My niece recently gave me a book by Jeanette Winterson, called “Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?” I wonder what she meant by giving it to me???
But I digress. This blog is about outsider art.
I happened to see a film called Marwencol last night. I had seen it before, but it was good timing to bump into it again. Mark Hogencamp was badly beaten up some years ago by five men leaving a bar. It left him in a coma and severely brain damaged; his mother said it was like watching her son grow up again – taking his first steps and learning how to do everything for the second time. Mark said he had every memory kicked out of his head. He doesn’t remember anything prior to the attack. He only has a photograph album that shows his childhood, his wedding, his friends, his life.
Obviously, Mark was traumatized by the incident and has since avoided contact with the outside world. Instead, he built his own fantasy town, called Marwencol, in his back yard.
Marwencol is a 1/6 scale town where events from World War II take place. It is populated by soldiers (himself included) and some women who do heroic acts and have relationships with the soldiers.
The Nazis appear from time to time and are inevitably beaten and killed. His real-life friends appear as doll-characters in the town, and he takes great comfort from having them participate in his adventures. When Mark sets up a scenario in Marwencol, he photographs the scene. Over the years he has collected boxes of his own photographs.
As often happens in the world of outsider art, Mark and Marwencol were “discovered” quite by accident. He was pulling a mini-jeep, filled with his action figures, along the road, something he did every afternoon. A neighbour, who happened to be a professional photographer, eventually asked Mark what he was doing. He learned about Marwencol and felt compelled to document Mark’s incredible world and bring the photographs to the attention of the public. He explained how the photographs were beautifully staged and shot; he marvelled that an “amateur” could create such remarkable work. The film ends with Mark’s exhibit in a New York gallery. To tell you any more would spoil the film should you happen to see it.
Mark is candid about his loneliness and his wish for a wife. He puts people he knows in Marwencol so he can control the story and how they will behave. He prefers to be in Marwencol – life is predictable and safe there.
The photographer-neighbour explained why he was so captivated by Mark’s photographs. In particular, he noted there was no sense of irony, like you might see in a contemporary art piece. It struck him that Mark’s photographs were “authentic” and served no purpose other than to help Mark fight “Mark’s war.” He poses a poignant question: what if your therapy became art?
It has been a difficult exercise for me to unravel the myths of outsider art, so much so that I had begun to question the premise for my entire thesis. Was there really something “different” about outsider art? Is it just something we have labelled for our own purposes?
Watching Marwencol brought me back to where I started. Outsider art is different. The creators do not set out to be artists, but instead create worlds for their own personal and particular reasons. I have blogged about other artists who did this: Morton Bartlett, Henry Darger, and Renaldo Kuhler. (See earlier blogs.) They are remarkable individuals who have found their own creative way to navigate a painful and disillusioning world. Kudos to them.