A Private Language of Modernist Mayhem: An Appreciation of Marcel Dzama


Marcel Dzama, Grand presentiments of what must come, 2012

I haven’t talked about art as much as I’ve wanted to on this blog. Art is something I have a great appreciation for, but it’s an appreciation that I have found particularly difficult to translate into words. Most of my knowledge of art comes from the handful of art history classes I took as an undergrad, and that was almost a decade ago. As a result I often find I don’t have the proper vocabulary to discuss painting or sculpture the way I can write about novels and film. In fact, if I may let a private embarrassment come to light, when I visit an art gallery I will spend more time reading the placard explaining the meaning of the work than I will taking in and appreciating the work on an aesthetic level.

Still, there are some artists whose work manage to penetrate this barrier and hit me directly on an emotional level, to engage me in ways words can’t entirely explain. As part of my new “forget your insecurities and just write whatever you want on your blog,” I thought I would share my appreciation for one of these artists, the Winnepeg-born multimedia artist Marcel Dzama.

My first encounter with Dzama’s work came with the 2012-2013 Builders exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, showcasing some of the museum’s recent Canadian acquisitions. Among the works acquired were a 14-minute short film entitled A Game of Chess along with a few associated dioramas. As I was perusing the exhibition, I stumbled across these dioramas of busy little scenes of ballet dancers in spotted leotards and chessmen-dancers wearing Dadaist ballet costumes and was intrigued. I recognized the references, and there was a wildness to the works that I liked. And then I sat down and watched the film, and…well, I’m just going to let you watch it for yourselves.

As you can imagine, it was love at first sight. The costumes, the dancing, the black humor, it was as if all this had been made for me to discover. Of course, “love at first sight” is not a particularly useful way to describe one’s aesthetic attraction to other people, so I have been milling about, digging through Dzama’s oeuvre, from the drawings he was making in the late 1990s when he was starting out, such as the picture below:


Marcel Dzama, Untitled, 1999

…to his contemporary work, some of which you can see on his Instagram. I also got a hold of Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord, a wonderful survey of his work up to the early 2010s that really digs into his influences and his evolution, as a very fortunate Christmas present one year.

For me, part of the attraction to Dzama’s work is what could perhaps be called its atemporality. Dzama is an artist who has no problem with wearing his influences on his sleeve, and you can easily see his appropriating figures and motifs from the Dadaists, particularly Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. Aside from his influences, the characters that populate his work look old-fashioned: masked dancers plucked out of 1920s, nurses in wartime dress, and masked revolutionaries that seem to have stepped out of a Maoist ballet. Even the paper he uses for his drawing has a patina of age stained into it with root-beer syrup. There’s something very attractive this aspect of Dzama’s work, that you could drop his work into the early 20th century and have it would work then just as well as it does today. In Sower of Discord, commentator Bradley Bailey suggests that much of Dzama’s fascination with the past ties into his childhood in Winnepeg, a city he describes as being long past its glory days of the 1900s when Dzama was born in 1974. (Suffice to say, Dzama is also a great fan of fellow Winnepegian Guy Maddin.) As someone who has always felt distinctly unmoored from this age, who stumbles and is shoved along by progress rather than marching alongside it, who clings to the past more tightly than the future, Dzama’s aesthetic resonates with me.

Of course, Dzama is no mere nostalgist, to use the unfairly-maligned epithet of the day. Indeed, a great part of his attraction is that he has synthesized all his influences into an intensely personal language. Aside from the Dadaists, he work absorbs Francisco Goya, William Blake, Inuit drawings, and comic books, all of which inform and influence his entire body of work. The end result of all these influences mixing is that most precious of artistic creations, a personal artistic universe. The world of Dzama’s art is a very dreamlike space, where anthropomorphous figures, nurses, revolutionaries, and dancers can play, fight, and die with little consequence. There is a fair amount of violence and sexuality in Dzama’s work, but I have never found it shocking or off-putting. There is a certain matter-of-factness about the depiction of these acts that renders them as curiosities; it is violence without agony and sex without orgasm. There is definitely a political angle to Dzama’s work, particularly with the sympathetic recurring figure of the masked female revolutionary, but aside from his more recent work, which has begun to deal with contemporary politics in a more direct fashion, the political seems secondary to the exploration of personal images and themes. In a way, I actually prefer Dzama’s method to that of more overtly political artists, where the artwork becomes a mere harangue. Of course, it also helps that some of Dzama’s interests, such as the excitement of revolutions and the simultaneous allure and repulsion of violence, are quite simpatico with my own.

At the end of the day, I suppose I’m not quite sure I can say why Dzama’s work resonates with me so much, anymore than I can say why I am so taken with the work of Anselm Kiefer or Edvard Munch. Taste is a funny thing, and at the end of the day there are some things we like that may remain forever inexplicable. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy art so much, to discover things about ourselves that we cannot place on any map. Still, I hope this little post was enough to shed some light on an artist that I greatly enjoy. And now, to send you all off on your own endeavors, please enjoy the music video for the Department of Eagles’ song “No One Does It Like You,” directed by Mr. Dzama himself.

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