Berlin, June 2010 - Zhivago Duncan has been a ubiquitous and beloved presence in Berlin’s art community since he moved there in 2007. The half-Danish and half-Syrian artist was instrumental in developing the impromptu art bashes in renegade exhibition space, such as Stattbad and Tape Modern, which give Berlin’s cool creditability. However, Duncan’s current series of manipulated toy car sculptures and paintings and silk-screens of doctored images from the heydays of Halston and Studio 54, have been embraced by all strata of Berlin’s art community, from the underground to Contemporary Fine Arts.
"The Beautiful and the Damned,” Duncan’s solo show of screen prints depicting Warhol’s entourage, ran through April at Cruise and Callas, Berlin. His work was a focal point of "In Fifteen Minutes, Everybody will Be Famous," an exhibition of artists inspired by Warhol, including Terence Koh, Douglas Gordon, Dash Snow and Dan Colen, which was curated by Emilie Trice and Haunch of Venison’s Anna Erickson at the Tape Modern exhibition space during Gallery Weekend. Duncan has also rapidly become a key contributor to Vittorio Manalese, Contemporary Fine Art’s massive project space in Charlottenburg.
Duncan, who is one of my closest friends, treated me to sushi before he installed an interactive self-portrait sculpture at Vittorio Manalese titled “if they see you everywhere at the same time, they might think that you’re hot shit.”
Zhivago Duncan, Democratic Donation; Courtesy of the artist
Ana Finel Honigman: Has the sudden rush of attention you’ve received for your work recently changed your emotional or intellectual relationship to the famous, or almost famous, figures you depict from the Warhol scene?
Zhivago Duncan: Yes and no. Some of the figures are famous and have been in the public eye. But others, have not. I related to many of them down-the-line, with the stories of who they were and what they did. I also related to the mal-fortunes. I kept thinking, ‘all these great things are happening with the project, but what if I die before the opening?’ I have been torn between the polar examples of these characters. A middle-ground was never an option. It was either doing the project properly and having it be really good. Or die trying.
AFH: Isn’t just sparking up and fizzling out the real middle-ground?
ZD: The middle-ground people were the ones that I found no information about.
AFH: How much research did you do? What about just prosaic failures – a television career after a big movie debut?
ZD: I did a lot of research before I picked the images. The research was a lot of who I picked to make images of.
AFH: Do you consider these as portraits of individuals or representations of types?
ZD: They are portraits. I started off aesthetically. I photographed thousands of images and then I chose thirty-six people.
AFH: Were you manipulating the images according to aesthetic choices or were you trying to make statements or observations about their biographies?
ZD: A bit of both. The first manipulation was actually an accident. And through that, I realized that I needed to continue distorting the images. I had taken a photograph of an old magazine page and it was all crinkled. I was trying to digitally straighten it. It was an image of Diana Ross. But, when I was trying to correct it, I slipped and accidentally pulled her body in Photoshop. I didn’t use that distortion but I realized that the possibilities were endless. But the funny thing was that I learned, when we were doing the interviews in New York, that a lot of my distortions were actually representing truths about who the people were and what their actual biographies were about.
AFH: Such as?
ZD: There is an image of Charlotte Rampling in the book where I put her head on a dog. It turns out that the dog was Brigitte Berlin’s dog and she was forcing Warhol to put the dog in every photo. She wanted the dog to be a star. So, it was funny that I removed the dog’s head and replaced it with a real star.
AFH: Are the interviews just adding some extra background or do they actually provide something that the images can’t? The images seem totally self-sufficient.
ZD: At this point, the paintings work alone, but there are two books that exist in the world and those books are catalogues of the paintings. They are handmade bibles of the project. One is white and the other is cream. They have both been bought into good collections. There is a Frankenstein book of my test-prints. That’s the artist’s proofs.
AFH: Are the collectors for the books also buying paintings?
ZD: My first collector for the paintings wanted a book but I didn’t feel it was the right collection. But now the two people who bought the books have also bought small prints. Those are off-shoots from the books. They didn’t buy paintings.
Zhivago Duncan, Cabarets Ursupation; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: So, how necessary were the interviews? What did you and Arsalan discuss with the interviewees?
ZD: We discussed the nightlife and the settings for pop-culture. We talked to the editorial at Interview and those players. They haven’t seen them but I’m sure they will see them somewhere somehow.
