Lukas Lee and Yu Ho Jin
In last week’s Take Two about the magic of Garrett Thomas, I discussed having recently taken part in the Magi-Fest convention in Columbus, Ohio, and included a brief rundown of the closing night’s gala stage show. One of the performers on that program was a young Korean magician known as Lukas.
Decades ago, Penn Jillette pointed out that only in magic are performers often expected to somehow like every form of the art, whereas in music, it’s not unusual for musicians to limit their tastes to their own, or only a few, forms. He was making the point that journalists wouldn’t typically ask a rock musician who their favorite opera singer is, but are quick to ask any magician whether they’re fans of the latest popular television magician, no matter if they work in different genres. Eugene Burger has said that, “The house of magic has many rooms” (to which I like to add: Some of them are in the basement and should remain locked). One of those rooms is marked “manipulative magic.”
Lukas (aka Lukas Lee) specializes in “manipulative” magic, which is a branch of stage magic that is typically performed to musical accompaniment, and focuses on the skilled manipulation of objects like playing cards and billiard balls. Other items on this short list might include coins, live doves, and in the past, lit cigarettes, however this latter has fallen out of favor, rendering a remarkable branch of magic now all but extinct. The “effects" of manipulative magic entail the basic variety of conjuring feats, i.e., productions, vanishes, transformations and transpositions, and while the results tend to be rather abstract, they can also be quite beautiful. At it’s worst, admittedly, manipulative magic is often less than magical, more like juggling, and all too obviously lacking meaning and purpose, since it generally entails the apparent ability to produce infinite quantities of playing cards, coins, billiard balls, doves, or cigarettes; most of these things are worthless, one will kill you, and the birds are too small to eat. However, at its best, this can be among the most beautiful and purely visual branches of magic, and as I pointed out in Take Two #4 featuring Lance Burton, “… Teller, in House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (2005, The Miracle Factory), writes that, ‘The creation of beautiful things is really the only reason on earth for producing silks. … there are times in magic when we can give priority to the simple contemplation of beauty.’”
In that same installment of Take Two, I mentioned that Lance Burton “in 1982 won the most prestigious international prize in magic—the FISM ‘Grand Prix’ award (he was the youngest to ever win it and the first American to do so).” There are many magic conventions, and many magic competitions at such conventions, but the most prestigious international convention is that of FISM, the International Federation of Magic Societies (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques), which was founded in 1948. Its conference is held every three years in different countries around the world, and the competition, which lasts for days, is broken into categories including manipulative magic, grand illusion, comedy magic, mentalism, general magic, close-up magic, and close-up card magic. There are up to three prizes awarded in each category, and from those winners, there may be one stage act and one close-up act that can be awarded the “Grand Prix.” (The close-up Grand Prix was added in the 1990s; prior to that there was only a single Grand Prix award.)
While the Grand Prix can and has come from any of the categorical branches, traditionally it most often came from manipulative or general magic, as these are categories (along with the close-up categories) that require and feature skill at a premium. For decades in the contest’s early history, these awards were dominated by the Dutch, as reflected by performers like Fred Kaps and Richard Ross. Then in the early 1980s the Americans had a huge impact, not only with Lance’s taking of the Grand Prix, but also with close-up prizes over several years going to American magicians Daryl, Paul Gertner, Michael Weber and others.
It was in this same period that Japanese and other Asian performers began to show a significant presence at FISM, with in 1985 both the innovative manipulator Mahko Tendo taking second prize in Manipulative Magic and Fukai & Kamika taking second prize in General Magic. The Asian contingent has been a consistently strong presence ever since, including winning performers from Japan, China, Taiwan, and more recently, Korea. And indeed, at the 2012 XXV World Championships in Blackpool, all three prizes in Manipulative Magic were taken by Koreans, one of whom was also awarded the Grand Prix.
This extremely brief thumbnail sketch of some of the workings of the FISM competition serves as introduction to the performer I saw garner a standing ovation in Columbus a couple of weeks ago, the aforementioned Lukas. This young man is substantially responsible for bringing an innovative new style to contemporary manipulative magic, leaving much of the speed, flash, and bombast of previous iterations behind, and bringing a genteel and nuanced focus to the work. Instead of pounding rock music or intense orchestral music, the act is accompanied by solo piano, to which Lukas works softly, slowly, deliberately. Instead of filling the stage with a mountain of cards, he works with small quantities, bringing great attention to the subtle beauty of the work. He took Second Prize in Manipulation in 2012, and came back to take Second Prize in Manipulation yet again in 2015. And under the heading of Life Is Not Always Fair, other talented performers have received even greater recognition for a style that without doubt (as they themselves will acknowledge) was innovated by Lukas.
A few notes before showing this to you. It’s very difficult to find the right scale with which to shoot magic like this. More often than not, being shot too closely sometimes damages these performers. These acts are intended to be seen at a distance, but people are accustomed to seeing a performer fill the frame of the TV screen, hence directors push the lens in too tightly on the action. So if, on occasion, you see something you think you shouldn’t have, keep in mind this is probably not due to a fault of the performer, but the simple fact that you’re not seeing this in real conditions.
Also, in this first video of Lukas, this is not his complete act, but is the most complete version I could find. And too, this version has some annoying voiceover commentary by Italian commentators. This is a common element in European and Asian television broadcasts of FISM competitions, so this is a rare time that you might not want the sound up too loud because of the occasional interruptions. Most of it goes away however after the first thirty seconds.
That all having been said: Put down the smart phone for a few minutes, please! Expand the browser to the full screen! And enjoy the beautiful and innovative manipulative magic of LUKAS:
As mentioned, Lukas was one of three Koreans who captured all three Manipulation prizes in 2012. The First Prize that year was taken by Yu Ho Jin, who was then awarded the Grand Prix as well. The Koreans are a close-knit group, and these two performers are friends. As I understand it, Yu Ho Jin openly acknowledges that his friend Lukas paved the artistic way for the former’s victory at FISM.
You can see the influence in the pacing and choice of music. (There are also technical and methodological influences at work here among the Koreans and other contemporary manipulation acts, which will not be apparent to non-magicians; for that matter, there are elements of these acts that fool many magicians quite thoroughly!) But Yu Ho Jin has explored and refined a very particular aesthetic, and brings what an only be described as an emotional intensity to the material. This is damnably difficult when it comes to something as abstract as manipulative magic, but he demonstrates that it can be done. The work carries with it an air of mystery—another challenge when it comes to manipulation—and it is certainly beautiful to behold.
And finally, I will add that if you think these two performers are extremely skilled, if you think they are working very hard to achieve these feats—well, I can only say, you have no idea! These young artists are operating at the peak limits of their skills, and it is frankly astonishing—all the more so to those of us who understand what kind of effort lies beneath the beautiful surface—that they can do this so flawlessly, much less, repeatedly. Like a classical music soloist, like an Olympic athlete, these artists have devoted themselves to creativity and inventiveness, coupled with unimaginably countless hours of practice and rehearsal. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that many if not most of the world will never work this hard at anything.
Put down the smart phone, expand the browser… and this time, turn up the music all the way … and enjoy the award-winning manipulative magic of Yu Ho Jin.