Bates, when asked why she chose to show the items. ``This exhibit is about the art of magic. These are visually compelling objects.''

Old-time magic

``Now You See It'' relies more on the visual than past airport exhibitions, employing three video productions featuring area magicians MacDonald and Vinny Grosso doing what they do best: making magic.

MacDonald and Grosso, both members of the Society of American Magicians' local chapter, performed several old-time magic tricks, taped at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's video production studio. Grosso re-created ``Metamorphosis'' a Houdini-esque illusion in which Grosso extricates himself from a locked body bag in a locked wooden trunk and trades places with the female assistant who put him there. The crate and curtain Grasso used are on display.

``The (exhibition's) location is great and it is great exposure for magic and local magicians,'' said Grosso, 29, who has performed magic for more than half of his life. ``But the majority of people who visit come from two mind-sets people who want to figure the tricks out and those who want to be amazed.''

MacDonald's video is shown at the ``Theater of Magic,'' a small stage area framed by old-time magic show props, most from Connors' collection. MacDonald performs several tricks, including a neat feat where he makes a playing card appear under a rubber band strapped around a small glass plate set in a wooden frame. Odd, carnival-style music plays in the background courtesy of pianist Evan Lurie, an original member of the Lounge Lizards, whose avant-garde jazz had Manhattan's in-crowd grooving in the 1980s. Bates tracked Lurie down for permission to use his music; Lurie went one better and visited the exhibit himself, Bates said.

Interspersed through the exhibit are large posters of 19th-century magician Henry Kellar and Howard Thurston, who was hugely popular during the early 20th century; the posters are on loan from the State Museum in Albany.

Other pieces, such as steel sculptor Larry Kagan's ``We Were Talking'' a tangle of steel that when lit at just the right angle produces the shadow outline of man's headless upper torso with arms outstretched and Janet Sorensen's paintings act almost as bridges, leading visitors to the next curiosity.

``We wanted this exhibit to be a little interactive and a little spooky, and I think we've accomplished that,'' Bates said.

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