The Rhythm Of The Night: An Interview With Marcel Dzama

With a show of new works currently on view at David Zwirner, Marcel Dzama talks to Amah-Rose Abrams about childhood reveries, lockdown rhythms, and his grandma’s love for the Queen

Marcel Dzama, So they say, everything gonna be alright, 2021. Pearlescent acrylic ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper © Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Marcel Dzama lives the dream life of an artist. Based in New York, he lives with his wife and son, works long hours in the studio and focuses on parenthood in an existence based around art peppered with dinners with friends, like Amy Sedaris and Raymond Pettibon (who also feature in his work). Known for his drawings, Dzama also makes film, installations, costume, sculpture and sometimes music but as he says, it always starts with a drawing.

He has made many books including one titled Pink Moon, titled after the Nick Drake record and inspired by the many unique moons we experienced throughout 2020. His visual world echoes those of Edmund Dulac, Maurice Sendak and Aubrey Beardsley – illustrative art that sometimes holds a narrative but is instantly recognisable for its unique aesthetic vision.

His work is so aesthetically complete that it is unmistakable, it uses the childlike associations we have of line and ink to draw us in but, although there are recurring fairy tale-like motifs in his work, there is also a menace lurking in the trees. Slowly but surely, he wraps us up in his world, fantastical, eerie, playful and frightening.

In his current exhibition, A Child of Midnight at David Zwirner’s London gallery, we get a window into Dzama’s life in lockdown. There is undoubtedly play in many of the works but his subject matter is serious with interludes of joy and flights of imagination. The smaller works in the show, each completed in around a day, vary from joy-filled holiday snaps to fury-drenched reactions to mass shootings, political outrage and the death of the Queen. Dzama’s world may be soaked in elements that make us smile but at the core of the works in this show are serious messages about climate, the lingering disturbances of the pandemic and life in lockdown. 

“The one of the Queen is based on a tin that my grandma had, and I did it on the day she passed. She really respected her so when she passed it was like my grandma passed again,” he says as he gives me a tour of the show.

Marcel Dzama in his Brooklyn studio, 2021. Photo: Jason Schmidt. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Dzama’s son Willem features in and collaborated on many of the works in the show and you can find him in splashed paint across the tropical fronds or leaping into a swimming pool in a polka dot all in one. “We did a few films and things like that together,” he says. “This is one from a holiday and he poses for some things. But there’s him as himself, in a little polka-dotted jumpsuit, playing the guitar by the swimming pool.”

Dzama’s real life universe doesn’t only come into his work via his son, we also see frogs representing covid creeping out of corners and masked mercenaries looting in paradise. “Whenever the frogs were in there, I was thinking of the pandemic a little bit and there are these sinister people here that in my way represent Trumpian people,” he elaborates as we look at one work filled with amphibians. 

The Queen stands so soaked in watercolour that she looks like a dream. Dzama’s world is filled with messages and motifs. Alongside the frogs and the mercenaries we find his trademark Picabian spots, a mendacious dancer as mother nature, and chess games evoking Duchamp. You fall down the rabbit hole as you look at his work but elements of the outside world fall with you and appear throughout as though they are elements of your conscious mind interrupting a dream.


In a series of paintings, mother nature appears sleeping underwater or pulling down polluting ships by their anchors. In We Can’t be Good No More (2022), she strikes a smirking, defiant dance pose as if to say, you’ve tested the wrong woman, now see what you get.

Installation view, Marcel Dzama: Child of Midnight, David Zwirner, London, 17 November – 22 December, 2022. Copyright the artist. Courtesy David Zwirner

One huge work, We swam in the floods of paradise (2022), is set entirely underwater. Dancers weave around the fish and underwater plant-life like mother nature’s handmaidens. The large-scale work is based on a surreal childhood memory of Dzama’s which he has reimagined into something far more in tune with nature. 

“It’s inspired by this instance from when I was really young,” he explains. “I went to this underwater theme park in Vancouver in Canada. It was probably something that doesn’t happen any more, like a sea show where they have fish and people dance with them underwater. They didn’t have masks or anything and they had little tubes to take in air, and they just kind of danced under the water and they would pop up holding up an octopus and things like that. I’m sure it was very politically incorrect.”

This mixing of the real and the imagined is reminiscent of much creative work in lockdown, as days melded into one another and the line between dreams, memories and the present felt porous and unwieldy. Dzama’s work also always has these elements from the film work Dance Floor Dracula, Prelude in C Minor, a dance chess fantasy which features Amy Sedaris, who plays the artist, and Raymond Pettibon, as a vampire singing karaoke, plus gallerist David Zwirner. The film is part of Flower of Evil, a longer, fantastical mockumentary, made in collaboration with the band LCD Soundsystem.

You imagine Dzama dreaming these things up on the fly as he cares for his little boy – a task which, when making this show, would often involve all-nighters in the studio followed by the school run or long creative sessions in the studio when the schools were closed. “When he’s at school, I’ll sleep during the day and then, when I come home at five in the morning,” he explains, “I’ll stay up until he wakes up and then I take him to school and then I go to sleep. That was actually the rhythm of most of the show…. The child of midnight was me as well as him,” he laughs.

From the almost life-size chess pieces to their miniature counterparts that sit in a model stage to the film that features them to the Trumpian mercenaries who threaten them, Marcel Dzama’s world is filled with obsessions and fears. Whether it’s the moon, nature or his 21-year-old cat Pip or his friends and family, everything gets brought into the studio and in A Child of Midnight this includes a host of the spectres of the modern world.

Marcel Dzama, A Child of Midnight, is at David Zwirner, London, until 22 December

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