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Marcel Dzama: Under the merry-making, there’s menace

The feature on Marcel Dzama's London show in Time Out magazine last week referred to him as a "Canadian cartoonist," but those who have followed his work for the past decade or so know this description falls far short of the mark. First, the Winnipeg-born and now Brooklyn-based artist works masterfully in many media – from film and painting to sculpture and (yes) gouache on paper. And while there is a note of manic frivolity in his work, one would have to be tone-deaf to mistake it for levity. Like Maus creator Art Spiegelman, who is in some ways his soulmate – Dzama uses the medium of drawing, when he does draw, to extrude the toxins of recent history, always bent on the same intent: to explore the madness in civilization, to caution us about the abuse of power, to describe the folly and inevitability of violence. The whiff of anarchy and Brechtian malignancy hangs over his every creative deed.

In London, the current show picks up on some old themes, while also pushing into the new. The titles of his sculptures, drawings and films say it all: The Tension Around which History is Built, The Infidels, Myth, Manifestos and Monsters, Opportunists Mingling with Combatants. The grandchild of Ukrainian and Polish émigrés, Dzama grew up in the shadow-memory of continental calamity, his family part of the diaspora of Eastern Europeans who came to Canada to escape poverty and persecution. Canada, though, had problems of its own. Talking on the phone this week from Brooklyn, Dzama remembered the harsh lessons of his childhood. "Most of my friends were native" he says, "and, because I had darker skin, they thought I was native too." Persecution was mild, he says offhandedly – "just name-calling and rock-throwing" – but the lessons still stuck. "I think I was affected too," he says, "by the idea that there was almost a revolution in Winnipeg in 1919 – that whole rebellious spirit of the place."

Like émigré Dadaist Marcel Duchamp – the subject of several works of homage in this show – Dzama explores the metaphor of chess to suggest themes about human nature. A new crop of chess-piece helmets made from flattened and re-soldered tin cans and metal signs make for merry-yet-menacing viewing, the most recent manifestation of his interest in the masked human countenance. Bauhaus visionary Oskar Schlemmer was the inspiration here, says Dzama, in particular his Triadic Ballet of 1922. "The Dada movement started out of disgust at the First World War," says Dzama. "Now that I look back, I can see that I was responding to the Iraq war when I started working with the idea of chess pieces and moving towards a more mechanical look in my work. I was interested in the idea of how leadership can take control of the mentality of people."

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His new four-minute film The Infidels is an absurdist vignette in the same vein. Two armies confront each other in a barren battleground: a top-hatted infantry of bayonet-wielding soldiers ("I was mixing Russian soldiers of the Czar with the Wizard of Oz," he says) versus a choreographed battalion of female snipers in mini-skirt uniforms, whose leaping and lunging recall the official Chinese-propaganda ballets of the Cultural Revolution. In the end, after all the pageantry and posturing, total annihilation is achieved on both sides.

Some of Dzama's drawings in this show were made on player-piano rolls, a material choice that echoes again the idea of mechanization and functional inevitability. The human singers may change, this show seems to say, but the tunes remain the same. "If you think this is just a game, you're wrong," reads a tiny pencil inscription at the bottom margin of one of Dzama's sculptural vitrines. Above it, painted paper cut-outs of saluters and snipers cavort with dancing girls and costumed figures whose human faces have been effaced by masks. It's a cruel world, but Dzama looks upon it kindly. His witnessing offers convivial solace against the chill.

Marcel Dzama: Puppets, Pawns and Prophets closes this weekend at David Zwirner London, 24 Grafton St., London, UK. New work by Dzama will be featured in David Cronenberg: Transformation at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, opening Sept. 10.

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