ALIVE Interview: Filmmaker Marcel Dzama, Who's Bringing Dada Back (to the WCHOF)

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

The World Chess Hall of Fame opened a new exhibition, “Marcel Dzama: Mischief Makes a Move,” this summer, featuring a surrealist, could- have-been-made-in-the-’30s film by Canadian artist Marcel Dzama. 2013’s “Une danse des bouffons” (“A Jester’s Dance”), is an intriguing and utterly striking short that spins a Dadaist love story in black and white. It centers on the art movement’s key player, Marcel Duchamp, who is being held hostage and has to recite critical chess moves to escape. In the meantime, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is one of two actresses who play Maria Martins (his love interest), and bringing the film into today’s world is an entrancing score by members of Arcade Fire.


Dzama himself is a bright figure on the international arts scene, working across media but often featuring distinct color palettes, an anachronistic feel and fanciful motifs. He collaborated with Arcade Fire and director Spike Jonze on the alt band’s short for their Grammy-winning “Suburbs” album and has shown solo around the world, notably at Montreal’s museum of contemporary art and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. He’s also been part of group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC, among others. And even “Une danse” has street cred: It was commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival for a retrospective exhibition on David Cronenberg. We caught up with Dzama as he blew through town to explore his inspiration and the film itself.

ALIVE: What’s your history with Duchamp?

MARCEL DZAMA: I first saw Duchamp’s work when I was in grade school—I was definitely too young to understand anything, but it was in the back of my head all the time. In the early 2000s, I went to Philadelphia—I went to see “The Large Glass” [“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”] and… after that, I wanted to know everything about it. I bought any book on Duchamp to find out the secret behind it.

ALIVE: It seems there’s always been a certain draw for audiences to historical figures and their romances.

MD: Maria, in this version of it, pulls Duchamp out of the spell of being a chess player and then he becomes an artist again. It’s kind of true—he still played chess—but he did start making work again, because of his love affair with her and hanging out with her while she made sculptures—at least that’s what I got from bios I’ve read.


ALIVE: It’s interesting that as a Dadaist, chess played a big role in Duchamp’s life: Dada is chaos-as-protest and a refutation of rational thinking, while chess is driven entirely by logic. Why do you think he was so drawn to it?

MD: If you try to confuse your opponent in chess, you can kind of use chaos to your advantage—maybe that’s how he worked.

ALIVE: In a silent film, having two actresses play Maria could cause confusion—so it seems like you must have done it with some intention. Can you speak to that?

MD: I was even going to change Duchamp’s character and have the film be on a loop—so every time you see him, it’d be a different actor. I liked the idea of having different performances and seeing how it changed the film, but I realized it almost made the short into a feature, and we only had two days!


ALIVE: Your other chess-related film, 2011’s “A Game of Chess,” [shown at WCHOF in 2012] is also heavily Dadaist. What draws you to chess as a focus in your work?

MD: When I moved to NYC in 2004, I found my attention span disappearing—also around the same time that my obsession with Marcel was in full swing—so I played almost every day to work out things a few steps ahead in my mind. I also lived right beside Washington Square Park—and Thompson Street has huge chess clubs—and in the park you could play even at nighttime, even with people on the street. I never had the courage to do that, but I watched.

ALIVE: What role does a Dadaist, silent film have in the art world today?

MD: I think the way I was working with the film comes back to the beginning of cinema when people were experimenting more with film. It brings back that creativity I think has been lost, where in-shot camera effects are used instead of going straight to digital effects and relying more on the story than on special effects. In the art world, they’re also relying more on pop culture and technology. With that said, I might be doing a virtual reality film soon [laughs]. I like to play with both.


ALIVE: What’s next for you?

MD: I’m working on a large ballet with the New York City Ballet with this great choreographer, Justin Peck—he’s this young protege who’s come out of there and rejuvenated the ballet work. It’s based on a Hans Christian Andersen story: “The Most Incredible Thing.”


Photo courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London and the World Chess Hall of Fame. This story ran in the August 2015 issue.

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