"Jumping," May 21st, 2016, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:11:25.
Tim Spelios: The drums got reposed. I’m really sorry.
Matt Freedman: We feel like we are more streamlined operation now. We can basically take whatever we find on a
Tim: We’ve been doing birthday parties. Okay. I guess we’re starting…
Matt: you’re starting…
Matt: I just fucked up the whole show in the first 30 seconds. Oh well. That’s the gods---I ripped the
whole back of the thing off. That’s why you should always have a backup pad
Tim: We can fix it
Matt: Nah, I’ll just hold it. I’m in shape. If it gets too distracting…
So that was the Egyptian God Bes, one of the few gods in the Egyptian Pantheon who was represented
in a full-frontal context. He was dwarfish and hideous. It's possible that he came from a lion. I was
thinking about that in relationship to Adam’s beautiful show of iconographic images. This creature, Bes,
despite his hideousness was one of the more popular Egyptian gods. He was the enemy of all that was
evil and the friend of all that was good including music, sexual pleasure. He was portrayed often with a
tambourine in his hand.
The subject is jumping today. There's only one song that I know that rhymes trampoline and
tambourine, by the London rapper Tinie Tempah and in that rhyme he has another interesting rhyme,
which is, “I go to Claridges for high tea, and I wear my Jordans just like Spike Lee.” That’s probably the
only rhyming of high tea and Spike Lee that I know about. It’s nice. I agree.
Tim: That’s a terrible song.
Matt: It's a good song. You're just an old guy.
Matt: The history of jumping as a competition, or as a measurable skill, goes back obviously to the Greek
Olympic Games. They would jump with weights that they would swing in front of their bodies in order
to give themselves a greater momentum, called halteres. One of the great champions of the early
Olympics, I think 450 BC, was a man named Chionis who actually could jump the equivalent 23 feet using
the system which would have won him a Olympic gold medal in the modern Olympic Games, and in fact
would have placed him in the top ten till about 1952. I don't know whether the weights were a help or a
hindrance. They were like 4 or 5 pounds. You had to be very strong to carry them.
Most of the Olympic Games at that time, of course, were in preparation for or a reflection of the military
needs of the countries that were participating. Chionis’ record of winning, not just the long jump and the
sprints and the 400 meter dash, which were the only a races held at the time, lasted for almost 200
years-he was from Sparta I think-until a man, I think from Sicily named Astylos won the three events
and a newer event called the hoplitodromos, which was run in, not in full armor, but you wore a helmet
and carried a 50 pound shield and often ran with greaves on your legs for about 400 meters, which
coincidentally was also the distance that an average Persian bowman could shoot an arrow. So basically,
they were training soldiers to run into arrows.
Astylos won and immediately follows of Choinis added a special addendum to his statue in Sparta that
said, “When he competed, the hoplitodromos was not held” So in effect, the asterisk , and the first
sports nerds that we know of occurred over 2,500 years ago. His followers were basically--it was sort of
like when Babe Ruth's home run record was about to be broken by Roger Maris and they put an asterisk
in, saying Maris played in extra games. They put an asterisk into Astylos’ records saying he had an extra
Trampolines are relatively recent, although if you look in Don Quixote, Sancho Panza is “blanketed.”
Blanketing, throwing somebody up and down in a blanket, was a form of punishment or entertainment
that's recorded in some of the Passion Plays and in the Bruegel painting of the Games Children Play; 84
games that were popular in the 15th century. There is no image of a blanketing being done, but there's
something called Bum Bouncing. You put somebody on a board, and you bounce them up and down on
the board. I'm not sure if that's supposed to be pleasant or unpleasant. Hockey goalies do that to
celebrate goals by their own team, but it's a very violent thing to watch.
The trampoline as we know it, the modern trampoline, was actually invented by two men, George
Nissen and Larry Griswold, in the 1930s. They were both athletes at the University of Iowa, which makes
them near and dear to my heart. They were divers and tumblers, gymnasts and tumblers. And if you
have ever been around swimming teams or gymnastic teams, you know that those guys are the craziest
people in the world. They will do anything, jump on anything. And these men were no exception. In
addition to creating this new system, the trampoline, they formed a vaudeville team that went around
the world with a very highly a very highly perfected routine that is quite remarkable to watch.
