Marcel Dzama



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Marcel Dzama born 1974
Ink and watercolour on paper
350 × 280 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee 2005, accessioned 2008


This untitled drawing shows a cartoon conflagration emerging from a tall scaffolded structure and burning a large brown phallic object that appears to hang in the sky. The slate-coloured group of buildings and tower, buttressed by latticed metal pylons, are set on a small area of green landscape. This is extremely unusual in Dzama’s images which normally feature figures – humans and anthropomorphised or hybridised animals and trees – floating on an empty page. Above and behind the industrial complex, the vast cone-shaped mass of flames appears simultaneously to hold and eat into the brown zeppelin-like object in the sky. The orange fire stares blankly out of the page from large black eyes, rimmed with red flame, and smiles. Its outline is surrounded by a watery wash of grey that has partly blended with its orange colouring, suggesting smoke. The large scale of the fire in relation to the pylons and buildings below it suggests that the complex may be an oil rig, a contested feature of the Canadian landscape where Dzama grew up.

Drawing is central to Dzama’s practice, usually done on the same small scale pieces of paper, initiated as a result of being forced to work in a hotel room after his house burned down ( accessed 19 November 2009). To make larger images, he joins many small pages. At first they were made using pencil, over which he would draw with ink, before filling in the forms with watercolour and root beer syrup – a substance he discovered creates a shade of brown he particularly likes and cannot get from any other medium. Around 2000, Dzama stopped using pencil to create the outlines and began using pen directly. In 2006 he returned to using pencil and dispensed with the ink.

Based in Winnipeg, in the state of Manitoba, Canada until he moved to New York in 2004, he has related the empty space in his drawings to the empty vastness around the city of Winnipeg. Just before relocating, he commented:

Because of my geographical isolation, most of the news that I hear comes from the radio. In fact, most of my understanding of the world is filtered through this perspective. I think my work reflects that distance and equally that understanding as well. When the news is bloody and fearful, my work reflects it.

I like to place my characters inside of the page or canvas. They are small, and pretty much out of touch with the rest of the world ...

I think that mostly people who live in such isolation always have a desire to reach out and be a part of something else. For me it can feel quite powerless being in a place where you cannot possibly help or affect change.

(Quoted in The Last Winter, [p.1].)

Offering narratives that are never overtly spoken but remain ambiguous, Dzama’s images allow for many possible readings. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their old-fashioned aesthetic reminiscent of children’s book illustrations from the 1930s is reassuringly familiar, while their disturbed psychological dimension recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s iconography with twentieth-century popular culture derived from comics, cartoons and films.

Further reading:
Marcel Dzama, The Last Winter, London 2004.
The Course of Human History Personified: Marcel Dzama, exhibition catalogue, David Zwirner, New York 2005.
Marcel Dzama: Tree with Roots, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 2006.

Elizabeth Manchester
December 2009

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