Monday, November 9, 2015

The Art of "Marwencol"

"Art heals" has never been truer than in this case.

I first heard about "Marwencol" last month on the NPR program, Snap Judgment. Naturally, I was driving when I heard the story and resolved to get to the NPR website and read more once I had parked. Chicago traffic, along with modern life, has a habit of distracting you and I forgot to look the story up until I ran across this article in Wired. So what is Marwencol?

It is the work of an artist named Mark Hogancamp. In 2000, Hogancamp was assaulted and brutally beaten by five men. Nine days later, he awoke in a hospital bed with severe brain damage. Social and economic factors kicked in and his life only got worse (for more information on his personal life, click the first link.) In an attempt to overcome lassitude, rebuild his cognitive and motor skills, and even have a place to escape to, he built "Marwencol."

Marwencol is 1:6 scale model of a Belgian town during World War II. It is populated by a combination of Barbie dolls and G.I. figurines, including "Hoagie," Hogancamp's G.I. Joe-ish alter ego. Hoagie was shot down by the Germans and came to live in this town of Marwencol. He inhabits it with Barbie dolls based on Hogancamp's neighbors, Wendy and Colleen (hence the portmanteau of "Marwencol") and G.I. characters who have roots in friends he met online at the Ultimate Soldier, a group for combat miniaturists. Others are completely fictitious, such as the mysterious Anna Romanov.

The town itself is built out of a true DIY sensibility with items that Hogancamp has scrounged from scrap or bought at secondhand stores. This means things like window frames, odd bits of wood, carpet swatches, wallpaper fragments, and paint. While obviously cognizant of the fact that Marwencol is his own creation, both the town and the dolls within it are very real to Hogancamp. When it is cold, he places coats on them. They need booze? He built a bar. Two characters are getting married? He built a church. People need something to do? He built a cultural center. He also has World War II, pulpy locations such as the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club mixed in with buildings from his own hometown of Kingston, New York. At any given time, the characters are posed to reflect what they would be doing that day.

Mark Hogancamp has been documenting his work with a series of photographs. This has led to art gallery exhibitions of his photos, then to a book (pictured above), and a 2010 documentary called simply Marwencol (making me wonder why I'm just now hearing about it.) I must see this documentary. No really, I must. Not just because it's a fascinating and inspiring story, but because I feel a sort of kinship with Hogancamp.

No, I've never suffered and then had to overcome such a terrible thing. I do, however, really like dioramas. I used to create my own with Legos and then record them both with photo and video, before such things were all the rage. I loved working in my Grandpa's basement, finding what scraps of old things could be repurposed into something new for the scene. I liked feeling creative when I would do something like drop a tiny bit of chocolate syrup into a Lego-size mug, making it look like someone was drinking coffee. I gradually stopped because I felt like I needed to keep buying more and more ridiculous things to make it look "cool."

Mark Hoagancamp created a whole world with none of that and under far more strenuous circumstances. He made an entire world out of just what he had.

Yeah. I feel inadequate.

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