Film and exhibit pursue surreal pairing of chess and avant-garde art

May 14, 2015

Famed iconoclast and art world provocateur Marcel Duchamp is tortured and forced to recite chess moves. Rock and roll icon Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth runs down dimly lit hallways in wide-eyed fear. A man with eyes painted on his cheeks forces people in a horse costume to dance for his pleasure. This coterie of strange occurrences forms just a few scenes in artist Marcel Dzama’s film titled Une Dans des Bouffons.

“This film, in some ways, it’s kind of an anti-chess film because the hero of the film, Maria Martins, saves Duchamp from being brainwashed by these strange terrorist chess players,” said Dzama about his work.

Artist Marcel Dzama at the World Chess Hall of Fame
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / St. Louis Public Radio

Bouffons is a black and white film that follows the character Maria Martins, played by Kim Gordon and professional model Hannelore Knuts, as she attempts to liberate the character Marcel Duchamp from an unknown trickster.  The narrative is loosely based on the true-life romance between Martins and Duchamp. The film anchors Dzama’s exhibit "Mischief Makes a Move," which opens this weekend at the World Chess Hall of Fame.

The show revolves around the film and features drawings and sculpture created to expand the movie into the three-dimensional plane. A version of the exhibit was displayed at David Zwirner Gallery in New York but this exhibit debuts pieces previously unavailable to the public. The film is something of a trickster itself, layering art history reference on art history reference to create a warped and surreal narrative.

“If you wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty and look at every art reference in there, it could take a while and you could be intimidated by it,” said curator Shannon Bailey. 

References to Martins and Duchamp abound, as well as nods to work by William Blake, Francis Picabia and Joseph Beuys. Dzama himself chuckled when listing off noted works that are recreated or connected to scenes and imagery in the film. Admittedly, he can’t always remember how many references exist in the work. Yet, viewers don’t need a degree in art history to enjoy the video and the exhibit, according to Bailey.

The Fatal Sister (Detail), 2014.
Credit Courtesty of the artists and David Zwirner, New York

"The work though is so intriguing and so beautiful and so interesting that you don't have to understand any of that to appreciate it,” she said. 

To Bailey’s point, the film features pop culture connections as well. Members of platinum-selling band Arcade Fire composed the soundtrack. Originally the film was created to honor director David Cronenberg.

For Dzama, both art history and pop culture references stem from personal infatuation.

“I wanted to connect all of these artworks that had really inspired me, so I had all those as the main layout, and then wrote the story around that,” said Dzama, laughing. “So I kind of really worked it backward in some ways.”

This is the second time the artist has worked with The World Chess Hall of Fame, and chess has featured prominently in his work before.  His 2011 film A Game of Chess was featured at the museum for an exhibit in 2012. 

Even the game of chess is personal for the artist.

“When I moved to New York my attention span was disappearing and so I wanted to think about strategy and planning ahead more instead of just living in the moment,” said the artist. 

Mischief Makes a Move is on display through October.