On ViewDavid Zwirner
September 9 – October 25, 2014
Une Danse des Bouffons (or A Jester’s Dance), a roughly 35-minute-long silent film by Canadian-born artist Marcel Dzama, is an absurdist drama featuring one woman’s attempt to rescue her lover, the artist Marcel Duchamp, who is being held captive and tortured while made to recite chess moves. The film’s protagonist is based on Maria Martins, the Brazilian sculptor with whom Duchamp had an affair, who is here tasked with saving the captive Duchamp. Une Danse des Bouffons starts and ends with “Étant Donnés” (1946 – 66), Duchamp’s enigmatic final work featuring a nude splayed out on a bed of twigs and fallen leaves, visible through two peep holes. The danger in relying so heavily on historical borrowings is that the weight of the references will crush the work, rendering it esoteric and legible to a select group of art-world insiders. Fortunately, Dzama avoids this trap, but the sheer amount of art and film history allusions is dizzying: aside from Duchamp, artworks by Oskar Schlemmer and Francis Picabia are re-animated, the specters of Joseph Beuys, James Ensor, and Francisco de Goya are there too, with nods to film directors including David Cronenberg and Busby Berkeley. It’s tempting to label all of these borrowings as appropriation, but they’re not: the latter suggests ironic over-turning, and there’s no subversion to be found in Dzama’s relationships with his precursors. He celebrates rather than critiques. And while there’s nothing new about an artist paying tribute to the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, Dzama’s not giving lip service to the famous readymade, but to the much quirkier “Étant Donnés” and the forbidden romance that fueled its inception (supposedly, the installation’s nude was based on Maria Martins). The only irony to be found is that Duchamp, whose invention of the readymade paved the way for the cool, slick, heady appropriations that came to define the 1980s, becomes the protagonist of a plot-driven, romantic thriller.
Indeed, the themes that Dzama explores in Une Danse are distant from the postmodernism that defined the appropriation-based works of the ’80s. At its heart, the film stages a struggle between good and evil, ultimately suggesting that divisions between the two are not so clear. Dzama’s repeated doublings make this point: for example, Maria Martins’s character wears the same wig as the masked trickster and torturer, suggesting that Duchamp’s oppressor and savior are one and the same. Played by both Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame) and the Belgian actress and model Hannelore Knuts, Maria Martins is also her own double. One version of the film, shot with a red filter, features Gordon as Martins, while Knuts plays the same character in a nearly identical film shot with a blue filter, which is screened simultaneously in a separate room. Both actresses wear a sleek bobbed black wig, so that Gordon looks like an older version of Knuts (there is roughly a 25-year age difference between the two), suggesting that the Martins character is stuck in an endlessly looping nightmare that’s literally spanned decades.
The nightmarish quality of Une Danse des Bouffons is hardly surprising considering it was intended as an homage to David Cronenberg; the film came about when the Toronto International Film Festival invited Dzama to make a tribute to the director in 2013. Fans of Cronenberg will indeed recognize various nods to the director, such as the explosion of a judge’s head that echoes the fate of various characters in the 1981 Scanners. More generally, Cronenberg’s fascination with flesh pervades Une Danse des Bouffons, appearing in guises both sensual and abject,with its gory deaths and one very sticky birthing scene, in which the adult Duchamp emerges from a vaginal cavity embedded in a calf-headed man’s chest.
Dzama tends to work collaboratively: for this project,Vanessa Walters has expertly choreographed the dances, and members of the band Arcade Fire provide a haunting soundtrack. Between the music, choreography, costumes, and plot, Dzama’s work seduces the viewer into nearly missing the disturbing ways in which it grazes the political. In one of the most striking moments in the film, a multitude of hands reach out in what looks like a Fascist salute to the resurrected calf character, an image that harkens back to a 1937 photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld titled “Minotaure/Dictator.” At various junctures, the dancers make rigid gestures with their arms that look vaguely like the German heil. In the works on paper shown with the film, scenes of circus performers and masquerade balls are punctuated by cigarette smoking, hooded guards brandishing automatic weapons, and various perverse collisions between sex and violence. In both the film and the watercolor and gouache works, one can’t help but think of the infamous Abu Ghraib photograph in relation to some of the cloaked, hooded characters, an association that’s underscored by narrative turns involving torture and execution. Cameras and televisions appear and re-appear as scenes of Duchamp’s torture are taped and broadcast. That he is reciting chess moves to a dancing torturer undercuts the somber resonance that such imagery adopts in an era when the media is frequently deputized as a tool of terror or propaganda. What is meant by the film’s political subtext is ambiguous, and it’s striking how there is no mention of such allusions by Dzama or in any material put out by David Zwirner, which is overly bent on illuminating the historical references. In the end though, perhaps it’s no surprise that the material that’s effectively repressed becomes the most salient and nightmarish of all. Long after leaving the gallery, it was not Duchamp or Beuys that haunts, but the grainy televisions and hooded guards.