If you're interested, there's a four-minute clip on Youtube of Larry Griswold in 1951, so he'd be about in
his mid-forties. He's on the Frank Sinatra Show of all things. I didn't know Frank Sinatra had a variety
show in the 50s. He’s in his very cool suit and he's in front of the stage and he says, “And now one of the
great artists of his medium will perform for you.” And this man comes out basically in a baggy pants
comic outfit. His hat is slammed on his head and he shuffles in. Behind them is a diving board and a
swimming pool. He says that he is Larry Griswold's father. Larry Griswold, he says, has been celebrating
too much and he can't come to the show, but the father says, “I know his routine. I’ve known him since
he was a little boy.” That's his big joke, and then he goes through this very elaborate routine, which is
obviously crafted from hundreds and hundreds of hours of trial and error, where he climbs up this eight-
foot ladder and he falls down several times. He gets on the diving board and he keeps having these
mishaps that cause him to almost crash into the pool, only catch himself at the last moment, over and
over again and pretty soon as the audience in the palm of his hand as one catastrophe builds on top of
another. Until finally, he jumps off of the board into the pool of water, which turns out to be a hidden
trampoline, and he does a series of routines and then returns to the diving board and lands flat on the
board, puts his head in his hands and looks back at the audience with this grin on his face of complete
This routine, this idea of the incompetent or the drunk, who seems at first to be in danger but then later
redeems himself, is also a staple of all kinds of entertainment going far back in the world. There's a
passage in Huckleberry Finn where he's at a circus and he's horrified when this drunken man comes out
of the crowd and convinces the ringmaster to let him climb on a horse. The crowd is laughing and
hooting as this guy, who does basically the same routine that you see Larry Griswold do on the diving
board. He climbs on the horse and then he falls off the horse and he climbs on again and the horse is
running around and the audience is laughing and Huck is such a naive and sweet person that he's
worried that the man is going to hurt himself. And then he says, “Then he got on the horse and he starts
throwing his clothes off, one piece after another until finally, he’s standing on the horse in this spangly
outfit as tall and handsome as you please, riding around and on the horse.” And he says, “It was one of
the ring master’s own men. He put one over on us.” Huck never quite got the joke, but he was very
relieved that the man wasn’t going to hurt himself. He just felt bad for the ringmaster for having lost
control of his show somehow.
That idea of disaster that turns into something humorous is something that's very interesting.
(Pratfall. Matt falls on trampoline and pops back up.
Tim: You Okay?
Matt. I think I ruined this now. Here, hold that. I think we ruined the apparatus?
I had to follow the comic rule of threes. Yeah, I'm okay. But now we've totally lost not only the rope,
Tim: that proves that we rehearse. People believe we don’t rehearse.
Matt: This proves I have whiplash. That’s Larry’s problem. Thank you.
The trampoline itself actually comes from a circus net. I think what happened was that Griswold
watched people, acrobats, falling off of trapezes and bound and rebounding and realized that could be
turned into an asset. The first person to benefit from a circus net was a young boy named El Nino Farini.
He had very curly hair, he was very sweet looking, and had a very strange routine that his father, his
adopted father--he was an orphan---had created for him.
I haven't showed you this Tim yet, but he hung from his neck from a trapeze and he played the drums,
hanging up 180 feet in the air, despite hanging by his neck like this, but they gave him a net to fall into in
case he fell.
Tim: I’ll Try it.
Matt: You want to try it? After he got too old to be an infant phenomenon, he transformed into “The
Beautiful Lulu the girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist.” Circassian women were supposed to be the
most beautiful in the world. He went into a kind of eclipse and then returned as the Beautiful Lulu and
the act was another groundbreaking effect. He stood on, or she stood on, a platform on an unseen
spring, then catapulted 30 feet into the air onto a narrow trapeze, like this.
She was a great sensation and broke many hearts until one day the catapult mechanism malfunctioned
and smashed her into the platform. She was hauled off to the infirmary where her identity was revealed,
and she had to give up that part of her act.
There was another, performer a bit later, I don't know if you've ever heard of, named Barbette the
Enigma. She was a very famous trapeze artist. She was actually a man named Vander Clyde from Round
Rock, Texas who fell in love with the circus, and at an early age began performing dressed as a girl
because he replaced one of the two sisters in an act and they only had costumes for girls. But he went to
Paris and became an incredible sensation with this act where he dressed as Barbette and performed this
amazing show. And at the end of the show, he would take off his wig and reveal that he was a man. He is
the basis of the play Victor Victoria and then the movie Victor Victoria, where they bowdlerized the
story and had a woman playing a man playing a woman. Jean Cocteau fell in love with him and wrote a
whole thesis about how modern theater was based on this idea of the illusion that Barbette created by
somehow forcing you to ignore what Cocteau called the masculine abilities needed to be an aerialist in
this character of this female by throwing dust in the eyes of the audience. And only at the end, when the
reveal happened, did Barbette seem to now be playing the part of a man who we had never quite
accepted. Cocteau said he was-- I can't remember the phrase --an Angel, a Flower a Bird. That with the
name of the essay that argued Barbette was all of these things. Man Ray took a series of photographs of
him, really beautiful photographs of Barbette. The affair with Cocteau didn't last and he ended up back
in Round Rock, Texas and had a career as a designer of Disney films’ aerialist effects. But you should look
at those pictures of Barbette the Enigma.
