Marcel Dzama's Behind Every Curtain: Patterned by Duchamp
By Maria Goldverg
posted: 03-05-11
Screenshot from A Game of Chess, Alessandro Echevarria, 2011
Image Source

To say that Marcel Dzama, a French-Canadian favorite of the New York art world, was influenced by Duchamp's preoccupation with chess would not be wholly accurate. Walking through Dzama's latest show, Behind Every Curtain, at David Zwirner, leaves one with the sense that he has been seduced by Duchamp. Dzama had reflected in an interview with David Coggins for the Huffington Post, it's interesting to see Duchamp's patterns, he's actually an aggressive chess player. He's right. The fact is, Duchamp was a hypermodernist, the kind of chess player that wanted to break chess patterns, to examine them at the risk of discovering new patterns and thought processes. (Hypermodern chess strategy challenged traditional dictums in that it favored indirect control over the board's center, a focal point of the beginning and middle games.)

Francis Naumann, in his book Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, notes that Duchamp believed an engagement with art excited a cerebral experience much in the way that chess did. Duchamp, together with much of the early avant-garde, and the Surrealists in particular, found that the improvisatory yet strategic and sequential movement conducted upon the chess board engendered a freedom of thought—the kind of thought that isn't handicapped by pre-existent culturally or socially mandated forms.

Dzama's 14-minute black and white film, A Game of Chess, continually screened in a dark room as part of the exhibit, evokes this kind of officious curiosity and places distinctions between the real and the imagined, the strategized and the expressed—between art and chess—at stake. Two men play chess in what appears to be a deserted battlefield and the pieces dance to gruesome deaths in geometrical costumes modeled after Bauhaus artist-choreographer Oskar Schlemmer's Triadisches Ballett. The scenes are surreal and porous. At the end, a black pawn is also the woman who shoots the loser of the match through the head.

Dzama's whimsical drawings, like his film, reveal an odd familiarity with the intimacy of the subconscious. The mechanics of sequence, strategy, and premeditation may be as paramount to Behind the Curtain as they are to chess—drawings and storyboards are meticulously recorded with annotations on graph paper and perforated piano rolls—but, strolling amidst Dzama's violent and grotesque battalions, not to mention the larger-than-life-and-rotating sculptures of geometrical chess-warriors, is emotionally devastating. Duchamp had called a life immersed in chess a struggle. Today, Dzama adeptly re-imagines the mania of thinking and feeling on the chess board. He conveys its violence. The result also brings to mind the Theater of the Absurd: it is curious and uncanny. It is also irresistible.

Behind Every Curtain is on display at David Zwirner through March 19. On some days, a mariachi band plays the soundtrack to A Game of Chess. Dzama will be signing books tomorrow, March 5. He is not to be missed.

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