Marwencol (Malmberg, 2010)


Documentaries about visual art (or artists) are hard to do well. They require an artist’s eye to capture the art itself and a director’s sensibility to fashion the material into a film rather than just a flickering catalog of the work. This may be one reason why some of the most memorable ones–My Kid Could Paint That, Herb and Dorothy–are as much about the people as they are about the art.

Marwencol, though, is a little bit different. The artist’s work is his life.Oh, I don’t mean that in a performance art, Borat kind of way, nor in a generic post-Freudian “all art is autobiographical” sort of way. Marwencol is Mark Hogankamp’s alternate reality. A place in which he places himself and members of circle of acquaintances, in doll form, so that he can reenact and reform many of the traumatic episodes of his life.

The central episode, the trauma that has dominated and shaped Mark’s subsequent life, is when he was attacked outside a bar in Kingston, New York. The assault left Hogankamp in a coma for nine days; his beating was so severe that his own mother did not recognize him. It also left him with brain damage and physical injuries.

Are artists born or made? When relating why he began his project, Mark says he knew he had to find a way to preserve and recapture his “imagination.” How many of us, faced with the physical, emotional, and financial problems that Hogankamp had staring him in the face would instinctively feel that the most important thing for our recovery was protecting, nurturing, and reclaiming the imagination?

Marwencol is a fascinating blend of two different genres, the artist documentary and the therapy film, with Mark acting as his own therapist–probing and prodding and–this is key for me–moving towards an end. So much of contemporary art is simply about “expressing oneself,” but that expression is treated as an end in itself. The art is never just that for Mark, and because we see that and understand it, we have a greater investment in his response to a potential New York show than simply whether or not he will be a professional success.

The art as therapy enhances the interest, but it wouldn’t be enough to carry the film if the art itself wasn’t compelling.I very much concur with the opinion offered in the film that there is so little contemporary art, particularly dealing with miniatures, that isn’t suffused in postmodern, cynical irony. (The lack of irony as a key selling point is also a big thematic point in My Kid Could Paint That for explaining the popularity of Marla’s art.)

Above all, though, Marwencol is a reminder of the potential for greatness from places we would least expect it. How the people we pass walking the side of the road, that we look through or look away from often have within them the power to teach, move, and inspire us.

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