Hong Kong landmarks feature prominently in the whimsical work of artist Marcel Dzama, including his latest homage to the city, which he created especially for Tatler

In Marcel Dzama’s family home in Winnipeg, Canada, a photograph of the artist and his father hangs above the television set. The image, taken a few years ago, shows the duo on the edge of Hong Kong’s famous harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui, smiling at the camera and standing in front of the historic Clock Tower, which marked its 100th anniversary in operation this March and is the last remnant of what was once the southern terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway line.

The room where the photograph now hangs is where his parents spend most of their days. “So it’s a good spot for it,” says Dzama. “It’s a nice memory of being in Hong Kong.” And it was this moment he referred to for a new work created especially for Tatler that will be exhibited by David Zwirner gallery at Art Basel Hong Kong from May 19 to 23.

The painting, Year of the Ox, depicts a bull-headed figure and a masked woman clutching a bouquet of red roses standing in front of the Clock Tower that Dzama’s parents look at every day. Dzama, 47, is famous for his whimsical ink-and-watercolour paintings that are packed with cloaked figures and anthropomorphised animals, as well as for playful videos starring famous collaborators such as the actress Amy Sedaris dressed as mythical creatures. He describes his art as humorous, but there are also big ideas lurking behind many of his pieces, as well as references to masterpieces from art history.

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Above Year of the Ox (2021), the new work that Dzama has created for Tatler. It will be exhibited by David Zwirner at Art Basel Hong Kong (Photo: Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner)

While Year of the Ox is outwardly a celebration of this year’s Chinese zodiac animal, oxen and bull-like creatures make frequent appearances throughout Dzama’s work and that of some of the most famous artists of the 20th century as symbols both of male virility and vulnerability—Dzama cites Goya’s etchings of bullfights, Picasso’s paintings of the minotaur and Francis Picabia’s modernist painting, The Adoration of the Calf, which depicts raised hands in worship of a cow’s head placed on a pedestal.

Dzama’s painting also can be read as an interpretation of the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, written in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. “Beauty and the Beast was a good story before Disney,” says Dzama, who mentions as one of his influences director Jean Cocteau’s film version released in 1946, ranked by the late critic Roger Ebert as one of the best movies ever made.

My first trip to Hong Kong was the most fun I’ve had travelling

- Marcel Dzama -

Most of all, though, Dzama says he was inspired by the time he spent in Hong Kong. He first visited the city in 2018, when Zwirner opened his gallery in the H Queen’s tower in Central, his first space outside the US and Europe. To mark the occasion, Zwirner invited all of the artists on his roster to the city. More than 20 came, including painters Chris Ofili and Lisa Yuskavage, multidisciplinary artist Francis Alÿs and sculptor Carol Bove.

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Above Dzama and his father, Maurice, at Happy Valley Racecourse, which has inspired many of Dzama’s paintings. (Photo: Courtesy of Marcel Dzama)

“That trip was the most fun I’ve had travelling, probably,” says Dzama. “I didn’t have a show, so I was just hanging out with all my friends somewhere that I’d never been before, but that I’d always been interested in visiting.”

The gallery’s inaugural exhibition featured Belgian painter Michaël Borremans. After the opening, Zwirner and all the artists gathered at The Pawn in Wan Chai, where photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who moonlights as a musician, was DJ for the night. On another day, they took a junk to Lamma Island for fresh seafood and a hike through the tropical forest, and before they all boarded their flights home, they met at Duddell’s for dim sum. Dzama’s memories of this trip also include a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History, where he saw a video that explained the significance of horse racing in the city.

“The museum had this interesting archival footage of people with 1950s-style hairdos gambling at the horse races,” says Dzama. “And Raymond Pettibon, another artist at David Zwirner, and I had been going to the horse races in New York. He likes to gamble and I just like to watch the horses. We bring our kids there. And when I lived in Winnipeg, there isn’t much to do but there is a horse track, so I used to go. I really like finding out the horses’ names—they’re sometimes quite poetic.”

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Above "The Riders are approaching" (2018) (Photo: courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner)

Back in his New York studio, Dzama began making a series inspired by his experiences, as well as what he imagined the city’s Happy Valley Racecourse was like, even though he had not seen it first-hand. He unveiled these works, which feature masked jockeys on galloping horses, at Crossing the Line, a solo show at David Zwirner in Hong Kong in early 2019. Dzama invited his father along for the opening.

“He had never been to Asia,” Dzama says. “Seeing the city through his eyes was even more exciting—I got that enjoyment from knowing someone else is enjoying themselves.”

