Uri Geller’s Art Show Uniquely Suited to Era of Charlatanism

A sale in Jaffa of artwork by the national psychic leaves this visitor under-awed, albeit appreciative of his astounding marketing skills

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Uri Geller and Sara Netanyahu, at the exhibition opening, December 29, 2019.
Uri Geller and Sara Netanyahu, at the exhibition opening, December 29, 2019.Credit: Aviv Hofi
Gilad Melzer
Gilad Melzer

As a child I loved magic tricks, as many children do. Later in life – again, as with many people – this fascination passed, along with childhood diseases. But then, a friend in New York purchased some tickets for us to a magic show called “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.” Jay had acted in some of David Mamet’s movies. Even though I didn’t really relish a Las Vegas-style evening in the Village, also directed by Mamet, and feeling like a tourist in my own city, I went anyway.

I went and my jaw dropped. I remember that already after the third trick, I tried not to blink. Jay, along with 52 people he called up from the audience, did things that were hard to fathom even though he explained the tricks as he performed them, slowing down and clarifying what he was doing. And yet. You have to see the film they made from his show. Maybe what amazed me most was Jay’s insistence that the tricks were sleight of hand, part of a tradition and a history that he lectured about in great detail during his career.

One of the main points he made in his lectures and films, and even during his performances, was that there was nothing supernatural about what he was doing: It was only a skill that’s acquired through hard work. No different than the skills of a dancer, a violinist, a gymnast or a soccer player. Yes, even Leo Messi does not have supernatural traits. He only puts to maximal use techniques that he hones during tens or hundreds of thousands of hours of training on the field.

In almost every discussion of the world of magic and illusionists today, Uri Geller’s name somehow keeps popping up. This is true mainly in Israel, since he’s one of us, but around the world as well. Back in the 1970s, with excellent timing, a perfect understanding of the medium of television, artistic talent, outstanding marketing abilities and a small set of tricks, Tel Aviv-born Geller became an international brand name – but not as a magician. He repeatedly claimed that he possessed supernatural abilities, extrasensory and psychic ones, and that the illusions he conjured up were not magic but paranormal.

Uri Geller at his exhibitionCredit: Leah Goldman

I don’t know whether it was an act of magic or marketing, branding or supernatural forces, but it worked. It’s worked on millions of people and in thousands of performances over the years.

CIA approval

Returning to what I said earlier, something innocent in all of us wants to believe in the supernatural, in superheroes, in salvation. At the peak of the Cold War the CIA operated a clandestine program called Stargate, which sought to examine the possibility of harnessing extrasensory perception and psychic powers for military purposes. After undergoing a series of experiments in 1973, Geller convinced the spy agency to provide him with a document stating that he possessed a “paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”

But then things went awry. At the peak of Geller’s success, in 1982, Canadian magician James Randy published a book called “The Truth About Uri Geller” (originally published seven years earlier as “The Magic of Uri Geller”), in which he challenged the Israeli’s psychic feats, exposed him as a mere magician, and not one of the best ones at that – and called him a charlatan. Geller sued Randy and his publishers three times, losing every time. Randy also performed some of Geller’s tricks on TV (and later in movies and lectures), demonstrating that there was nothing paranormal about them.

This didn’t prevent Geller from serving as a consultant in exploration for oils and minerals in various places around the globe, as well as here and there predicting the results of elections and other events. He appears all over the world, has published some 16 books and designed covers for recordings, including that of “Invincible,” Michael Jackson’s final album.

Geller also wrote Theresa May, then-Prime Minister of England, that he would use his telepathic abilities to prevent her from pulling out of the European Union. His superior abilities may have influenced May, who resigned, but her successor Boris Johnson is marching assuredly toward Brexit. One more case of magic, dispelled.

At present, after returning home to Tel Aviv ahead of the opening of the Uri Geller Museum in Old Jaffa next spring, Geller has launched an exhibition called “Uri Geller – Fantasy” at the Altmans Gallery next door, and has put some of his artwork up for sale/auction, with the proceeds going to a nonprofit group devoted to children with heart disease. There’s no doubt about it: His marketing skills are amazing.

So last Friday, small-time oligarchs, models and even a beauty queen, as well as VIPs of all types and genres, crowded into the renovated hall of The Jaffa, a boutique hotel, hoping to view some art, or at least to see Sara Netanyahu conjured up. And the (not-so-very) first lady did show up, too. Regarding the artwork that was on the block there, well, let’s say that nothing there was paranormal, nothing was enchanted or enchanting, nothing evoked awe or contemplation.

In the exhibition at the gallery, on through January, Geller, who loves rubbing shoulders with celebs, is described in one of the wall texts as an artist who has worked alongside such greats as Salvador Dali and David Hockney. Hello there! Anyone living on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv who doodled for his enjoyment could also be considered someone who indulged in art alongside Israel’s renowned Reuven Rubin, for example.

The works on show are serially produced items at inflated tourist prices. Maybe they’re not so inflated: There always will be someone who’ll want something signed by a person who, in the 1970s, was called “the most famous Israeli in the world.” The drawings and painted ceramic plates are embarrassing mainly because of their pretentiousness, trying to be what they aren’t – namely, works of art. If I encountered these things at a cultural event in an old folks’ home or on the walls of an elementary school, I’d think that the creative impulse shown there was at the end of the road, or at its beginning.

Uri Geller's art on displayCredit: Leah Goldman

Mishmash and Matisse

The problem with the things Geller shows and sells is almost identical to that related to the history of his tricks. If he said they were magical tricks, then no nudnik, whether Randy the skeptic or some committee devoted to the scientific examination of his claims to supernatural abilities, would bother him. But then maybe in the absence of all the branding and marketing he would not have become the brand he did.

At the gallery, it was the same thing: The pretense, some would say the charlatanism, necessitated the branding of the items on show as art. Otherwise they had nothing to distinguish them from the visual cacophony that surrounds us. Here too Geller arrived with some official approval, not from the CIA this time but from David Lee, a British-born independent art critic who appears on reality shows. He is referred to by Geller as the leading critic who wrote (or said, who knows?) of the artwork in question: “This is a masterpiece. It’s brilliant, exhibiting wonderful influences such as by Klimt, Dali, Picasso near the eyes, Matisse in its lines. This should sell for a fortune.”

In short, a mishmash of murky imitations, hamsas created by a shy kid in a in community center art class, careless kabbalist symbolism and drafting skills that wouldn’t pass the first round in a drawing competition reality show.

On second thought, maybe they would. Perhaps this is the most fitting exhibition for the era of total charlatanism. Maybe these are the things people want and are willing to pay a lot of money for. Maybe Geller will get soon get a certificate from Israel’s Shin Bet security service attesting that this is extra-sensory art. With a photo with Sara and a hug from a billionaire, with a bent spoon here and a rabbit pulled out of a hat there – I would predict that all this may end up in a museum. The Uri Geller Museum. But hey, what do I know about the paranormal?

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