Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Blaine and the art not escaping

David Blaine is now in hospital, having spent 44 days in a Perspex box over central London, subsisting on nothing but water. His “stunt” has provoked a great deal of anger, including claims that it was a tasteless exercise (with a prize pool of £5 million) that demeaned hunger-striking as a tool of protest.

I’ll loop back to public anger, but let me diverge on the theme of escape artists and escapism for a moment.

Before leaving Australia I read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”: a fabulous novel I never got around to reviewing. It is, simply, a magical novel – and in the great spirit of American art turns a popular form into art. It is the story of two young Jewish men re-inventing themselves in New York during the opening days of World War II, a period that also saw the birth of the comic book.

It relates complex themes of ethnic identity, the American spirit of self re-invention, comic books and their role as anti-Nazi propaganda, comics and the surrealist artists all through a single interesting metaphor: the escape artist. It is a fantastic novel (the first chapter can be read here), and its well-drawn (no pun intended), fully realised characters suffer more, and I more complex ways, than some reviews suggest.

What intrigued me most though, was the unifying theme: the art of escape. This was explored in any number of ways – one of the central characters trained as an escape artistry before turning to the escapist artistry of comics, having himself escaped Nazi Germany’s occupation of Prague. When we watch an escape artist liberate himself or herself from chains and a safe, we witness a metaphor – the human ability to escape what constrains us.

On a recent TV show American escape artist Thomas Solomon was entirely frank about this, people watching an escape artist see in his act the potential to escape what constrains them: a job, a relationship, their lives.

Perhaps what angered the British public most about Blaine was not that this was a rich man getting richer in a “parody” of famine, but his resolute refusal to escape his self-imposed trap. Here was an escape artist who did nothing but wait: he stayed in the box. No writhing, no contortions, no cries of “ohmigod, the bubbles in the water have stopped – did he get out alive?” as the wake of a dropped sack or safe in the river Thames subsides into ripples.

What Blaine’s act suggested to some, perhaps, was that there is no escape. That all you can do is wait.

Perhaps that was what made so many so inexplicably, inexpressibly angry.

No comments: