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Marcel Dzama’s Imaginarium

New York-based Marcel Dzama creates a series of 15 Artworks for the India Art Fair, referencing Bollywood films and Indian mythology

‘All The Youth Come Out To Play Ain’t No One Lay in Our Way’, currently on view at the India Art Fair
‘All The Youth Come Out To Play Ain’t No One Lay in Our Way’, currently on view at the India Art Fair

Arabian Nights—Bollywood style" is how one could describe artist Marcel Dzama’s new work. Fifteen artworks, layered with meaning, are on view at the David Zwirner gallery’s booth at the ongoing India Art Fair. Created especially for the event, the canvases bring to life a chaotic world, populated with genies, fantastical creatures, dancing women wearing masks, musicians—all set against vibrant backdrops.

This is, in fact, in sync with his overall practice, in which Dzama brings together the folk vernacular with art history. “There are quite a few artists throughout art history that I reference from time to time. I may mix those with something as simple as a happy apple face on a paper bag from the fruit stand," says the New York-based artist.

Marcel Dzama
Marcel Dzama

It is this unique visual vocabulary that has made him quite a favourite with collectors and viewers alike. “The international success of the Canadian-born artist Marcel Dzama belies the idea that contemporary art must involve tricky new media or radically conceptual thought," wrote Liz Jobey in the Financial Times as far back as October 2013. Over the years, the artist has shown his work at the 2006 Whitney Biennial, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2009) and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2017). Work by Dzama is also held in important collections across the world, such as the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Tate gallery, London.

For his new work at the India Art Fair, Dzama has taken inspiration from Bollywood films that he has seen over the years. “I had a few lobby cards, purchased long ago, and a book of Bollywood film posters from the 1960s," he says. It helps that Dzama has always loved the choreography and costumes in these films, and is an avid listener of songs from the 1960s by Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar.

An installation view of ‘Let Us Compare Mythologies’
An installation view of ‘Let Us Compare Mythologies’

Dzama’s work is marked by other-worldly scenes, straight out of fairy tales and vintage films, creating a mix of fantasy, the erotic and the grotesque. And yet, he layers it with the consequences of human action, placing his imagery within the sociopolitical times we live in. “I read a lot of mythological stories from different cultures, including those from India. And a lot of those influence the themes in my work," he explains. Dzama likes the fact that the “morals" in these stories can be interpreted as layers, in so many different ways. “I only usually get political after I have listened to the news and need to exorcise it from my mind so that I can sleep at night," says Dzama.

Besides myths and legends, Francisco Goya’s Disaster Of Wars and the writings of William Blake have had a deep influence on his artistic practice. “I have always felt that if you don’t learn from the past, your future will be shallow," he adds.

25 years of David Zwirner
25 years of David Zwirner

Bears, masked people and chess pieces are recurring motifs in his visual vocabulary. These can be seen in his works at the fair as well, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A lot of these motifs have their roots in his childhood. For instance, the recurrence of bears has something to do with growing up in Canada, and seeing them in forests and at garbage dumps. “The masked characters were also there from the start. I like the idea of the character showing what it represents with the mask on. And yet, underneath, there is a mystery to him or her," he says.

The chess pieces too have their origin in his school days—he learnt to play the game in grade school, but slowly forgot about it until his obsession with artist Marcel Duchamp. “So, I started playing again. At that time, I was living near Washington Square, which was the chess district. So I had a lot of people to play with," he recalls. Since then, he has made quite a few chess- set designs out of ceramics and wood, tin sculptures, drawings and two films based on the game.

Dzama dons many hats—of painter, film-maker, sculptor and also stage designer. In an artist interview in T magazine, Melena Ryzik wrote: “The Canadian-born artist Marcel Dzama is known for his Dadaist multidisciplinary work—drawings, puppets, dioramas—and his collaborations on standout music videos. He was an art director on The Suburbs, the inventive Arcade Fire short film, and co-directed the spooky No One Does It Like You for Department of Eagles."

In 2016, Dzama created costumes and stage design for New York City Ballet’s (NYCB’s) The Most Incredible Thing, a performance based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. This commission also marked the first time in NYCB’s history that an artist simultaneously created work for both the art series and the stage production. Dzama describes the experience as a dream come true. “I thought I might create costumes and stage design for a small company in Canada. I never imagined it would be for the New York City Ballet, with one of the brightest stars in choreography, Justin Peck, and the brilliant composer Bryce Dessner," he gushes.

The artist is also showing the Dadaist disco show Une Danse Des Bouffons at the India Art Fair. Through the black and white silent film, he has paid tribute to his heroes: Duchamp, French painter Francis Picabia and Canadian film-maker David Cronenberg. Starring Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame, the film has ample cultural references, including to Nigerian mythology.

This project came about when the Toronto Film Festival asked him to make a short film in honour of Cronenberg. “So I decided to honour some of the other artists that I also love. And I based the story on a love affair Duchamp had with Maria Martins," Dzama explains. Gordon, a friend of Dzama’s, was cast in the film as he wanted a strong female character and couldn’t think of anyone better suited for the role. “I was quite nervous asking her. There was even a musical number, which I took out because I was too shy to ask her to sing it. It was a disco song about the apocalypse. I told her about it afterwards and she said she would have sung it!" he says.

There has been an ongoing conversation in the art space about a whole new way of seeing and viewing—out of the white cube space, with art moving out of canvases, directly on to walls and public spaces. At the fair, for instance, he is creating a brand new mural, painted on to David Zwirner’s booth. In 2015, Dzama collaborated with close friend Raymond Pettibon, in which his works moved from paper on to the walls of the gallery.

“Raymond and I started at the David Zwirner gallery in the mid to late 1990s. We had been to many gallery dinners together and were both socially awkward. So, we would draw on napkins and tablecloths together and make these collaborative dinner drawings. Lucas Zwirner suggested the two of us do a zine together and we did so many drawings for it that it turned into a show," he recalls. The last three days before the show, the duo just took over the gallery space. It was an innovative experience for Dzama, one where he could just reference things happening in the news that day and not have to worry about getting the work framed.

In previous interviews, though, Dzama has admitted to a personal aversion to technology’s rapid advance in our lives. He feels that with all the technology available now, no one has the time to be bored— they are always distracted or entertaining themselves via their phones. And given the 24-hour news cycle, everything is live, nothing is edited for you. His studio is like an oasis in the midst of this information overload, with no Wi-Fi. “I can barely get a phone signal," he says.

Dzama starts work late in the evening and continues until early morning. He describes himself very much as a creature of the night. “I find there are less distractions and time moves very differently," he adds.

After the art fair, the artist will exhibit at David Zwirner, New York, this fall. Dzama has also illustrated the second book in David Zwirner Books’ Seeing Shakespeare series, William Shakespeare x Marcel Dzama: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I see it as a Midsummer Night’s Dream invading my world of characters. I kind of want to mix it all up and have scenarios that didn’t exactly happen in the play, but maybe could be seen just as a side to the main action. I am very excited about it," he signs off.

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