And they finally made it to the races in Happy Valley. “I was blown away,” he says. “Comparing the racetrack in Winnipeg to the racetrack in Hong Kong is like comparing a tiny mailbox to a giant shopping mall.” The pair also went to multiple karaoke joints. “It was a lot of fun. My dad sang anything—even if it was not in English, he’d try to sing it.”

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Above Dzama at Vinyl Hero, Hong Kong’s most famous record store, with Paul Au, who owns the shop (Photo: Courtesy of Marcel Dzama)

Dzama is a keen musician and has his own band, Albatross. “Anyone who is hanging out with me ends up in the band,” he says. “Members of well-known bands have played in my band—people from Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem. And Jockum Nordström, he’s also an artist at David Zwirner, we play together. Since art became my work, music has become my hobby.”

Sometimes music finds its way into Dzama’s work, too. Several of the pieces shown at Crossing the Line incorporate Cantonese characters, some copied from or sparked by lyrics from the albums of Hong Kong actress and singer Margaret Lee and Taiwanese singer Yao Su Rong, which Dzama had bought on his first trip.

“I went to Vinyl Hero,” says Dzama, referring to the shop in Sham Shui Po that claims to stock 300,000 records. “The owner’s name is Paul Au. He was really nice. I said, ‘I want anything from the Sixties that wouldn’t have made it to the US, that only local people would know.’ And he found all these records for me. I love them.”

Dzama also stocked up on fancy dress costumes, another recurring theme in his work, on Pottinger Street, the open-air market in Central—enough to fill two suitcases. “I’ve always been into dressing up, even as a little kid,” he says. “In some of my first memories, my dad was dressing up as a Viking. He really got interested in my mother’s Norwegian background and he made a lot of Viking helmets and axes and swords. He used to make me little wooden swords and shields and paint them.”

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Above "Why the darkness and obscurity in all your words and laws that none touch the fruit in the serpents jaws (or Everything that blooms is holy or A garden we know nothing of)" (2018), one of the pieces Dzama included in Crossing the Line, his 2019 exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in Hong Kong (Photo: courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner)

This passion for dressing up has become a key part of many of his video pieces, which often star the artist himself or actors wearing wild, theatrical costumes in surreal situations. His 2009 video, A Game of Chess, features a cast of harlequins dancing across a chess board, with creepy figures in beak-nosed plague masks haunting the shadowy background. “Dressing up partly came from my childhood and my dad, but I also like ballet and opera,” says Dzama. “I like the idea of the films being part of that tradition of people wearing costumes and performing.” 

Members of well-known bands have played in my band—people from Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem

- Marcel Dzama -

His interest in the performing arts has led to several collaborations with musicians and dancers. Dzama created the cover art for multiple albums, including Guero by Beck and The Else by They May Be Giants. He designed costumes for the music video of Bob Dylan’s 2006 song When the Deal Goes Down, and created the costume and stage design for New York City Ballet’s The Most Incredible Thing, a 2016 performance based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.

Dressing up to make video art has been a major creative outlet for Dzama since the outbreak of the pandemic. Soon after Covid-19 swept into New York, he and his wife, fellow artist Shelley Dick, bought a farmhouse in Southold, New York, on the North Fork of Long Island. “We were thinking about it before the pandemic, then when it happened, we thought, ‘Well, we’re not going to travel, so let’s just do it’, says Dzama. “We go to the beach and watch the sunset every day. And we have a lot of songbirds that come to our window, so we feel away from the bleakness of the city.”

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Above Dzama in Hong Kong with fellow artist Jockum Nordström, who sometimes plays in Dzama’s band (Photo: Courtesy of Marcel Dzama)
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Above Dzama at Mido Café in Yau Ma Tei (Photo: Courtesy of Marcel Dzama)

This idyllic setting is the backdrop to a new series that Dzama has been making with the help of his nine-year-old son. When Zoom classes end for the day, Dzama and his son head outside, where they make low-tech videos on an iPhone. “We often have the beach and the woods to ourselves, so we wear strange costumes,” says Dzama, who brought a suitcase full of the costumes he bought in Hong Kong to the house. He talks fondly of these days he has spent making art with his son in the wilderness, but he hopes that soon they will be able to venture further afield.

“I can’t wait to travel again,” he says. “Before the pandemic started, my wife, son and I were in Mexico and I took a lot of photos. I’m using those images to draw from, so it’s like I’m travelling through the artwork—it’s a bit of escapism.”

Dzama is already dreaming of his next trip to Hong Kong. “If I could fly there tomorrow, I’d go for hotpot and do karaoke,” he says. “That would be so much fun.”

Year of the Ox (2021) by Marcel Dzama will be shown by David Zwirner at Art Basel Hong Kong from May 19 to 23, 2021. The painting also appears on the cover of a special edition of Tatler's May issue, which will only be available at Tatler's booth at Art Basel Hong Kong.

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