This fall, the Jewish Museum will present the first major art exhibition devoted to the life and legacy of Harry Houdini; the imaginative show twins historic Houdini memorabilia with a surprising number of artworks directly inspired by the illusionist, by such prominent artists as Christopher Wool and Raymond Pettibon. But art bloggers won’t be the only ones tweeting from the galleries. The show will include Matthew Barney’s 1997 The Erich Weiss Suite, an enclosed glass installation containing magician’s tools rendered by Mr. Barney-and a bevy of live pigeons.
A reference to Houdini’s given name, The Erich Weiss Suite will require the museum to obtain both the pigeons and the services of a trained animal handler to care for them. When the work was last exhibited, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2003, one pigeon surprised museum staff by laying four eggs, compelling the art-services crew to fashion a nest with branches from Central Park and add it to the installation.
The Barney installation will be one of 26 works of Modern and contemporary art inspired by Houdini, the Budapest-born son of a rabbi, featured at the Fifth Avenue institution. “The exhibition is really about visual culture and how an icon evolves or transforms over time,” explained the show’s curator, Brooke Kamin Rapaport. “Since the 1970s, it’s artists who have resurrected Houdini’s significance.” The artworks will be interspersed with magic apparatus, historic photographs, archival and silent films and a re-creation of Houdini’s legendary Water Torture Cell. According to a museum spokesperson, the museum has already met with a magician’s group to ensure that no secrets are divulged in the show, which opens Oct. 29.
The Barney piece will be on loan from the collection of financier Adam Sender. According to Sarah Aibel, curator at the Sender Collection, the room will be constructed with special ventilation to ensure the birds’ comfort, and the pigeon droppings that accumulate over the course of the exhibition will not be cleaned, having become a part of the artwork.
Still, The Erich Weiss Suite surely poses organizational challenges-no matter how comfortable they might be, there is no way to guarantee the pigeons won’t try to pull a Houdini-like stunt and escape.