Billy Tipton was a jazz pianist who was active mostly in Spokane, Washington in the thirties and forties. A
very dapper guy who did not succeed wholly as a jazz musician. He had a chance to go to the big time
when his group was asked by Liberace to join him in Las Vegas, but he preferred to stay out of the
limelight in Spokane where he had a dual career. He stopped performing so much and he became a
booker of acts and an emcee at local clubs, where he was famous for his salacious commentary. He had
a number of very bad jokes that he liked to tell, like, “There are three sexes. The male sex, the female
sex and insects.”
You're not going to give me a rim shot? I thought I was gonna get a rim shot from you one time.
Billy Tipton also said, “They say it's a struggle to be a modern woman and I agree. Anybody would agree
If you've ever seen a woman try to get into her girdle.” You’re not listening. Girdle? Get into a girdle?
At the end of Billy life when he was dying, his son was in his trailer home, and when he realized Billy was
not going to revive, he called the doctor. The doctor came and tried to get his heart moving again and
asked his son if his father had had a sex change operation and he said, “No.” Billy Tipton had been born
Dorothy Tipton and had decided at the age of 20 to live as a man in order to have a career as a jazz
musician. She was, he was, married several times. He had three adopted sons. Nobody but two of his
cousins ever knew. He had a whole system of wrapping his chest and he explained to anybody who
asked that he had had a childhood accident and he needed the support to keep his broken ribs in place.
He had a prosthetic device to replace... He said he had a terrible automobile accident that had sort of
wrecked his genitals, but at the end of his life had gotten rid of all this material. This interesting
biography of him indicates that his whole life had been this elaborate performance. He totally dedicated
himself to this persona that he created for reasons of his own and that he performed his entire life. All
the jokes that he told that walked the line between performance and gender were hints that he was
leaving to the world for the final reveal that he had planned over 40 years; to walk out and let people
know who he was after he exited stage left.
Phillippe Halsman was one of the most famous fashion photographers of the second half of the 20th
century. One of his most famous images is of the aging Einstein after the war when he was wracked
with guilt about his part in the creation of the atomic bomb program. But Halsman had another project
that was closer to his heart. He collaborated with another surrealist, Salvador Dali, on a series of
photographs, the most famous one of which is Dali in midair, painting a picture as three cats fly by in the
mid-space and a huge dash of water obscures the foreground. You've probably seen that. some place or
another. That was part of a series of photographs that he took called the “Jump Series.” He said that he
thought that when people were in mid-air, when they jumped, they lost all pretense and revealed their
true nature. There is a beautiful picture of Marilyn Monroe leaping. He said the way that she tucked her
legs under her body in space revealed the lost little girl in her. Some people, even in mid-air, couldn't
seem to rid themselves of their reserve. There is an amazing picture of Richard Nixon in his senate
chambers, jumping. He looks just as stiff and tight as he ever was, but he's several inches off the
There is a jumping image of a man named Learned Hand, who was a very famous and respected judge,
called “The 10th Supreme Court Judge” in the fifties and sixties. He was 87 at the time and his picture is
of him in his chambers also, leaping a couple of inches off the ground. This is a special interest to me
because Learned Hand was my father's hero. They'd worked together on a model penal code, and my
father named my youngest brother Tom’s middle name after Learned Hand. In his study my father had a
huge picture of Learned Hand in a much more traditional repose with his hands on a law book, looking
dolefully into the camera or away, I guess, off camera. The image of him jumping is quite remarkable in
contrast to that.
It's interesting that Halsman had this idea about jumping as the royal road to the unconscious of the
person because in his own life as a young man in Austria, before he become a photographer, he had an
extraordinary experience that had to have some effect on his decision not only to become a
photographer, but the subjects that he chose. He was hiking with his father, a dentist, in the Alps. They
were walking along a pass and he turned to look back at his father and saw him falling off a cliff. He saw
him silhouetted against the sky. The image is quite remarkable; above the horizon line, hanging in space.
By the time Halsman got to the bottom of the gorge, his father was dead.
But when he reported the case to the authorities he was arrested for murder. It was the Dreyfus case of
the 1920s. Antisemitism was on the rise in Austria and Germany at the time. He was charged with
patricide and they had a kind of a kangaroo court that sentenced him to 10 years in solitary
confinement. His sister began an extraordinary campaign to exonerate him, and there was a retrial and
the intelligentsia of Germany lined up behind him. Einstein, Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud wrote
letters, which is interesting because one of the factors that the jury convicted him on was the Oedipus
Complex. They said he wanted to kill his father and marry his mother, so he pushed his father off of the
cliff. And so, who better to ask about the Oedipus Complex than Freud?
