The world through the eyes of Marcel Dzama is rich yet chaotic, layered yet absurd. Populated with bat-like figures, masked women and talking trees, the characters are invariably ambiguous. Are they good or bad? The victim or the assailant? The Winnipeg-born, New York City-based artist paints a world that is at once familiar and foreign. There are touches of Dadaism and cartoon characters from 1960s Hong Kong posters, but these easily identifiable elements have been tossed and stirred in the artist’s mixing bowl to such an extent that everything starts to become slightly unrecognisable.
It’s the same kind of quality that Dzama finds appealing about Hong Kong, where a new series of works are being unveiled by the David Zwirner Gallery. “Hong Kong is a city of contrasts,” says the artist, cheery and relaxed the day after the opening of his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong.
There is the old Hong Kong, which Dzama sees in the “ding ding” trams,” the ferries and in the former Victoria Prison, which is now home to art centre Tai Kwun. And in the midst of all this there are “futuristic high-rises” that add a “pop element to the city, a certain playfulness. It reminds me of a Japanese anime,” says Dzama. “I really like this weird mix.”
In Dzama’s new show, Crossing the Line, dragons spit fire, the translated names of Chinese albums are sprawled over the top of canvases, and characters seem pulled from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2018 film Identity for Sale. More than anything, though, the show was inspired by Hong Kong’s horse racing culture.
“When I visited the Hong Kong Museum of History, there was mention of horse-racing being a huge part of the city’s culture during the ‘60s,” says Dzama. Later, David Zwirner’s son Lucas brought him a stack of horse racing pamphlets from the 1960s, which Dzama used to create a series of paintings in which horse racing is interweaved with whatever suits his mind’s fancy, whether it’s an owl or a Pinocchio-type character.
Dzama calls himself a sponge. “I take whatever is around, mix it up, and that’s what appear on the canvas,” he says. “Most of the time, I don’t realise what I’d taken from my surroundings until after the fact.” Is he easily affected by his immediate environment? “oh yes, definitely.”
Case in point: the artist’s earlier works, populated with bats, owls, wolves and other woodsy creatures, always against a snow-white background, hint at a childhood spent roaming in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg. The bat-like figures were inspired by a childhood encounter with a batch of the creatures that he and a friend had found beneath a trailer truck.
“At my school, we were using these trucks as classrooms,” says Dzama. “There were boards beneath these trucks. One day, my friend and I took away the boards and out flew the bats. It was my first time seeing bats. I haven’t seen one since.” The archer-like figures meanwhile, harks back to childhood years spent wandering his grandfather’s farm and the nearby forest. “I’d see owls, run into bears,” he says with a grin.
It was only after the move to New York City in 2004 that Dzama’s art began to be underpinned by the sense of claustrophobia that underlies his more recent work. Gone are the stark settings; in their place are compositions that are rich, vibrant and chaotic.
During this period, Dzama also found himself drawn towards the Dada movement, particularly the way that its founders embraced chance, where seemingly disparate motifs, objects or ideas are put together in hopes of reaching the subconscious or getting close to truth. Prejudices and principles are absent and absurdity prevails. Amongst the Dadaists, Dzama credits Marcel Duchamp with being an early influence, not least because they share the same first name.
“In the beginning, I was attracted to him out of ego,” he laughs sheepishly. The artist’s obsession with Duchamp was manifested in Une danse des bouffons, the 2016 film that riffs on Duchamp’s final painting, Étant donnés. In the dreamy film, Duchamp’s lover Marie wakes up from the scene depicted in the painting, only to find that her lover has been abducted.
But the Dada artists did not only mix images. They also mix mediums, blending visuals art with architecture, music and literature. The same is true for Dzama’s art. For his Hong Kong series of paintings, work titles are randomly pulled from Chinese children’s books and the soundtrack of records Dzama bought in the Temple Street night market. “It’s giving the art meaning without there being any meaning behind [it],” he says. This wanton disregard for meaning in language is also a sleight of hand. “I’m dyslexic. If I play with language, I wouldn’t have to correct myself.”
Of all the works on display at David Zwirner, And who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? or A rapture, a butterfly, a dancer and a bowie knife, best encapsulates the Dadaists’ idea of chance, where we see a collision of both images and languages. Two massive butterflies take up either side of the canvas, a girl with a blond bob and devilish grin is crouched in the left hand corner, and a clown poses in the corner. Across the top of the canvas are Chinese characters that translate as “the tale of the rabbit who kills the wolf” – a line taken from a Hong Kong children’s book. The words “La vie” — French for “life” — are furiously repeated in the background.
Underneath all that is the bizarre question, “Who kills a butterfly on a wheel?” It transpires that one night, Dzama had sat down to watch a Rolling Stones documentary with his dad, who is a “huge fan” of the band. “There was a segment about how Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were served a 10-year prison sentence for drugs,” recalls Dzama. “Next day, a journalist used the very same phase, ‘Who kills a butterfly on a wheel,’ in a paper. So I decided to put that in.” It was an allusion to Alexander Pope’s 1735 satire Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, though Dzama wasn’t aware of this at the time; he simply liked the way it sounded.
Like the Dadaists, doubling underpins Dzama’s art. One gains a certain thrill from the horse riders as they race towards their destination in Ghost riders (or Watch out he don’t fall on you) or feels empowered by the archers in The female freedom fighters for our future, but one is also disgusted by Trump’s head, dunked in a pool, as a gang of dogs holler and lurk nearby, in The afterbirth of a nation (or The shame-faced one). There is a clown-like quality to Dzam’a characters, what with the masks, polka dot regalia and air of irreverence about them, but rather than the innocent, happy clowns at the circus. They bring to mind Joseph Grimaldi, the 19th century English entertainer whose comedic demeanour belies an abusive upbringing.
Perhaps this doubling, where joy sidles up to disgust, and comedy next to tragedy, is the artist’s way of dealing with and talking about the socio-political absurdities of the 21st century, much like how the Dadaists dealt with the rise of jingoistic nationalism in Europe a century ago.
“They used absurdity in their art to deal with the horrors of World War I,” says Dzama. “Sometimes, you have to make fun of the system to show how ridiculous it is. I got quite depressed after the 2016 election. Art was therapy for me.” But he prefers that his messages remain oblique, allowing viewers to find their own meaning in the richly populated layers of his work. “I prefer to stand back and let the audience decide what they see,” he says.