Jeanette Andrews is transforming magic into a contemporary art form | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Jeanette Andrews is transforming magic into a contemporary art form

The self-styled “experiential illusionist” is in the midst of the most ambitious trick of her young career.


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  • Ryan Duggan

A look of mild puzzlement sweeps over the faces of several partygoers who've wandered into the second-floor ballroom of a Hyatt in the Loop. It's a warm evening in September, and the group has been sipping drinks in a crowded alley outside the hotel, where a DJ spins as part of the Chicago Loop Alliance's pop-up event series Activate. They've come to see a magician perform, but there's no sign of a flamboyant man in vest and no stage to be seen, not even a place to sit. Instead Jeanette Andrews, a diminutive red-haired woman in a plain black dress, invites them over to a table covered with playing cards and tiny bottles of perfume and proceeds to do a magic trick.

"Magic trick" undersells it. The performance piece, which Andrews labels Tactile Taste Test, feels like a history lesson, a TED talk, a thought experiment, and a card trick all wrapped into one. The ten-minute routine—broken up into two five-minute sessions an hour apart—begins with Andrews's request for the group to ponder their favorite childhood breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, and then scrawl their thoughts on the faces of four playing cards. She tells them to find a corresponding smell from the two dozen or so bottles containing various scents and rub the residue on one on the cards to create what Andrews describes to them as "an abstract version of their favorite meals." She briefly lectures about the science of olfactory perception. She quotes 18th-century Scottish writer James Boswell and Helen Keller ("Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived"), then instructs everyone to rip their cards in half and place one piece in their pocket. After an elaborate series of shuffles and tosses of card halves that leaves each audience member with a second piece, participants reach into their pockets and find—to their surprise and delight—that the two halves match perfectly—with the words and artificial smell intact.

"Whoa, how did you do that?" exclaims a woman in a gleaming emerald-colored dress and high heels. Andrews doesn't respond with an elaborate bow or disappear behind a red curtain. She simply flashes a cordial smile, thanks the audience for their attention, and prepares for the next group.

"I'm an artist performing here tonight and I want you to participate in a magic trick that you will make happen with your own hands," Andrews explains as the pack of onlookers approaches an hour later.

Artist? It's a label the 26-year-old uses deliberately and with care. After working as a paid magician since childhood, Andrews is now in the midst of the most ambitious sleight-of-hand feat of her career: once a more traditional trickster, she's redefining herself as a contemporary illusionist and artist—someone whose act is more suited to the halls of museums and fine art galleries than kids' birthday parties or chintzy theaters on the Vegas strip.


—Jeanette Andrews

"It's ground I'm trying to navigate, and I can feel it shifting," she tells me. "The thing is, a lot of what I'm doing these days doesn't fit the stereotypes people have about magic. On a daily basis, people are still like 'Oh, you have a rabbit?' " she says. "I view magic and what I do as an artistic medium in the same way a sculptor would a piece of marble. It's a conduit I use to explore ideas."

"Experiential illusionism" is the term Andrews has coined to describe her personal brand of magic. She claims she's the world's only practitioner. Eschewing the classic form of dazzling audiences with an extended string of tricks, she marries illusions with audience interaction while seamlessly interweaving folklore and poetry and facts from the sciences, philosophy, and psychology. One of her biggest influences isn't even a magician: the Danish-Icelandic installation artist Olafur Eliasson whose solo show, "Take Your Time," she attended in 2009 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. "That changed how I saw everything," she says. "He was coming at it from a phenomenological background, which was my interest in philosophy as well, and so I was seeing these visual enactions of so many concepts that I was interested in. But here was somebody that was really bringing them to life in a beautiful way . . . sort of, how do we engage groups of people, how do we create environments of people, how do we create a mood?"

During her own MCA show in April called "Thresholds," Andrews paired a series of illusions with each of the five senses. She began by pouring what appeared to be water from a clear bottle into a perfume bottle while relating a fable involving a French perfumer from a bygone era. Meanwhile audience members wrote their favorite scents on pieces of paper and handed them to Andrews, who seemingly chose one out of the stack at random—peppermint bark. She then sprayed some of the contents of the bottle into the air. The 300 people huddled into the first-floor lobby gasped and applauded: the mist smelled like peppermint candy.