Freud said, ‘You can't convict a man of murder on the grounds of the Oedipus Complex, because the
Oedipus Complex is always present.” And then he told I guess what he would consider an anecdote or a
joke. He said a man was found with a crowbar and convicted of the crime of breaking and entering, and
at his sentencing hearing he said, “I would like to be a convicted of adultery as well, because I also have
the tools for that on my person.” In any case, he got Halsman off.
Ah. Freud gets a rimshot. Yeah.
The first parachute jump occurred from a hydrogen balloon in 1797. It's interesting that there have
always been these intrepid crazy people willing to do things that none of the rest of us would ever
consider doing. This man named Andre-Jacques Garnerin hooked up a 23-foot sail to the bottom of a
hydrogen balloon, went up 3,200 feet and cut himself loose. He didn't have a vent in it, so basically this
thing went down like a corkscrew, but he survived and became one of the more celebrated aeronauts of
A few months later, it would have been the first of Brumaire --this was in post-revolutionary times--so
this is the sixth year of the short lived Republican Calendar, he proposed to take a woman up into space
with him, a woman known only as Citoyenne Henri, a very young and apparently beautiful woman. He
was denied a permit to go into space with her on the grounds that the decreased air pressure aloft
would collapse her delicate female organs and she would suffer. Also, it was ungentlemanly to take a
woman into such dangerous positions. Also, it was unseemly that they would be up in space together
without a chaperone. But he was very determined and he appealed to the chief magistrate of Paris,
who reviewed the documents and decided that the fact that she wanted to go into space was evidence
that she considered it a feasible endeavor, and that there was nothing inherently more morally
questionable about ascending in a basket into the air then there was about “jumping into a carriage
together.” I like that expression, “jumping into a carriage together.” So they went up in space and they
were fine and shortly after, Garnerin‘s own wife became the first woman to successfully parachute from
Besides the Greeks and their Olympic Games there were very few ways of measuring, physical abilities
before the advent of modern contemporary athletics, but jumping has always been a measure by which
people sought to distinguish themselves as athletic phenomenona. Alberti, the father of single point
perspective, was a very famous athlete as a youth, and his great ability was apparently that he could
jump entirely over another human being. This is his own report, so we don’t have any verification, but I
like the idea of Alberti jumping over another human being.
The other person who seemed to have been a remarkable athlete who we might not have thought of in
that context, was Nathan Hale, the famous, highly unsuccessful spy who was hung somewhere around
where Saks Fifth Avenue is today in Manhattan. As a young man he was said to be able to put his hand
on a fence post as tall as he was, and then vault entirely over that. I can't even tell if that's
extraordinary, I guess that's pretty hard to do. It didn't do him any good in the end.
Just brief mentions of two other jumps that I consider interesting. The Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon
Jump in 1974. I think it was the same day that Nixon was indicted. The chute deployed prematurely, and
he went safely but ignominiously to the bottom of the canyon. And then, at about the same time, Jaws
was a popular movie and on Happy Days, to take advantage of the fact that Henry Winkler, the actor,
was an accomplished water skier, there was an episode in which he jumps over a tank of sharks, and this
was retroactively considered by some to be the moment when the show lost its creative headway and
the phrase “Jumping the Shark” came as the result of that. Although it's been pointed out that that was
a very popular episode and the show actually lasted six more years. I don't think that has anything to do
with the undeniable lack of creative originality in the show after that.
Superman, as originally conceived, was a much more limited character than the one that we know
today. The phrase, “Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” is literally
true. That's what he could do: he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. He could jump 700 feet,
about an eighth of a mile, which was considered about as much as anybody could imagine anybody
being able to do. It was only as the stories went on and they had to create a more and more fabulous
character, that he began to take on the ability, not just to run and jump, but to fly. And then eventually
to fly so fast that he could literally turn time around.
No matter how powerful he got, he was always vulnerable to Kryptonite, and the debilitating rays of a
Red Sun, and to magic. As long as it was a supernatural effect, we were comfortable with the idea that
even Superman could be challenged. And in fact, in magic performances going back innumerable ages,
the ability to move so swiftly that you appear to be in two places at once, to defeat time and space, has
been a staple. The performers who are most adept at that are called quick change artists. They usually
operate with a body double. You see one person, there’s a blackout or some effect, and then they
appear in another place. One of the first people to master this was an Austrian named Sigmund
Neuberger who began touring--his father had a business in Manhattan, but he went out west with a
man named Mike Whelan and they had a quick change routine that they did at the mining camps
around the west and they did pretty well, but eventually they broke up. He came back to the east and he
began to develop his own show as the Great Lafayette. He became friendly with another young Jewish
performer named Eric Weiss, better known as Houdini, who noticed that Lafayette had few friends. He
was a very severe, remote sort of guy, so one day Houdini gave him a pet dog named Beauty. He said,
“A man without a friend needs Man's Best Friend.” Lafayette fell hard for this dog named Beauty and it
became the apple of his eye, traveling with him, had his own hotel rooms. He had five meals a day. One
day while he was performing his routine, the dog wandered onto the stage and Lafayette got the biggest
applause that he'd ever had in his life.
