As Miami Art Week winds down, the Boca Raton Museum of Art is keeping the magic going with an enchanted offering: Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art, a thematic exhibition that seeks truth through the lens of deception. Sleights of hand and feats of illusion abound throughout the show, but more ambitious enquiries into political disinformation, “alternative facts” and deepfake-enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) set Smoke and Mirrors apart as a poignant curatorial undertaking.
The exhibition is anchored by a gallery of installations by the American multimedia artist Tony Oursler and features works in a range of media by Jim Shaw, Sarah Charlesworth, Glenn Kaino, Urs Fischer, The Yes Men and others. “The hope is that this exhibition will remind the public that fraud is everywhere and that not everything is as it seems,” says Kathleen Goncharov, the senior curator at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “Because of social media, artificial intelligence and other new technologies, outright lies—when repeated often enough—are too often readily believed. It is now becoming more and more difficult to discern the truth.”
Oursler’s contribution to the show, an otherworldly landscape called Creature Features (2023), boasts several new commissions in which the artist explores what he calls the “delicate balance between creativity, mysticism and scientific ingenuity”. Blending folkloric histories with urban myth and popular American hoaxes, Oursler deploys video and installation with a keen psychedelic surrealism, immersing viewers in a lush tableau of spiritualist and extra-terrestrial incongruity.
“We are in a new phase of image and language production with AI and social media, and everyone is aware of the tectonic shift; trust has completely eroded,” Oursler says. “Whatever we make of it, art is in a good position to take a non-corporate perspective on this new landscape, to use the new tools creatively.”
From the space race to the CIA
Other examples of artists using new powers of trickery for creative ends in Smoke and Mirrors include Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund’s installation In Event of Moon Disaster (2019), a deepfake reimagining of a tragic alternative history of the space race, and a specially commissioned piece by the artist and magician Jeanette Andrews, inspired by the recently declassified Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.
The heart of Smoke and Mirrors is its homage to James Randi—better known as the Amazing Randi—longtime friend of the museum and worldwide face of “sceptical education”, who died in 2020. Randi was a MacArthur Fellow, the life partner of the artist Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.) and the sponsor of the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which offered $1m to anyone who could prove supernatural ability under scientific scrutiny. While he started his career as a self-described conjurer, Randi made his name exposing con artists, garnering him his own PBS documentary, An Honest Liar (2014).
“At a time when we all currently live in our own social media bubbles and believe what we want to believe, the examples that James Randi set during his lifetime are profound,” Goncharov says. “Today, charlatans espousing conspiracy theories of all kinds, for financial or political advantage, are even more common than when Randi began his crusade. This important work was secondary to his life as an entertainer. He was a great magician and follower of Houdini. Randi’s passion in life was to expose frauds he felt were a danger to the public.
Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art, Boca Raton Museum of Art, until 12 May 2024