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Marcel Dzama: Tree With Roots

IKON GALLERY, BIRMINGHAM 24 MAY–16 JUL; CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, GLASGOW, 5 AUG–16 SEP, 2006

Marcel Dzama, 'Untitled', 2005

Marcel Dzama, 'Untitled', 2005

Heated by the infinite snows of Winnipeg winters, the drawings, videos and related costumes presented in Tree With Roots showcase Marcel Dzama’s preoccupation with the halfway-there of history—an archive of childhood kitsch and the threat of doomsday, among other things. Loose octopi flash inkspouting holes amidst the cock-sure cowboys of before: there is flirtation here, but more like that of the werewolf that humps your leg than the stirrings of some gentler eroticism. Trees are tapped for blood rather than sap, sounding out a note of terror in the white paper void, sticky with ink made from the root beer of his childhood, soiled by the memory of a headless chicken’s blood on rural family farms.
 

Despite a strange shyness—his muted colours, the very coyness of costumes and masks—there is a war of fierce survival being waged in Dzama’s works. His precise yet naïve style of drawing has persisted with a mean tenacity shared by the boxer in one of the many vignettes of ‘Garage Video’, 1996 -2006. Having defeated all opponents—human and otherwise—a famous boxer schedules a match-up against Death. After an easy and bloodless victory he proudly declares, ‘Death is dead!’—at which point the horrific consequences of his triumph are duly noted in the twitching of long discarded animal limbs and the resurrection of beef burgers.
 

Dzama promises nothing but failure in the fight that is never fully won, and privileges the constant struggle over success. In another segment of ‘Garage Video’, a bear armwrestling for $5 is reduced to poverty when his constant victories—and competition from a dapper lion always willing to let the customer win—drive him out of business. Bitter, but a fighter still, he slouches on urban pavements, desperate to arm-wrestle in exchange for beer.
 

This cheap underworld is the common battleground for Dzama’s subversive acts of limbo, ducking constantly under the radar of larger powers. Of the many costumes that serve as his weapons, none are as compelling as ‘Pip Merkel’, 2001-2004, a long-necked cat in a gentleman’s suit with a gorilla’s bare feet. An accompanying drawing reveals his identity as a spy and an outlaw, jovially cracking jokes with Winnipeg bikers whilst wiring their conversations to the police, ready to fight his way out at a moment’s notice. Puppetry as a form of warfare is painstakingly reinforced in Dzama’s collaged scrapbook pages, where Pip’s graven image recurs above the notation: ‘It is Canadian law, that any depiction of Pip Merkel is punishable by death.’
 

Rich with shoddy resources, these pages are rare and wonderful works in their own right, revealing the mundane origins of Dzama’s startling cosmography. The same page declaring Pip Merkel’s criminal nature is headed with a large cut-out slogan: ‘There’s room to relax in uncrowded Canada.’ But there is little air left to breath against the clouds of rose-strung bats that clutter the white waste of Marcel Dzama and his many holdings-onto of dreams in the morning after.

Stephanie Vegh is a Canadian artist working in the UK