David Blaine is a polarising figure: I’m not the first to write this about the infamous magician and I surely won’t be the last. Whether you love him or not, you’ve undoubtedly heard of him. But do any of us really know who he is?
Personally, I’m a big believer that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, and Blaine’s magic embodies this. He’s mostly known for his dangerous stunts and performances which have left him with several injuries and frequently reward him with gasps of shock and horror. I don’t know a single person who can watch him sew his own mouth shut with a needle and thread without being disturbed.
But in 2020, when the world stood still and we were all looking for a sign of hope, Blaine took to the skies with 52 colorful balloons and gave us all the lift we needed with his latest stunt Ascension.
Most of Blaine’s tricks and stunts are performed for real. Blaine has risked permanent damage and even death performing these feats, and he’s suffered from a severe concussion, starvation, hallucinations, internal organ damage, and been rushed to hospital on numerous occasions. His magic is no joke and the consequences are frighteningly real.
So, does that make him a madman?
Who would go to such lengths in the name of entertainment?
The British public certainly wasn’t impressed by his 44-day stay suspended above the River Thames in a transparent box in his 2003 stunt Above The Below. Some were, understandably, offended by Blaine’s self-imposed starvation when, for millions around the world, it’s a harsh reality. The magician didn’t use this as an opportunity to raise awareness or fundraise for others, and many viewed it as a narcissistic call for attention.
But that doesn’t make Blaine’s performances selfish or meaningless. Blaine views the stunts as a search for “the ultimate truth.” After one of the earlier stunts in his career Buried Alive, Blaine emerged from the underground tomb that had been his home for seven days saying he’d had “a vision of every race, religion and age group banding together.” He seems to be a man driven by a desire to understand the world around him, to find commonalities in a species so often lost in conflict, and to prove to himself and others that humans can survive the unimaginable.
And he hasn’t shied away from helping those in need. In 2006, he spent 52 hours shackled to a spinning gyroscope to raise money for The Salvation Army. In 2010, the magician raised $100,000 for Haiti’s earthquake victims with a 72-hour stunt. And he frequently performs in hospitals for children and has spoken about some of the moving experiences he’s had in this area of his career. Even during lockdown, he continued to entertain the sick by moving his performances online.
“The greatest satisfaction as a magician is bringing joy to the people who can really use it.”
Blaine was born in 1973 in Brooklyn, New York City. His career and personal life both seem to have been shaped by the hardships he faced as a young boy, whether it was the death of his mother or being born with his feet turned in. His performances reveal an obsession with death and overcoming trying torments.
As depressing as this sounds, there is a spark of hope in each performance: thematically, they all seem to be about unity and strength in the face of adversity. Much like a classic horror film, Blaine takes his viewers on an emotional journey to tell us something about the human condition and, ultimately, to provide us with the reassurance that things will work out in the end.
Whether he’s performing a dangerous stunt or close-up card magic, Blaine’s performances are always imbued with his signature intensity. I’ve often thought there’s something disconcerting about the seriousness with which Blaine approaches his performances, but I think if he was anything other than serious it would break the spell he casts over his viewers.
It’s Blaine’s intensity that allows him to communicate his message to his audience and bring them all together in one impossible moment. With his first TV special, Street Magic, Blaine changed the face of magic and placed the focus firmly on his spectators’ responses. The magic was stripped-back and effective, the performances fun and intimate, and the reactions authentic. Where his live stunts seem to invite us to question what we’re capable of surviving, Street Magic showed us how similar we all are at our core.
David Blaine is a man riddled with contradictions. He isolates himself in a box but stages it in a public place for all to see. He loves the simplicity of isolation yet enjoys a life of celebrity. He wants to be the greatest showman but is known for his monotone, deadpan voice and all-black outfits. He celebrates life with stunts that push him further into death’s clutches.
What he does is clearly effective, and maybe it’s because of these extremes he seems to oscillate between that he’s enjoyed such success. After all, what’s more fascinating than someone trying to figure out life in the most extreme and public manner?
So, who is David Blaine?
Is he a narcissist trying to elevate his own profile? A philosopher posing questions before huge crowds? Are his performances self-indulgent or do they serve a purpose? Like with most art, the answer depends on your perspective: perhaps it’s a mix of the above. Either way, I would say that David Blaine is someone with great ambition who has accomplished a lot in his life. He has said that he wants to be remembered as someone who pushed the boundaries of wonder and, whether you’re a fan of the man or not, I think it’s clear that he’s accomplished this goal. As a world-famous performer, his achievements aren’t up for debate: it’s what you make of his success that’s up to you.