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Artist-in-residence David Gifford works as sculptor and magician

by Pan Wendt

After watching a dust-covered David Gifford painstakingly carving a sculpture of a bear out of a 400 lb. block of jade, it's quite a surprise to see him working crowds of children as a stage magician a couple of days later, from the same white tent no less. “The Great Giffoni” is the alter ego of the British Columbia-based sculptor, the present artist-in-residence at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery. Gifford learned the art of stage magic and took on the persona following his graduation from art school in the early 1990s. Now he is both a traveling magician and a practising artist, David Giffordrecently touring the James Bay shore and communities in Northern Canada. His afternoon magic show, which runs daily until the end of July in front of the Confederation Centre’s outdoor amphitheatre, makes one think of 19th century traveling sleight-of-hand shows. Gifford wears a black suit and employs a highly stylized self-presentation. His repetition of pseudo-authentic Italian phrases and words such as “fantastico,” as well as his impressive substitions of radishes for tomatoes, his conjuration of live lobsters and pieces of broccoli recalled a lost era while still managing to delight an enthusiastic crowd of children.

It is this sense of a half-forgotten past, or a lingering memory, that links Gifford’s work as a sculptor and a magical entertainer. Presented together, the two crafts fulfill common images of the trade of sculptor and the old-time prestidigitator, but, as Gifford explains, “they bring to mind memories of things we’ve never actually experienced.” In fact the two trades used to share a common task. In Western culture, the artist and the magician have shared the work of making illusion, of mimesis. Hidden within these social roles, and the public production of artificial realities for entertainment, edification and pleasure, are remnants of the ancient figure of the enchanter-trickster, whose most important activity was the interpretation of the universe. The Great Giffoni is thus a purposeful phony, David Gifford’s elegant and humorous attempt to reenchant the practice of art and return to it something of what may be its essential role.

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