AFH: You now made a really rare and significant series of historic investigations into an era. Will those interviews ever be made public or will they remain as part of the art-object?
ZD: As far as the text goes, it is something special. The collector who bought the book wanted to put it in his study.
AFH: Study of what? Warhol?
ZD: No, his study – like, the room. He wants to go to his study every night when his wife is sleeping and read one page at a time.
AFH: So, he is just treating it like a book.
ZD: Yes. It is a book. It is in the form of a book. It is 30 kilos, with a spine and pages.
AFH: What I mean is that it has information embedded in words in the work.
ZD: It is a book but not a book. I almost got an ISBN book but then I had to brand it with a publisher. I might do my own publishing in the future, but now that was too much dedede…
AFH: You’re going to keep with the books?
ZD: I’ll keep making books with silkscreens. Books are like a pure perfume, as apposed to an eau-de-toilet.
ZD: A pure perfume is a super-potent smell. Each page is an artwork. I always wanted to do this. I always wanted to make each of a book into an artwork. That’s just because you don’t know how to drive.
AFH: But, I can read. Do you think that the Warhol subject lent itself uniquely to the book idea? How did you discover the Warhol subject?
ZD: I was in my neighbor’s flat either to do laundry or take a crap one morning, because I didn’t have a washing machine or a toilet then. I saw them there. He had a huge collection of old Interviews. He’s that guy that you describe as looking like ‘something that crawled out of Mick Jagger’s couch.’
AFH: Right! That dude. Was he ever in that scene?
ZD: He was and wasn’t. He hung out Jagger.
AFH: I feel like a lot of people did - probably on the couch he came from.
ZD: I always had a fascination with Warhol, as a Tasmanian Devil or Tasmanian Tiger, like an extinct thing.
AFH: Are you kidding? He’s the most un-extinct creature. He’s physically dead. Is that what you mean?
ZD: But I just learned about him. I moved around a lot as a kid. We moved every few years.
AFH: But you moved to places with museums, televisions and other people, right?
ZD: No museums and televisions. I never watched much television. I was in the forest knocking owls out of trees. And I lived in Hawaii and Saudi Arabia.
AFH: Hawaii is no excuse but Saudi gives you a pass.
ZD: The first museum that I went to was the Louvre. The paintings were impressive but I was most impressed by a shield with owl heads, platypuses and daggers. I was in a museum with the Mona Lisa but I was most interested in this shield. Have you ever seen a platypus?
Zhivago Duncan, Situation or outcome dots; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: Of course. Stop looking at me like I haven’t. I have.
AFH: I went to Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum is full of them. They have a Dodo.
ZD: Dodos are extinct, dude.
AFH: They have the last one stuffed. It’s a ridiculous looking creature. And it’s a sad story actually. It wandered over to the guy who killed it and sniffed his gun. The thing was hopeless.
ZD: Steal it for me. I’d call it Andy, after Warhol. He’s extinct, like a Dodo. And that’s what he did with culture. He went over and sniffed it. He predicted everything.
AFH: The Dodo didn’t predict anything. Not even it’s own death. But you did snuff Warhol nicely, so the analogy kinda applies.
ZD: And Warhol has no predators.
AFH: Were the subjects who you interviewed mostly just happy to have attention again or where they past the Warhol days?
ZD: Brigitte Berlin didn’t even want to see us. We tried.
AFH: But she does similar investigations into the meaning and significance of fame with her hilarious needlepoint pillows recreating covers from the Daily News and other tabloid papers of Bill Clinton’s blowjobs and Paris Hilton’s blowjobs. Those headlines are better than “happy homes” aphorisms and who doesn’t like embroidery and blowjobs?
ZD: I’m just thinking about IKEA.
AFH: You want to go there now?
ZD: No, dude. That just sounds like something I’d find there. Paris Hilton plus pillow equals IKEA.
AFH: Right, dude. It’s the domestication of fame. It’s bringing fame into the domicile.
ZD: I had a dream about Paris Hilton. We were on a date and she wanted to kiss me. But she had a massive cold-sore on her lip. I was trying to avoid her. Then Michael Jackson showed up and started to shout about being innocent and moonwalking on a limo.
AFH: That’s the most obvious dream ever. Paris Hilton’s cold-sore means you’re ambivalent about fame and possibly the recognition you’re receiving for your fame-themed art.
