Known for his intricate and surreal works, New York-based artist Marcel Dzama draws from varied influences, from Dadaism to childhood fantasies, folk traditions and the present times. The multimedia artist’s works are in major collections — including Museum of Modern Art (New York), Tate Gallery (London), and Guggenheim Museum (New York) — and homes of actors like Brad Pitt and Jim Carrey. He was in Delhi at the recently-concluded India Art Fair (IAF) with a set of works inspired by Bollywood. Also attracting attention was a wall painted with swirling winds in blue and creatures that were part of Dzama’s early works. Excerpts from an email interview with the artist:
Your works at the IAF, which are made for India, feature Hindi cinema dancers and regional wildlife. Do you follow Bollywood?
Bollywood has endlessly inspired my films and drawings. In this series for India, I referenced some of the films I have seen over the years, lobby cards I had purchased long ago and a book of Bollywood movie posters from the 1960s. I’ve always loved the choreography, costumes and music in those films. My favourite soundtracks
are by artistes like Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar.
Your recent show in Hong Kong referenced the country’s horse racing culture. Tell us about that. Also, do you feel it is important to borrow local elements for an exhibition?
I had visited Hong Kong before my first show there, so I knew a little bit about the city and the culture. I also purchased a lot of older records of Chinese garage rock from the ’60s, the titles of which I used for some of the works in the exhibition. I don’t know if it’s crucial to incorporate the culture of the city, but if it brings me inspiration, I like to use it. I never force anything on my work.
Being dyslexic, in school, you would sketch incessantly. Was art a means to express yourself?
I was drawing before I started school, and it was something I was drawn to (no pun intended). I think because I had dyslexia, I lost interest in school. I had no backup plan other than becoming an artist. I wrote poetry and still do, but drawing comes more naturally.
After you moved to New York in 2004, your work became more vibrant. What changed? In a 2008 diorama you had riflemen shooting characters that had populated your works — bats, birds and giant human heads — was that somewhat of a declaration?
Animals have been in my work from the very start. Growing up in Canada, I encountered animals almost everywhere. I viewed them as metaphors for body armour, inside which would be a small man or woman.
When I first moved to New York, I found that my drawings were getting more and more claustrophobic, and I wanted to put some order back into them. So I started putting the characters in dancing positions, which led to my interest in ballet, which then led to my collaboration with the New York City ballet. I spent half a year in Guadalajara (Mexico) working on ceramic dioramas, and one of them was based on a drawing that I made as a declaration of some kind of new, darker chapter. This work showed hunters shooting cartoon animal characters that used to appear in my (early) work in Winnipeg.
Masks have been omnipresent in your works since the beginning. How have they evolved?
I like the idea of the character showing what it represents with the mask — yet, underneath, there is still a mystery. In my first few films, the characters were masked because the actors were my parents or my siblings, and they would smile and laugh when I filmed them, so I made masks out of papier-mâché for them to wear to ensure they would not break the character.
How important are collaborations for you as an artist? You have had several — with Arcade Fire, Kim Gordon, Spike Jonze, Raymond Pettibon, and the New York City Ballet.
I collaborated with the New York City Ballet in 2016, which was a dream come true. I always wanted to design costumes and work on stage design for a ballet production. Doing the artist series at the same time made it even more exciting, because I was able to make a book of all the costume designs, display the originals costume drawings and some other ballet inspired drawings and dioramas of possible alternative stage designs. On top of that, I also had a collaborative show with Raymond Pettibon at David Zwirner in New York, and made a short film — all within two months.
Tell us about the influence of Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp on your work.
I was asked by the Toronto Film Festival to make a short film in honour of David Cronenberg. When making the film, I decided to also honour some of the artists I loved, so I recreated artworks by Duchamp, Picabia, Beuys and Goya. I based the whole story on a love affair that Duchamp had with Maria Martins.
How important is it for an artist to comment on politics? You did a series after Trump was elected. I only get political after I’ve listened to the news and need to exorcise it from my mind so that I can sleep at night. Goya’s Disasters of War and writings of William Blake have influenced so many of my works. I’ve always had the feeling that if you don’t learn from the past then your future will be shallow.
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