Photo Essays

Inside Marwencol, the Art Project That Helped an Amnesiac Recover from Assault

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Mark Hogancamp, “Anna and Hoagie” (2015), from ‘Welcome to Marwencol’ (all images by Mark Hogancamp © 2015 Mark Hogancamp / Artists Rights Society, NY, unless noted otherwise)

In April 2000, after drunkenly confessing his love of cross-dressing in a bar, Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten and left for dead by five bigots in his hometown of Kingston, New York. The attack put him in a coma for nine days. When Hogancamp woke up, he thought it was 1984, that he was in the navy in Ibiza. The attack had destroyed his memory. Still, after a doctor explained that five men had nearly killed him, Hogancamp’s immediate response was “I forgive them.”

Hogancamp found he could remember his immediate family, but no one from his recent past. He’d forgotten his five-year marriage, his history of serious alcoholism, his niece and nephew, his friendships. He would have to relearn how to walk, write and draw, tie his shoes, go to the bathroom, and eat with a fork.

In the years that followed, Hogancamp did more than regain these basic skills. He came up with a strange and extraordinary coping device: In his backyard, he began to build Marwencol, a tiny imaginary Belgian village forever frozen in World War II. Among toy armaments and hyper-realistic buildings, a cast of action figure characters and Barbie dolls — including Deja Thoris, the Belgian Witch of Marwencol, who has a time machine made from a dead cell phone — play out wartime dramas. There’s Hoagie, a character based on Hogancamp himself, and five Nazi soldiers, based on the men who attacked him. 

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“Rescuing the Major,” the 2004 photo that won the Ultimate Soldier contest

Hogancamp’s super-saturated photographs of this elaborate world are now compiled in a book, Welcome to Marwencol, out this month from Princeton Architectural Press. The book accompanies a 2010 documentary about his story, Marwencol, marking another step in Hogancamp’s unintentional ascent to art world fame.

Unintentional because building Marwencol didn’t start out as an art project — it was a homegrown form of therapy that helped Hogancamp recover from his emotional and physical wounds. The project helped him regain his cognitive faculties. His story is a case study in the therapeutic effects of art-making, something art therapists have been touting for decades and that psychologists are backing up with more research. (Something millions more will learn about thanks to the forthcoming Hollywood adaptation of Hogancamp’s story, set to be directed by Robert Zemeckis and star Steve Carrell.)

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Mark Hogancamp, “Patton and the Jeep” (c. 2004), one of the earliest 35 mm Marwencol photos

“Because everything is so far away from me, I figured I’d bring the world to me,” Hogancamp is quoted saying in the book. “So here’s my little world, where I can make things happen, and I can create anything I want. Those guys don’t know what they took from me. I figured I’ll never get all those memories back, so I’ll just make new ones.” That the process of building and photographing Marwencol is therapy first, art second lends the product a sincerity and emotional power often missing from art that’s rooted purely in concepts and theory. As Todd Lippy, editor of Esopus magazine, writes in the book’s introduction:

It’s a little too easy to group Mark with other respected contemporary artists who incorporate dolls into their photo-based work, such as Laurie Simmons and David Levinthal. What makes Mark’s photographs so unique is the utter lack of irony he employs in his utilization of Dragon Models Limited military figurines, Barbie dolls, and movie action figures. There is no distance between Mark and these subjects, no wink-wink moment between him and the viewer. The fact that we invest so heavily in his work is not only a testament to Mark’s fertile imagination, obsessive attention to detail, and exquisite visual sensibility; it is a testament to his own emotional investment in Marwencol and the lives of its ever-expanding group of inhabitants…. To me, Mark is the ultimate artist: completely devoid of cynicism and utterly immune to the machinations of the art market, he reserves all of his energy and ambition for the work itself. He is one of the few creative people I know who views his practice as not only fulfilling but also totally sustaining.

It’s fulfilling, sustaining, and therapeutic, but that doesn’t mean it’s wholesome: Hogancamp uses Marwencol to play out revenge fantasies on the men who attacked him. “Marwencol was solely made up so I could kill those five guys,” Hogancamp told the Guardian. “I had no way to do it in real life. I played it over in my head. I’d get caught. I’d go to prison. I’d get the chair. The first time I killed all five of them [in Marwencol], I felt a little bit better. That violent hatred and anger subsided a little. For 12 years now. I’ve killed them every which way. I’ve killed them in ways Satan himself hasn’t even thought of.”

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Mark and his alter ego, Hogie, with their cameras
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Mark working in Marwencol in 2005 (photo by Tom Putnam)
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Hogie positioning figurines in a 2013 diorama by Mark
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Mark at work in Marwencol (photo by Jeff Malmberg)
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Mark photographing a scene in Marwencol in 2009 (photo by Jeff Malmberg)
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A soldier pays his respects to his buddy in Marwencol’s cemetery.
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The cover of ‘Welcome to Marwencol’

Welcome to Marwencol is available from Princeton Architectural Press.

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