He realized he was onto something. He began to incorporate the dog into his act and he quickly became
the most popular, highly paid performer of his time, far eclipsing Houdini. He was paid, I think, the
equivalent of over--almost $4 million a year. He had plaque on his private car that said, “The more I see
of people, the more I prefer my dog,” and another plaque in his apartment that said, “You may eat my
food. You may order my servants. But you must respect my dog.” His routine was very elaborate. It was
three hours long. It was apparently kind of fabulous. It was very heavily weighted towards animals and
narratives. He had a Lion named Prince and an Arabian horse and instead of just performing acts, he
would create these tableaus, these stories, where he would evolve, things would happen. The climax
was usually that the Lion Prince was placed on an electric plate and they gave him a shock and he would
roar and then over here there would be a Damsel in Distress and the lion would run at the damsel, and
she would turn into Lafayette ,and then it would jump at her and pass over her into the audience. At the
last moment the lion would turn into Lafayette. It always got the crowd.
In Edinburgh where they were performing this, Beauty the dog suddenly died of old age and the rich diet
that Lafayette had been feeding him. He was inconsolable. He said he was going to follow the dog to the
grave and everybody told him that was silly. Then he negotiated with the local cemetery to have the
dog buried in the human cemetery on the grounds that when he eventually died himself, he would be
buried with the dog. But the show must go on, and he continued to perform. Later that week, while they
were performing the final lion change, Chinese lanterns on the stage caught fire and the whole stage
began to go up into flames. Somebody chopped a cord and the fire curtain fell down and the quick-
thinking orchestra leader played “God Save the King” and everybody stood up and exited the theater.
So, the audience was okay, but behind the scenes there was chaos.
The lion's mane had caught on fire. It was running around. All the extras were on fire. Lafayette, who
was paranoid about people stealing his tricks, had chained the doors, all the doors but one, where the
lion was lying, burning. There were reports that Lafayette was actually seen outside of the theater as
the fire was raging. He said, “I have to go back in and save my horse,” and he went back in and then the
building collapsed and everybody inside was lost. After the fire died down, they went back in and they
found his charred corpse with his sword, burned beyond recognition, next to the lion and the horse.
They made arrangements for the funeral and they began to prepare.
Several days more of work were required to clear the stage. Eventually they found a trap door
underneath with Lafayette's body, unburned. This was the real Lafayette with his swords and his jewels.
Apparently, what they had discovered before was the body double in the rubble. Lafayette had been
able to somehow get into his trap door, but hadn't gotten out, so he had in effect cheated death one
last time. He was buried with his dog. They couldn't get a rabbi to perform the ceremony, but a local
priest did. It was the biggest hit, the biggest funeral anybody had seen in Edinburgh. And I guess you
could still go see the grave to this day. Oh, I think Houdini sent a spray of flowers to the funeral in the
shape of the dog Beauty with a note saying, “To the man who gave you your best friend, your friend
Houdini had an act that was supposed to tempt fate—death--himself, his most effective act. He had
himself chained and manacled and placed in an oversized milk canister holding, I guess several hundred
gallons, with a little cutaway. He would be inside all chained up. They would then bolt the lid on and pull
down a screen and then just when everybody thought he was goner he would emerge. He survived all
this. He, as you probably know, died when somebody punched him in the belly when he wasn't
After his death, this stunt continued to be performed by a number of magicians, including a man named
Genesta who made a good living at it till one day he didn't get out. It turned out that on the morning of
the event, his assistant had dropped the can and neglected to tell him, and that had made a small dent
in the lid. The way the trick worked is when the screen was down, you just lifted off this top part once
you were unchained and you could get out. But because of this dent the top was mechanically locked
into place. Always check your equipment. I guess.
Sometimes it's not necessary to threaten to have actually life or death on the line. The illusion of death
or danger is enough to create danger. In 1938 in Shawsville, a small town outside Montreal, Quebec, a
magician with a small touring circus, his name was Lamont, was preparing to perform the famous “Saw a
Lady in Half Trick” and he was performing in front of an audience of people who apparently had not
seen live theater. Let alone a magic act. As soon as he saw Lamont was going to saw this woman in half,
one of the farmers ran on stage, grabbed one of his swords and ran him through with it. At the inquest,
he said he “Just couldn't stand to see that nice woman cut in half by that man.”