ZD: But this was when I was a student with one Euro in my pocket and still happy.
AFH: Everyone can be happy with one Euro here in Berlin. Berlin is changing now? What do you think of that?
ZD: Gallery Weekend was insane. I had three shows and they were all super-crowded. I went from zero to hero overnight. Its fucking great.
Zhivago Duncan, Fashion Fat cat bullseye; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: Do you think your work, or you, are emblematic of something happening here in Berlin? You were participating in the grungy stuff that is making Berlin the forum it is. Your international background is representing Berlin’s worldliness, right?
ZD: Some people don’t want to get their fingers dirty. I was hungry. I still am hungry.
AFH: Get away from my sushi.
ZD: Fine, fine. So, metaphorically, I was hungry and my parents couldn’t hook me up. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. But fortunately and unfortunately, I was forced to do a lot of underground shows. It taught me a lot of what I don’t want. The art world is full of creativity and also full of loving and good people but also full of pirates.
AFH: You mean parasites?
ZD: No, pirates. I know that makes them sound cool but they get cool stealing other peoples’ ideas. We’re all pirates in this sense.
AFH: But Baby, you’re an appropriation artist. I’d steer away from adding a negative spin to “pirating.”
ZD: Alright, stay away from Warhol and just talk about the art-world. Parasites are an easy thing to hate and get rid of. Pirates are strong and they have crews of people following their movements. They take what they want and fuck off. And then what you had is theirs.
AFH: Nice point. You win.
ZD: No, I’ve lost. It’s the story of my life. I do something and then someone runs away with it. I cant get too hung up on it because that’s crippling. But that world taught me to take my own shit seriously and do my own shit. These things are good experiences but the art is insignificant at these underground events. The art doesn’t make the money at these parties. The party makes the money. But in a proper gallery, the art makes the money – so people care about it. At these underground things, there are people who are just hungry to be seen. It’s a dream of being given a chance.
AFH: But isn’t it a healthy way to participate? It builds a community and creates a sense of peer bounding.
ZD: If you have it in you, than do it. I still do it, but at another level. I had to cut it off to be here. But that’s my algorithm.
AFH: Tell me about the cars? Tell me about the “souvenirs of God” series.
ZD: You don’t know how to drive, so let me tell you what a car is….a car is a steel stallion. They are decrepit American muscle-machines gas-guzzlers turned into colorful sculptures. They are burnt, built-up and destroyed into a post-apocalyptic junkyard where someone when crazy with a welder and paint, but miniature size. The car is our steel horse. A car takes us from point A to point B faster than a horse but we measure the speed in units called “horses.” In a post-apocalyptic light, these cars will be the last souvenirs of God referred to as mankind, in our last mental invention of our own egos and guilt at destroying what we’ve done.
AFH: That’s why they are these mutants? I want to ask you the question my amazing student Josh asked you, ‘when did you learn to speak confidently about your work?’
ZD: No one is good enough to be humble.
AFH: Did you think of that or is it a quote?
ZD: I’m sure that I’m not the first person to say it.
Zhivago Duncan, Milkmaid; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: I’m sure no one is the first person to saw anything.
ZD: I’m sure Genghis Khan said it at some point. I love sake. When I was a kid, my father used to have these sake glasses where you drank from them and could see a naked woman on the bottom. I was obsessed with naked women, so I kept asking to see the glasses but he’d pour milk into them instead.
AFH: That’s good. You needed to drink your milk.
ZD: I had no problem drinking my milk.
AFH: But, maybe, if you had drunk so much milk than you wouldn’t be the big, strong, successful artist that you are. Everyone wouldn’t love you.
ZD: I just puked in my mouth. I don’t want everyone to love me. Everyone’s sweetheart is everyone’s fool.
AFH: I think that’s a euphemism for a slut.
ZD: No it is not! Its not. Everyone’s slut is not a fool.
AFH: Is this a feminist re-interpretation? No way.
ZD: Everyone’s slut gets what she wants and everyone gives it to her.
AFH: So, are you interested in Warhol as a person? Do you read his bios?
ZD: I am. I am going to take the Chris Markos position on this. We went to his house and it was lined with Warhol photos and Warhol memorabilia and he opens the door and says “oh God, you want to talk about Warhol? I am so over Warhol.”
ArtSlant would like to thank Zhivago Duncan for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman