Marcel Dzama: Of Many Turns

Montreal

Marcel Dzama: The Work of Justice and Revenge is Done (2007): Ink, watercolour and graphite on paper, two-part drawing, 34.9 x 54 cm. Private Collection, Montreal. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.Marcel Dzama: The Work of Justice and Revenge is Done (2007): Ink, watercolour and graphite on paper, two-part drawing, 34.9 x 54 cm. Private Collection, Montreal. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

By Lise Hosein

Marcel Dzama: Of Many Turns
Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art
February 4-April 25, 2010

In the last room of Marcel Dzama’s Of Many Turns stands the human-sized Bear Costume, made of coarse brown “fur” and claws. It’s supported by a roughly made wooden brace that keeps it in a standing position, reminding us of its hollowness; this is an outfit that will only come to life when someone climbs inside. This costume is used in one of the videos accompanying the exhibition’s catalogue, in which it gleefully attacks the artist in his studio and leaves him dead on the floor. This bear is no mascot; it might do jumping jacks, or look huggable, but bears in Dzama’s world tend to be fond of trickery and have rapacious appetites.

Dzama has largely populated his drawings of the past few years with animals and hybrid figures; however, they didn’t have as much of a presence in this exhibition. In fact, it would seem as if the often sexual, always chaotic and irrational relationship between humans and beasts that characterize Dzama’s drawings are being exterminated. Now, the drawings and the larger-scale dioramas to which the artist has graduated feature organized, militant groups of (mostly) humans who perform in a war choreographed by the artist. The centrepiece of the show, a diorama called On the Banks of the Red River, is populated by men in hats and suits who shoot at Dzama’s familiar characters – bats, deer and people with the heads of elephants. It’s the staging of a mass murder of the citizenry who populated Dzama’s previous works.

Some American critics have taken the artist’s references to war as explicitly anti-Bush statements, but the many references to Winnipeg in Dzama’s drawings for Of Many Turns would argue otherwise. His Untitled (Winnipeg Was Won, Winnipeg Was One) is covered in handwritten references to the history of the area. The film The Infidels, an elegantly performed battle between an army of uniform-clad ballerinas and marching ghosts, carries shades of film-maker Guy Maddin and the unrelenting vista of the Canadian prairies. While it’s almost boring to keep claiming Dzama as a fixed piece of Canadiana, it’s clear he carries the spectre of his hometown with him.

Marcel Dzama: Polutropos of Many Turns (2009): Mannequin on rotating base, costume, wood, 221 x 58.4 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.Marcel Dzama: Polutropos of Many Turns (2009): Mannequin on rotating base, costume, wood, 221 x 58.4 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.This exhibition was big, there’s no doubt, and Dzama’s work has become more mature and animated. The elegance and confidence of the female soldiers in The Infidels is matched by a new sense of authority emerging in the artist’s work, and the sheer number of drawings, collages and sculptures prepared for this series is rather staggering. Art historical references abound, most pointedly to Goya and Marcel Duchamp; Dzama restages the latter’s Étant Données of 1946-66 with his own Even the Ghost of the Past that very convincingly re-creates the door and diorama of the original. In Dzama’s version, however, Duchamp’s naked corpse of a girl has been replaced by the rather serene vision of a couple, unconscious or dead, presided over by the sympathetic presence of a fox. The dioramas, created in a ceramics studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, almost eerily hold on to the quality and look of Dzama’s drawings, even as they call up the graphic, almost marzipan-candy effect of Mexican Day of the Dead figurines.

I must admit that I was a little dismayed that the artist’s work has become so epic. While it challenges and continues to mature, I missed the naiveté of Dzama’s early drawings, their sense of humour and refusal to conform to any particular meaning. So, walking into the last section of the show, with the Bear Costume set next to a spinning animatronic sculpture of one of the women from The Infidels, was a delightful reminder that the spirit of the artist’s Royal Art Lodge years is still alive and well, and his animals have retained their delight in menacing us.

Lise HoseinLise Hosein is a writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, working on animals and violence in contemporary art. She currently teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design. In her spare time, she plays music to strangers on benches in the middle of the night.