Houdini wanted to try a very famous trick, the Bullet Catch Trick but the was dissuaded by his friend an
older magician named Harry Kellar. Harry Kellar was famous for his Self-Decapitation routine where he
would cause his head to leave his body and float around the room. He was the model for the Wizard of
Oz when Frank Baum wrote that. He looked exactly like the Wizard of Oz that you see in the film. He
wrote a letter to Houdini that Houdini apparently paid attention to, saying that the world needs Houdini
more than it needs another person trying to do the Bullet Catch Trick, so please do not attempt this
trick. So he didn’t. The bullet catch trick is in fact, one of the more dangerous tricks in the magician’s
repertoire. Since the invention of the gun, a least a dozen people have been killed. The first was a man
named Coulen of Lorraine, who wasn't killed by the bullet, but by the assistant who was shooting him,
who beat him to death with the other end of the gun. That's the only thing I know. More problems with
A woman named Madame DeLinsky performed with her husband, and they performed the Bullet Catch
by firing squad. They would have a bunch of soldiers march out, line up and shoot her. At the time the
way that you would fire a gun was you would bite off the cartridge, pour the gun powder into the barrel,
and then drop the bullet in. The soldiers were in on the trick, so they were told to keep their bullets in
their mouths, which worked until it didn't work, and one of the soldiers forgot and spat his bullet into
the gun and that was the end of Madame DeLinsky and her unborn child.
One other ironic death. This was a man named Professor Epstein. You’d think a man named Epstein in
1869 would have used another name, but he called himself Professor Epstein and he did the Bullet Catch
Trick. But instead of using a ramrod to load the gun, he used his magic wand to stick the bullet down.
Usually there'll be a little contraption at the end of the gun that would take the bullet off the ram, rather
than take the bullet out. But his magic wand was wooden, and it snapped off apparently in the muzzle
and he didn't realize it. When the gun was fired, he received his own magic wand in his forehead and
died a gruesome and highly ironic death.
But the most famous bullet catch death was by a man named Chung Ling Soo. Chung Ling Soo’s real
name was William Robinson. And like most of these guys he had created alternate personas for himself.
First, he tried to imitate a German performer whose stage name was Ben Ali Bey, another exploitation
of the enthusiasm for eastern black magic that was quite high at the time. Robinson became a character
named Achmed Ben Ali. That didn't catch on, but then along came a man named Ching Ling Foo, a
Chinese performer who had a routine with a water bowl. He would make bowls of water with a goldfish
appear and disappear. It was very successful, and he issued a challenge that was traditional at the time
that, anybody who could explain his trick could win $1,000. Robinson naively attempted to show him
how he did the trick and when he didn't receive any money he went to London and began to basically
take Foo’s act and became Soo and his wife, whose name was Dot, became Suee Seen. They became the
most famous performers in London at the time.
He was actually a very good magician, and when Foo finally came to London, they had a kind of a
magician-off, and Foo, who was the original act, had to actually leave town because people thought Soo
was the real deal. Even though he was a westerner, he made up a story that he was the son of a Chinese
woman and a Scottish missionary.
He never spoke English out loud. Soo lived this entire persona night and day. At one point he fell out of
love with Dot, his common law wife, and had a relationship with another woman, but he continued to
employ Dot as his stage assistant and maintained their professional relationship, which included Dot
loading the trick gun that created the Bullet Catch effect. And this again worked until it didn't work, and
he was shot in the chest and issued his first and last words in English from the stage, which were, “I've
been shot! Lower the curtain!” At the inquest Dot was cleared. The explanation was that over the years
they had a double barrel system that he never cleaned. Dot would put the bullet in here and the gun
powder in here, but they never cleared out the gunpowder. So eventually you get this loud explosion.
There was this residue of gun powder build-up that wore a small hole in the middle that separates the
two barrels and finally, a spark shot a bullet into Soo.
His success as this pseudo Chinese performer reflected a kind of fascination throughout the west with
the exotic east. It wasn't just magicians, but also writers who reflected this fascination. There was a
man named Hearn, Lafcadio Hearn, who was born on Lefkada, an island in Greece. His mother was an
illiterate Greek noblewoman and his father was a surgeon in the British navy from Ireland. Soon after he
was born, they sent him to Dublin to live. His mother abandoned him and soon after that his father’s
family sent him to Ohio, to Cincinnati, Ohio of all places to go stay with an in-law who took one look at
him, gave him five dollars, and told him to make his way in the new world. He was a kind of a contrarian
fellow. He had been disfigured by some sort of fight as a young boy and all the pictures of him show him
from the right profile. His left eye was apparently discolored and disfigured, but he got work as a
newspaper man in Cincinnati and began to write stories about the rough and tumble underworld of
Cincinnati and became quite a successful until he married a young black woman, which was against the
law and he lost his job and he went to New Orleans and he started his life again, without his wife. He
lost all his money in an ill-fated restaurant venture, but he began to get more jobs as a correspondent
describing life in New Orleans. He is in fact considered to be responsible for the vision we have of New
Orleans to this day as this exotic place of mystery and magic. He was something of a debunker, but he
wrote a lot about voodoo and various Santeria effects and he became a national correspondent writing
about this world in New Orleans.
