ALIVE Q&A: Notable Artist Marcel Dzama Returns to the World Chess Hall of Fame with Dadaist Silent Film

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

The World Chess Hall of Fame’s new exhibition, “Marcel Dzama: Mischief Makes a Move,” uses Dzama’s 2013 film “Une danse des bouffons” (“A Jester’s Dance”) as its centerpiece. The Dadaist love story is a black-and-white, fictionalized and surrealist account of the movement’s key player, Marcel Duchamp, and his obsession with chess and his romance with Maria Martins (played by two actresses in the film). The film, which wouldn’t look out of place in the 1920s, runs 35 minutes, and other parts of the exhibit feature 2- and 3-D artwork by Dzama.


Photo courtesy of David Zwirner

Dzama himself is a bright figure on the international arts scene, working across media but often featuring distinct color palettes and fanciful motifs. He’s shown solo around the world, notably at Montreal’s museum of contemporary art and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, as well as part of group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in NYC (among others). Upon the occasion of his third show at the World Chess Hall of Fame, ALIVE caught up with him to chat about “Une danse.”

Film still from "Une danse des bouffons," courtesy of the artist.

Film still from “Une danse des bouffons,” 2013, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, NYC.

ALIVE: How’s your time in St. Louis been? Is this your first visit?
Marcel Dzama: I showed at the WCHOF in 2012, so it’s like visiting relatives—but friendly relatives. The show here featured [my film] “A Game of Chess” and some drawings.

ALIVE: What inspired you to make your centerpiece film?
MD: The Toronto [International] Film Festival was having a retrospective on David Cronenberg—50 years of his films—and there was a curator at the gallery who asked if I’d make a short film for the film festival. So I did it with a bit of Cronenberg inspiration—I didn’t really need to try very hard because my work can easily work off of his. If I was doing an homage to him at the time, I thought I’d include some of my art history heroes—Marcel Duchamp plays a prominent role in the film.

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 (The Large Glass)”] and … there’s a little darkened corner where you could almost walk past it … after that I wanted to know everything about it. I bought any book on Duchamp to find out the secret behind it. I think maybe a year after my obsession waned, Michael Taylor put out this huge book about everything about it.

ALIVE: There’s always been a certain draw for audiences, it seems, to historical figures and their romances.
DM: Maria, in this version of it, pulls Duchamp out of the spell of being a chess player then become an artist again. It’s kind of true—he still played chess—but he did start marking 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 refutes logic (as a way to protest) while chess is driven entirely before it. Why do you think he was so drawn to it?
DM: If you try to confuse your opponent in chess, you can kind of use chaos to your advantage—maybe that’s how he worked.

Film still from "Une danse des buffoons," courtesy of the artist.

Film still from “Une danse des bouffons,” 2013, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

ALIVE: How did the collaboration with Arcade Fire come about? Their music is, in its own way, quite cinematic.
DM: I met them through Spike Jonze—he was making a short film called “The Suburbs” for their album called “The Suburbs”—that’s when I became close friends with them. We were in Austin, Texas, for a month, making the film. I was the art director, and they were all acting in it. We just talked about music and played a few songs together. It became a friendship.

But before that, I met them at the “Where the Wild Things Are” opening. We got along instantly, maybe being Canadian? I’m not sure what it was. We also met when I had a show in Montreal—I had a big retrospective in Montreal, and I even went to their really nice cabin in the mountains. It was a progression of how close we became.

ALIVE: In a silent film, it seems like having two actresses play Maria could cause confusion—and so it seems like you must have done it with some motivation. What was your intention behind that?
DM: I was even going to change Duchamp’s character and have the film be on a loop, but every time you see her, 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, “A Game of Chess” is also heavily Dadaist. What draws you to chess as a centerpoint for your work?
DM: 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 bring some sort of … to work out things a few steps ahead in my mind. I also lived right beside Wash Square park, and Thompson Street has huge chess clubs, and in the park you could play at any time, even 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?
DM: 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 that 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—my story’s a little crazy. 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.

"The Fatal Sister" (detail), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

“The Fatal Sister” (detail), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

ALIVE: What’s next for you?
DM: I’m working on a large ballet with the New York City Ballet with this great choreographer, Justin Peck—he’s this young protégé who’s come out of there and rejuvenated the ballet work. It’s a Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Most Incredible Thing in the World.” [Ed. note: The title of the story is actually “The Most Incredible Thing.”]

ALIVE: Bit of self-promotion there or the name of the story?
DM: [Laughs] That’ll be the name of the ballet too. We’re just using that as the basis of the ballet. That’ll be in February—it already  has a date in Washington, even though I’ve only drawn up sketches for the costumes. I’m really excited—I thought I’d be working with some small ballet company but instead it’s the best!

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