New public art at Brown showcases the magic and humor of books

“What I Know About Magic,” now on display on the first floor of Friedman Hall, shows books about magic and the occult artfully arranged in clever, humorous and thought-provoking ways.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Friedman Hall, among the busiest classroom buildings in the heart of the Brown University campus, has a new trick up its sleeve.

Now adorning the building’s first-floor corridor is the piece “What I Know About Magic,” created by artist and Brown Class of 1989 graduate Nina Katchadourian. The series of 12 photographs, which show collections of books about magic and the occult artfully arranged in clever, humorous and thought-provoking ways, is one of the newest additions to Brown’s diverse public art collection.

According to Kate Kraczon, chair of Brown’s Public Art Working Group, Katchadourian spent years delving into the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana at the University’s John Hay Library, working with collection curator Tiffini Bowers to find books whose titles could tell both funny and meaningful stories about society’s fascination with talented magicians, mysteries of the universe and tricks of the eye.

“The books in the H. Adrian Smith Collection were fascinating historically, but also aesthetically: there were thick, gilded, leather-bound volumes from the late 19th century as well as slim paper booklets from the 1940s and 50s that often provided instructions on how to perform just one trick,” Katchadourian said. “Magicians seem to be particularly playful in their use of language for the titles of their publications, and since my project focuses so much on language, it was utterly delightful to respond to these authors’ linguistic tricks with a few of my own.” 

One of the piece’s photographs shows a leather-bound book titled “Conjuror’s Repository” atop a stack of books whose embossed titles and leather covers have worn away over time — a humorous commentary on the number of times magicians practice and fail before perfecting a trick, perhaps leaving behind a heap of damaged props.

Another photograph pokes fun at the age-old battle between magic’s true believers and its biggest skeptics: A book titled “Practical Telepathy” sits next to two books titled “Mainly Mental.”

“What I Know About Magic” is the latest piece in Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project, a decades-long effort to explore different libraries and cluster together books that reflect “that particular library's focus, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies,” according to Katchadourian. In addition to her Sorted Books pieces, Katchadourian has worked across video, sound, performance, photography, sculpture and public projects, creating art that comments on topics such as cultural assimilation, gender identity and family relationships. This is Katchadourian’s second public art commission for Brown; her first, “Advice from a Former Student,” features the voices of Brown alumni who graduated between 1939 and 2010.

Kraczon said the artist has always had a knack for injecting magic into everyday things and concepts  — much like other well-known creative people who studied semiotics at Brown in the 1980s, including radio personality Ira Glass, novelist Jeffrey Eugenides and film director Todd Haynes.

“Nina is so good at turning the quotidian into something fantastic and funny,” Kraczon said. “If you’re walking through Friedman Hall, thinking about an exam or a deadline, this piece offers a nice moment of levity in the middle of your day.”