"She's not just pulling out a hokey bag of tricks," says Kristen Kaniewski, visitor services manager for the MCA. "She thinks about the show very holistically and is more interested in creating an experience rather than just making something flash or disappear."

That experience is a clever blend of truth and deception. Andrews will explain how olfactory glands work while simultaneously faking out those of her audience. Magic tricks and science might seem unlikely partners, but Andrews view the two as complementary.

"To me what's interesting is what sparks our curiosity, our creativity. There's so much in the world we don't understand. Scientists I know talk about something like dark matter and . . . we don't know hardly anything about it," she says. "Most people are going to look at what I do and clearly know I don't have supernatural ability, but they know there's some sort of way that the illusion is being accomplished. And so there must be more than what meets the eye. So then the question becomes, 'What is that?' "

That sort of philosophical inquiry is a shift for Andrews. Growing up in the western suburbs, she began performing a more traditional kind of magic in 1994 at the age of four after she watched a Siegfried and Roy TV special. "I was amazed," she says. "I sat there and I was like, 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.' " She wrote the magic duo a one-sentence letter thanking them for inspiring her to be magician, and they replied with an offer of complimentary tickets to their Vegas show and a backstage tour, which she later took them up on. Andrews now cites her friendship with the famed magicians as one of the earliest signs that she was on the right path. She also proved a quick study, landing her first paid gig with the Butterfield Park District at age six performing for four-year-olds. The following year she was among a handful of national finalists competing for an appearance on a junior-magician-themed box of Kellogg's Razzle Dazzle Rice Krispies. By age 14, she'd earned a membership in the International Brotherhood of Magicians on the strength of a sponsorship nod from Siegfried and Roy.

  • Cornelia Li

Through her teenage years, she performed a fairly standard act, which she describes as "trick-trick-trick." "I did all the stuff with the big boxes and all the really flashy tricks," she says. "But then I just kind of realized I'm not a flashy person. I'm just not. It was fitting I didn't win the Rice Krispies contest, because I've got no razzle-dazzle."

She was first inspired to alter her approach in 2004 after attending a Society of American Magicians conference in Saint Louis, where she heard German magician Topas talk about magic styles in terms of a crime scene: the killer, the victim, and the witness. The killer, according to Topas, is the David Copperfield-type figure perpetrating magic on the audience. The victims are typically comedic magicians who pretend the magic is out of control and it's bad for them. The witness coexists with the phenomena and acts as a facilitator for the experience.

Andrews realized she wanted to define herself as the witness, the rarest breed of magician because it involves the least amount of glory.

"Coming out of years of being squarely in the entertainment industry, where you are a brand, it's a change," she says. "I love watching the performers, the rock-star types. But in these last two years I've moved more into this arts sector, where it's not about you or your ego, it's about your ideas. I'm not interested in doing this for my ego, I'm interested in the work for the work's sake."

Not that she's completely abandoned all vestiges of her old act. Her recent "Thresholds" shows closed with a trick she's been performing for 18 years: plucking a petal from a rose, dropping it into a wine glass, and transforming it into a chicken's egg. Once just a trick, it's now part of a larger conceptual piece she's dubbed Photosynthesis: Reexamined.

Andrews says her intention is to elevate magic, to rid it of the frivolous elements that have reduced the form in the popular imagination to a punch line and restore to it the prestige it enjoyed in previous centuries. It's a formidable objective, but there are signs that she's making headway. In addition to having shows earlier this year at the MCA and the Birmingham Museum of Art, Andrews has an ongoing residency at the Pilsen arts organization High Concept Laboratories, a studio space she's using to develop a new act with the working title Audiofaction, which she says will "explore the connection between sound, scent, and stories." She'll also be presenting an existing piece on November 5 during High Concept Labs' fall open house. In January, she'll begin a ten-day residency at LA's Institute for Art and Olfaction, where she'll further research and develop scent components for future illusions.

In the end, Andrews hopes her work will help audiences recognize the world—not herself—as magic. "The idea for me is to try to create these small moments of wonder that point to the everyday deeply wondrous experience we live in," she says. "If I can, for whatever brief moment of time, succeed in accomplishing that, I would die happy."   v

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