On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five men outside a bar in Kingston; he remained in a coma for nine days. After reawakening, Hogancamp had to relearn basic skills, such as walking. Previously, he'd been an alcoholic—by his own admission—but when he reawakened he lost all interest in alcohol. To improve his dexterity, Hogancamp began collecting 1:6 scale World War II action figures and Barbie dolls. Over time, these diminutive characters took on a dynamic life of their own. One of them, which he calls Hogie, became his alter ego. Others were named after his friends. Hogancamp built a Belgian town called Marwencol for these figures. "I needed Marwencol to heal myself," Hogancamp explains. He began staging scenes with his characters and photographing them, modifying the "body language" of his small actors like a film director. Marwencol, a documentary about Hogancamp directed by Jeff Malmberg, will be shown at Upstate Films in Woodstock on March 18.
Hogancamp's fantasy world is not static; he creates an evolving storyline. At one point his avatar is captured by five SS officers, tortured, nearly murdered—until three of his female friends (all Barbie dolls) burst in brandishing weapons, shoot the German soldiers, and liberate him. Hogancamp's characters play out stories of sacrifice and heroism that represent "Good War" nostalgia and are also parables of ethical action. The five SS soldiers personify the five men who jumped the artist outside the bar in Kingston.
I asked Hogancamp about the powerful women in his fantasies. "I've always dreamed of having an all-female security team around my doll Scrunchie and I," he answered, referring to the Deja Thoris doll that Hogie wed in 2009. "If we ever get invited to something big in the future, our security ladies will encircle Scrunchie and I and the little folks, and protect us from evil. It's just a dream."
When you play with toy soldiers as a child, you kill a man and he soon hops back to life again, but Hogancamp luridly murders his characters—perhaps influenced by horror movies. He will stave in an SS guard's head, cover it with copious amounts of fake blood, then photograph the carnage.
But the dolls are not purely an art form. Three of his "girlfriends" sleep in a little bed next to him at night. Just before he turns out the light, he whispers, "I love you." But is he speaking to them or for them? It's not clear. In any case, this phrase reveals a subtext of Hogancamp's art—a love that is erotic, selfless, drunken, military, all mixed together. I was reminded of the movie Crumb, where R. Crumb admits that he masturbates to the women he draws.
Hogancamp walks the local roads near Kingston, pulling his figures behind him in a diminutive jeep, to wear down the wheels of the vehicle so it appears more authentic in photographs. He resembles a boy in the 1940s with a red wagon.
David Naugle, a local photographer, spied Hogancamp pulling his jeep, and stopped to speak with him. Later, the shy artist showed Naugle his piles of photographs. Recognizing the visionary power of this art, Naugle contacted Esopus magazine, which led to a show for Hogancamp at the prestigious White Columns gallery in the West Village. The movie Marwencol, which debuted in 2010, has won over 25 awards. Why was Hogancamp originally beaten up? This becomes the central mystery of the film—which I'm not going to ruin for you.
Marwencol will be shown at Upstate Films in Woodstock on March 18 at 1:30pm. The screening is part of the Reel Talk Film Series, a collaboration between Upstate Films and the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum. The film series is supported by a grant from Ulster County Cultural Services and Promotion Fund. Mark Hogancamp will be on hand to answer questions. (845) 679-6608; Upstatefilms.org.