And then he moved to the West Indies for a couple of years and wrote about that. And then he talked
his way into getting, I think, The Atlantic Monthly to send him to Japan as a correspondent. And this is
where he finally found his world. He married a Japanese woman. He adopted a Japanese name, Koizumi
Yakumo, and he began to write several books a year about Japanese culture that were very popular in
the west. He venerated, celebrated, in an almost naive way, this western ethos of the Samurai warrior
as a man of honor beyond the limitations of Western relativism.
And he was so good at this that he became a hero of the Japanese nationalist movement. After his
death, His work was still read in Japanese schools and he was utilized as a kind of an apologist for the
Japanese colonial ambitions in China, all of which he would have abhorred in his own life, but he did
write a number of histories of Japan. He is most known for his ghost stories. One of his more famous is
the story of Kwashin Koji, which is a very elaborate story about an old man who has a painting that he
displays outside of the temple of a great Shogun. He's a Shinto priest and for a few pennies he will
describe what he sees in this painting. It is of a path to Hell and there are goblins and devils and fire. It's
a horrific painting that he describes very beautifully. It's a gorgeous painting and one of the attendants
for the Lord sees it and invites him in to describe the painting, or to present the painting, to the Lord.
He goes through the whole act and he shows the goblins and the devils and the fire. At the end the
attendant says, “Would you like to give the painting to the Lord as a gift?” And the man says, “Well, if I
did that, I would have nothing to live on. I can't do that. If he would pay a hundred ryo, a hundred gold
coins for the painting I could start a new business and he could have the painting.” But they're quite
offended by this and he's thrown out into the street with his painting and the attendant follows him out
and says, “We won't give you a hundred gold coins for your painting, but we will give you three feet of
iron.” And he stabs him and takes the painting and brings it back to the Lord.
He says, ”I have secured the painting for you.” They unroll it, and it's blank. There's nothing on it. And
the Lord is outraged, and he throws the man in jail and he serves a lengthy prison sentence and when he
comes out, he's astonished to hear that Koji, the old man, is presenting the painting in a distant part of
the country. He pursues the old man until he finally finds him, and he hauls him back to the Lord. He
brings him in front of The Man, who says, “How did it happen?” They don't really go into why the old
man is back alive, they're more interested in the painting. “How did it occur that the painting that you
showed us became blank?” And he said, “All paintings of any worth are ghosts. They have ghosts in
them, and they have the desire to be what they are meant to be. When you refused to pay for the
painting, the painting did not wish to belong to you, so it went away. If you would pay the hundred
coins for it, you would have the painting.”
So, the lord said, “Okay, here's a hundred gold coins” and he gives him the money and Koji gives him
the painting and the lord enrolls the painting and sure enough, the figures are back, the goblins and the
devils and the river of fire. But the colors aren't as vivid as they were before, and the characters, the
creatures aren't as alive. The Lord notices this and asks him, “Why is the painting inferior?” And he says,
“Well, before it was paid for it was priceless. Now that you've paid a hundred coins for it, that’s what it's
worth. No more and no less.” And the story goes on and on and on.
But that element became the basis of a much more famous story by the writer Marguerite Yourcenar, a
French--a Belgian aristocrat who lived in the United States for most of her life. She was the first woman
elected to the Academie Francaise apparently, and as the first woman, she had her effect on the place.
The men's room was changed to say, “Gents and Marguerite Yourcenar”. She's the only person I know
who has her own name on a gender-neutral bathroom.
She wrote a story called “How Wang-Fo was Saved,” which I first saw performed by my friend Hanne
Tierney, a wonderful artist who made a puppet animation of this story. You can see threads of Lafcadio
Hearn’s original story here, but it takes a slightly different tack. How Wang-Fo was Saved is the story of a
painter--another painter--and his assistant Ling. They go from town to town and Wang-Fo paints
whatever he can for just enough to eat. Ling carries all of his work on his back; every drawing that he
ever made of the sky and the earth and the rivers and the seas and the horses and the people. Wang-Fo
is a magnificent painter and everything he paints comes to life, so farmers have him paint their dogs so
that they can have watchdogs and lords have him paint their best warriors so they can have armies. He
never gets rich. He just has enough to live on.
