How Artist Marcel Dzama Brings Surrealism to the Stage
Ahead of his commission for the Performa biennial, artist Marcel Dzama spoke to Artnet's art critic Ben Davis
Marcel Dzama has an immediately recognizable style as a visual artist, but his energy has far exceeded the realm of visual art. Born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1974, Dzama got his start with the Royal Art Lodge, a group of students at the University of Manitoba who banded together in the mid-1990s.
Their collaborative working method, where one artist would start a work and others finish it, recalled the “Exquisite Corpse,” a parlor game associated with the Surrealists. As Dzama developed his own independent practice, moving to New York in 2004, he continued to explore the surreal in watercolor and ink.
His work is replete with dancers and masked figures, whimsical animals, groovy monsters, human-plant hybrids, and grinning moons, all in an intricate but deliberately naive style. Dzama has permuted these offbeat interests into a variety of other media as well, from zines to dioramas to films. He’s done album art for They Might Be Giants and Beck, made films starring Kim Gordon and Amy Sedaris, and created costumes for both a Bob Dylan music video and the New York City Ballet.Now, he’s expanding his list of collaborations even further. New York’s performance art biennial, PERFORMA, is returning, with a roster of artists commissioned to do new work in experimental performance of various types. Marcel Dzama’s piece, titled To live on the Moon (For Lorca), is among the highlights promised by the 2023 program.
In it, the artist fuses multiple threads of his practice, blending costume, dance, drawing, and film. And he also returns to his surrealist inspirations. Specifically, this work is Dzama’s tribute to the life and work of Spanish Surrealist poet Federico Garcia Lorca. It incorporates both Lorca’s tragic life story and an obscure, unproduced, Surrealist screenplay called A Trip to the Moon, which Lorca wrote while he was living in New York in 1929.
It’s fascinating material to dig into on many levels. Ahead of the opening of his show at the Abrons Art Center, Dzama came into the Art Angle studio to talk with critic Ben Davis about his work and interests, the impact of Federico Garcia Lorca, and about what surrealism does and doesn’t mean today.
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