Upstate Diary No. 12. Photography Kate Orne
I imagine working in Marwencol to be like floating in chilly, salty water. A place to immerse your mind, where moments become days, where even if the outside world were to brush up beside you, there is no time to pay it any mind. Marwencol is no hobby. It’s a sanctuary, where self-reinvention, artistic courage, and self-guided exposure therapy collide. The captain of this brave brigade is Mark Hogancamp. Hogancamp is an artist, world-maker, the senior poohbah of something larger than life. He was put through the ultimate traumatic test and woke up on the other side with more strength and creativity than most of us could ever imagine.
Hogancamp’s story was almost over before it fully began. In 2000, he was having some drinks at The Anchorage, in Eddyville, NY. While talking to a group of men, he revealed something that he typically kept to himself: Hogancamp is a straight man who feels most comfortable in nylons and women’s heels. What followed his admission was a hate crime: Five men followed him to the parking lot and attacked him from behind, repeatedly kicking him well after he lost consciousness. He woke from a coma nine days later. He remembered nothing. At 38, he had to battle against brain damage to relearn how to eat, drink, and talk. He lost nearly everything. After 40 days of physical therapy in the hospital, his insurance ran out.
Any further rehabilitation had to be self-directed. To rebuild his physical dexterity, he began collecting cast-off scrap plywood, and construction materials. The result was Marwencol‘s first building behind his trailer: Hogancamp’s ‘The Ruined Stocking’ Cat Fight Club. This was his new life.
It was a raucous, scruffy bar, full to the brim with 1/6 scaled figurines dancing, drinking, fighting. Everything inside the bar represented Hogancamp’s former life, including the vintage photo of his father. The men would swig from bottles of beer (Air Force Capt. “Hoagie” Hogancamp, the artist’s own gallant alter ego, only drinks coffee) and only stop to watch the women of the town tearing into each other’s lingerie in the constant “catfights.” Hogancamp gets down on his hands and knees controlling every move, seeing every angle from their perspective, and shoots stills with an old Pentax K-1000 camera, loaded with 35mm film.
Hogancamp created a town where the past and the future make a new, more comfortable present. A world that can be controlled. Marwencol is a fictional Belgian village, somewhere in the north, near Ghent. Neutral at the start of World War II, Belgium found itself forced to fight following invasion by Germany in 1940. Unable to stave off this mighty military machine, they surrendered after 18 days, which lead to occupation until 1944. Their story resonated with Mark. Belgium had no appetite for the conflict. They wanted to be passive, and as a result, their land became a boxing ring for others to take out their aggressions.
While most of the dolls resemble real-life friends, family and neighbors, there have been an increasing number of guest-star cameos by Tinseltown A-listers. There is the medic Pvt. Yorke (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke), pilot Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a Halle Berry doll serves as a nurse. After a recent viewing of Ironman, Hogancamp felt Gwyneth Paltrow needed a rest, a vacation in the north of Belgium. Looking online, he found a 1/6 scale action figure of her Pepper Potts character. He had to have it. He admits that “she is just cool to have around.” Marwencol is now a hub of Hollywood. “A place they can all hang out and get into trouble, good trouble.”
When I asked him what he is looking for in a leading man, he says that it’s as simple as, “They talk to me. I already know they have a part in Marwencol, the longest 1/6 story in the world.” He considers their arrival to be akin to saving them. When they arrive, it’s in a box, wrapped in cellophane; they cannot breathe. When he cracks the seal, he can hear deep, high-pitched wheezing. “And that’s when they come and work for me!”
In 2015, Marwencol, as it was initially conceived, came to an end. Hogancamp had spent the better part of 14 years ritualistically torturing and killing the five men who attacked him. The creation of the town was a way to push through the fog, to assemble an outline of the puzzle. He now wanted closure. At this point, the little town had grown to nine buildings and was set to host the Winter Games, a Marwencol Olympics. The scene was so significant to the story, so anxiety-inducing, that by the time “Hitler,” “Himmler,” and “Mussolini” arrived, the snow had all melted away. After the closing ceremonies, these evil men were ambushed. Their final days consisted of indescribable torture before being executed and hung upside down by their ankles outside of Marwencol Town Hall. His self-directed therapy worked. Hogancamp had overcome his hatred.
The town has evolved quite a bit recently. The story has turned away from egregious fatalities and turned more towards gender and power, healing, and sensuality. It all started with new neighbors who put down a double-wide trailer directly beside Marwencol. The family has been incredibly supportive of the work, making sure Mark’s refrigerator is stocked with frozen food from Aldi’s. The wife next door is a front-line nurse battling the virus every day; holding the hands of patients as they pass away. Hogancamp started the newest building in her honor, back in March ‘20, during the COVID lockdown. He wanted a building that lit up at night, so she could return home to a big, “Thank You” written around a big red cross.
Of course, this is still Marwencol, so the hospital has a twist. Named the Sanctuary for the Sane, this is less of a Navy infirmary and more of a space for men, weary from war, to be kindly treated by a collection of curvy sirens in various stages of undress. Daniel Craig seems exhausted. Tom Hardy, from the movie Dunkirk, is currently being treated for an injured leg. Soldiers have a moment to drink, smoke, rest, a chance to be around these women. It is a safe space because the women are in charge. As Hogancamp says, “The only species on Earth that haven’t attacked me are women.”
While his scene photography might end late at night, I have the feeling his imagination never turns off. Hogancamp shares his home with six lady friends. Four RealDolls and two fiberglass mannequins that he saved from heading to the incinerator. He bought them because they move. The RealDolls have steel skeletons and soft silicone skin. He wanted to pose them for various scenes, just like the smaller dolls, but they proved to be too heavy, each weighing 85 lbs. After many trips transporting them to the set via a wheelchair, the ladies were retired. Now, as night falls, they are his company. The women fuel his creativity.
The world turns around. Somewhere far from here, irredeemably corrupt people make decisions that will harm our health and our wealth. None of that matters within the dome of Marwencol.
Mark Hogancamp is a quintessentially American artist. He has to be. This is borrowed time, “I flew away once. I remember the feeling of eternity. You can imagine what eternity feels like? I know. My god let me feel it, then sent me back to the bed in Westchester Medical Center and let me breathe again. That’s when I took the tubes out, after 9 days, and was able to breathe on my own. Ever since that day, everything was erased. Money means nothing. We take nothing when we go. I was aware. My eyes were open, but it was jet black in purgatory. Then I woke up. I view the world as beautiful. Colors, leaves. I’m let out of the cage. God gave me a second chance. He said, ‘Don’t go back to drinking and I’ll make good shit happen for you.’”