Ling and Wang-Fo had met years before when Ling was a rich young man with a beautiful wife, and he
used to go to a tavern because that was the proper thing to do. He met Wang-Fo one night getting
drunk. Wang-Fo was trying to study the expressions of people when they were inebriated, so he was
becoming inebriated himself. Wang-Fo lived for his art, nothing more, nothing less. In the course of this
evening of conversation, Wang-Fo showed Ling the beauty of a firefly and a thunderstorm, things that
he'd been afraid of, and Ling invited him back to his home to live with him. He meets his wife, his
He says to Ling that he'd always wanted to paint the most beautiful princess in the world, but all
princesses were too real to have a sufficiently unreal princess. He wants Ling to pose as a woman, and
he paints Ling as the princess. Then Ling wants to make a painting of the most beautiful prince ever, and
he has the wife pose as the prince, because no real prince would be a sufficiently unreal to realize his
vision. As time passes, the wife realizes that Ling prefers the paintings of her to herself. One day when
they come outside Ling and Wang-Fo find her hanging from a tree.
Ling is upset, but Wang-Fo says that her expression and the color of her face is something that he's
never seen before and he wishes to paint it. So, they busy themselves with mixing the colors and
painting a picture of the dead wife and Ling forgets to cry. Eventually he sells all of the goods and
articles in the house to support Wang-Fo and his art, and they leave the house. They began to travel
around the country painting the dogs and the horses and the soldiers of the people they meet.
One day when they are at an inn and sleeping, soldiers from the emperor, the Sky Dragon, come to the
inn and arrest them. At first Ling thinks it's because of some bread he had stolen earlier that day to feed
his master. But they're taken in front of the emperor himself, who is described as a man no more than
20 years old with the hands of an old man.
He says to Wang-Fo, “You have ruined my life. I was raised away from people, surrounded only by your
paintings. It was not until I was 16 years old and my parents had died that I was allowed to go out in the
world so that I could compare what you had painted to what the world was like, and the world is far
inferior to the paintings. The clouds are not beautiful, as beautiful as your clouds, and the sky is not as
beautiful as your skies. You have taken all the sweetness of life for me and there's nothing for me to rule
over. Everything that's worth ruling over is in your paintings and in your eyes and in your hands. You've
ruined my life, and the only just punishment for that is that you should be deprived of the power you
have to misguide the world. So, your eyes are going to be taken out, the eyes that see the world that the
rest of us don't see. And your hands, which translate that vision into reality, are going to be cut from
your body so that you must live inside yourself and you can't torment the rest of the world.”
When Ling hears that, the assistant pulls a knife leaps at the emperor, but he is caught and the emperor
says, “Now I have something else to hate you for. You've caused somebody to love you enough to die
for you. Cut his head off.” Ling jumps away from Wang-Fo so his blood won't soil his master’s robes.
They cut his head from his body and he falls to the floor. Wang-Fo is upset, but he can't help admiring
the beautiful stain of crimson on the green jade floor. They take the body away and the emperor says,
“I have one thing for you to do before the sentence is carried out and you lose your eyes and your
hands.” And the emperor hands Wang-Fo an unfinished painting that he owns. “This is a painting you
did many years ago. You must've been distracted. You only put it in the first lines of the sky and the sea.
Before I cut off your hands and take out your eyes, you must finish this painting. If you don't do that, I'll
burn all the work you've ever done in your life. And it will be as though you were a parent who lost all
So, Wang-Fo sits down to paint and he's content because he can paint at least one more time. He
begins to paint and every time he puts a brushstroke on to fill in the sea, water begins to fill the room.
The courtiers are all afraid to move.
As he continues to paint, the room continues to fill with water. He paints a boat coming around from
behind a stone. The boat gets closer and closer until it enters the room. And there is Ling propelling the
boat by single oar. Wang-Fo says--Ling has a red ribbon around his neck, a long red ribbon—"I thought
you were dead.” And Ling says, “How can I be dead when you're still alive and in need of my service?”
Ling helps Wang-Fo into the boat. Wang-Fo says, “What about all the people in the room?” The room is
now filled, and the courtiers are all floating underwater beneath them. Ling says, “Don't worry, when
we leave, the waters would go away. These people were not meant to be lost in paintings. Only the
emperor will remember a small maritime bitterness in his heart.” And they turn and they begin to
paddle away and as they paddle away the room begins to empty of water until they round the rock and
Thank you. I won’t insult you by putting a price on the drawings.
Thanks everybody. Thank you, Tim.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios have been producing their Endless Broken Time drawing, talking and percussion performances at Studio 10 gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2015. Ancestors, machines, and philosophy are told and illustrated by Freedman and take their irregular rhythm and form from the aberrant and improvised syncopation of Spelios’ broken time drumming.
© 2020 Matt Freedman
All Rights Reserved.