Welcome to Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp and Chris Shellen. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616894153. 278pp
Gene: Did you ever see a documentary called Marwencol?
Sarah: The name sounds familiar but I don’t think I did.
G: It’s about Mark Hogancamp. He’s had kind of a sad life. He was married, he was in the army. After he got out his wife divorced him and he became an alcoholic living in, I think, rural New York. He went out with some friends one night a while back and got totally plowed — his blood alcohol level was 3.0 or so after this incident. He was drinking boilermakers — whiskey and beer, whiskey and beer. And he admitted to some guys that he’s a cross dresser. After the bar closed down, these guys beat him so badly he was in a coma, unconscious, for 9 days. Lots of brain damage. It knocked him back decades. He had been an artist, he drew a lot, but when he woke up he had to relearn how to walk and talk and it was awful.
And so — I want to admit I’m doing a piss-poor job of summarizing his life, you should see the documentary — he got these 1/6 scale action figures and started taking photos of them. Outside the trailer where he lives he created a World War II era Belgian village he calls Marwencol. There’s a character that’s him, Hogey. There are Nazi SS characters who are stand-ins for the guys who beat him up. There’s a bar, Hogancamp always wanted to own a bar.
This is how he deals with the trauma, and it’s also how he expresses his artistic side. He reenacts not exactly his life, but parts of it. There’s his love interest. There’s an evil witch who is part of his love triangle.
G: Hogancamp has jeeps and stuff that are parts of this world. Instead of painting mud spatter and aging them, he fills them with rocks or puts the dolls in them and drags them down the street. A guy saw him dragging this 1/6 scale WWII Jeep down the street and stopped to talk with him. He saw some of Hogancamp’s photos, and showed them to a friend who owns an art magazine. They published some and Hogancamp became kind of famous. (The really cool thing is that when he went to the gallery opening and the documentary opening, I remember he wore high heels.)
This book goes beyond the documentary. It starts with a few photos. It talks about the attack, and even has some of his art from before. There are photos of how he reenacted the attack in Marwencol — here’s a photo of one of the characters having been stomped into the snow and an SS officer walking away with a bloody boot. And you can see how realistic it looks. He really gives the action figures a sense of reality and motion. He’s telling a story.
S: Oh yeah.
G: There’s information on the real world trial of Hogancamp’s attackers and how he rebuilt his life afterwards. This is him now with his village.
He talks about what his memory was like. At the beginning of each chapter there’s a statement from him and then the rest of the chapter reads more like a book. Here’s the character that stands in for his mom.
This is the most famous photo — he won an award for this. (Go here and click on “artwork” — it’s the first example on the top left, the photo of one soldier carrying another through the mud.) People often think it’s a real photo of World War II. He found a fan site for these dolls online, Ultimate Soldier, and after he won a monetary award for this photo he started building Marwencol. And people started sending him stuff for it.
S: That’s great. That looks real. I’m really impressed.
G: Here’s his character Hogey placing 1/6 scale dolls in Marwencol that the character takes photos of. Hogancamp talks about the dolls like they’re him. There are photos that show how big everything actually is in relation to his trailer.
This is about as far as I remember the documentary going. But then the book has much more. There’s a whole guide to the town of Marwencol that tells about each building, where they came from in his life and what they are. Here’s the evil witch Dejah Thoris. Here’s an exploration of the characters. It talks about who each is in his life. Hogancamp’s character ends up with this woman Anna, a Russian princess.
The thing the guy at the art magazine said was that a lot of people use action figures in their art and photos, but that they do it very ironically. This is completely unironic, just Hogancamp dealing with pain and his story, and he’s not pretending it’s anything else.