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Enchanted Objects: Agency in the Magic Act and Contemporary Art Practice

Gilhooly, Jonathan (2010) Enchanted Objects: Agency in the Magic Act and Contemporary Art Practice. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94369) (KAR id:94369)

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In my research project I examine some of the ways in which the objects, strategies, and concepts of conjuring—or what Simon During has called ‘secular’ magic—might be seen to converge with those of contemporary art practice. The theoretical concepts that I employ derive principally from Alfred Gell’s (anthropological) theory of art and agency. In Gell’s theory, an index/artwork is a mediatory (or secondary) agent, but an agent nonetheless, through which the (primary) agency of a social other can be communicated. Gell’s concept of enchantment, but also his interpretation of the status of the artwork as provisional and problematic, rather than aesthetically or semiotically determined, is deployed as a means of creating a productively meaningful relationship between art and magic, both of which can be said to occlude the ‘abduction’ of agency in distinctive ways. Finally, Gell’s concept of agency provides a robust yet fluid set of paradigms for exploring the mobile, tripartite relationship between artist, artwork, and spectator. This relationship is explored in the studio-based work by reproducing some of the forms and strategies associated with the magic act within the context of a ‘gallery’ setting, and considering how the effects of the magic illusion might position the viewer in relation to a set of beliefs about the world. In this sense the magic act (and/or object) operates as a kind of fulcrum between the work and the viewer, signposting a particular orientation towards the work, but simultaneously destabilizing any straightforward response in favour of a more complex set of reflections. In the thesis I explore these themes through four discrete but interrelated chapters, each of which spring from elements of my practice, and can be seen to represent different aspects of agency: the liminal nature of performance, the ‘enchanted’ object, the ‘magic’ of moving image technology, and the concept of the cognitive ‘trap’.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Lowry, Joanna
Thesis advisor: Kötting, Andrew
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94369
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 25 April 2022 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Subjects: N Visual Arts
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Arts
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 30 Aug 2022 15:57 UTC
Last Modified: 30 Aug 2022 15:58 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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