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>> Interview: Marcel Dzama

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How does the narrative arrive?

I’ll have a theme like a horror show, but that gets lost after five or ten drawings. I prefer when things happen organically.

Jeffrey Deitch commented that "today our understanding of an artist is closer to a philosopher than a craftsman." Your work involves lots of craft. Your hand is trained.

The last generation was involved in philosophy, taking it as far as it can go. Now, people are getting back to visually stimulating work. Jotting down a sketch is a big deal. Without it, there’s no intimacy. At university, everyone said computers are taking over art; I was fighting technology.

Is there a hero or heroine in your work?

For the last show I was listening to James Joyce’s works and would draw pictures of Joyce and Mr. Bloom.

Joyce is up there on the shelf.

I drew him with the eye patch. He’s eccentric.

James Joyce in Dzama's studio
Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan.
©Copyright 2006 Cheryl Kaplan. All rights reserved.

In a way, your work is about folly, like a scene out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where there’s a constant mix-up.

It’s almost Beckettesque, where a surreal comedy meets a sinister twist and irony. I’m in a trance doing the work.

There’s a sense that your characters have been somewhere else.

They come from way back, from some other time period. I was also obsessed with Star Wars as a kid. I altered action figures, putting plasticene on their heads.

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, 2003,
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

At the same time your characters also get in deep.

I agree with that. When I first started, I drew cowboy characters as revenge against the bullies in my high school in Canada. It was a farm-based community, with these macho-based cowboy guys. I was the little geeky guy in the library. They wanted to pick on somebody like me, so it was me. My drawings were revenge and punishment.

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, 1997,
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

What kind of punishment did you dole out?

I’d take them down by amputating them or have animals slaughter them.

Loss of limb and life is a good start. A Midsummer Night’s Dream also uses a naïve quality similar to yours.

It’s the children’s illustration aspect with expectations of a happy ending. Or like the Grimm’s fairy tales, where you go through a lot to get there.

Marcel Dzama,
You Gotta Make Room for the New Ones (Detail), 2005,
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

Is that the connection to Henry Darger and Edward Gorey? I’m also thinking about the appearance of animals in your work.

For a while, the bear character was a mother or guardian taking revenge on the cowboys. Being from Winnipeg and having family with farms, I could see how animals have personalities that are almost more interesting than people’s. My grandfather had this horse that looked after the cows. Maybe that’s normal. If you have a house pet, you notice all of a sudden when they’re playing rough, and you ask "what happened?"

Marcel Dzama , Fades Away, 2005,
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

Do you feel that way about your characters?

Sometimes they play rough, out of the blue.

Do you get angry when you’re drawing?

I take revenge on a lot of people that way. Michelangelo put people in Hell.

Why render atrocity as playful?

After I watch the news, I need to get it out of my system. It’s harsh.

How did your film work start, particularly the collaboration with Spike Jonze for Sad Ghost?

My parents bought me this Fischer Price camera that used cassette tapes, like the old silent films; the tapes were cheap. I used to make puppet shows for my sister and cousin, up to my last year in high school. I made costumes; I bought masks and changed them. The stories weren’t that exciting. I started using costumes for films because the actors couldn’t act. I used my sister or dad, but now he’s gotten quite good. She was 12 when we started, but she mostly knits now.

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, 2005,
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

What was the first film?

I was fourteen. They were playful. I had a token band in high school and did arty videos, setting music to it. At university, they supplied us with high-resolution cameras. I didn’t like the way anything looked, so I used the old camera to shoot. The toy camera is a throwback to surrealist films. I was happy with that faked age aesthetic. By the time I used it again, it was so old it didn’t work properly. I couldn’t move very much, because I only had a short cord from the VCR.

In Marcel Dzama's studio
Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan.© Copyright 2006
Cheryl Kaplan. All rights reserved.

What was the worst film plot?

There was a chess game for the end of the world between a weird alien creature and a cowboy. If the alien won, the world would blow up. If the cowboy won, he’d save the world. In the end, the alien wins. I put a giant firecracker in a globe and blew it up. It didn’t look very good, but there were sparks…

What about your collaboration with Spike Jonze?

He came to my studio. I was making 15-second films with a power-shot Sony camera, so we thought up an idea of me painting this bear. Then a bear costume would come down the stairway sideways and maul me. Basically, he kills me. He gets mad and leaves. Then a worm crawls into the room and devours me. The snake was on my head and we put it in reverse so that it looked like it slithered into the room.

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, 2000,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Do you send the costumes out for dry cleaning?

No, they’re pretty dirty. I threw a bear off this building. The costume hit the ground, busting up the mask. With Spike, we were considering using that as a sequel. The bear was feeling so bad that he killed me, and so he was going to have a flashback of all the people he killed. Instead, he commits suicide. Then the worm was supposed to devour him.


The film was silent, but we made bear noises later. Spike screams when I’m supposed to be screaming, because I wasn’t around for sound. He has a really high-pitched scream.

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