Zhivago Duncan


The American born Syrian-Danish artist gives Edmund Lee a 15-minute lowdown on his ongoing brush with fame.

Boasting a Warholian fascination with contemporary pop culture, Zhivago Duncan is a predictably chill fellow – that is, before he gets all solemn and philosophical on us when we ask him about his own experience with fame. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1980, the Berlin-based multimedia artist has been attracting a new legion of admirers with his latest series, The Beautiful and the Damned, for which Duncan took images from Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and created silk-screened portraits of faded celebrities, serving at once as a commentary and a mockery on the frivolousness of fame today. We met up with the artist at his solo exhibition at The Cat Street Gallery.

It looks like you’re commenting on fame and glamour with your current series. How did you decide on this subject?
It came by chance. I fell upon a series of old Interview magazines from the late 1960s and early 70s – it was Andy Warhol’s newspapers. A neighbour of mine [in Berlin] was a really young nerd. [Laughs] I started to look through them and I was just wowed by these people; most of them, I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t start with an idea of doing this project; I just started researching on these people, and realised more and more that it resembles modern [social media like] Facebook and Myspace. It was basically an analogue version of this internet social networking thing. I realised that people posting about themselves is a very old-school aesthetic as well. From this, the project just kind of evolved.

What was the creative process like?
Through the documentation, I took digital photographs of these analogue newspapers. Somehow I wanted to do some screen prints, and accidentally I distorted the face of Diana Ross, and… it came out really good! So it’s like, the mistakes always pay off. I kind of modernly filtered Andy Warhol.

Can you tell us more about this series of work?
Well, I work in two-dimensional and three-dimensional [media], and there’s always a narrative behind the work. In this case, I made a hand-made book for this series, which involved all the images, and every page is a screen print. We travelled to New York and we interviewed all the guys who worked with Warhol, the editors of Interview at the time. We wrote whole stories and used a typewriter to type it out, blew it up, and screen printed all the type on it. [For the current series,] basically there’re 36 images from the book which I used. The images are all from Interview. The celebrity [pictures], I distorted them; for those [lesser known people] with no or close to no information, I kept them plain as they were in the magazine. In the book, each work has a hand-stamped typography on the background; it’s like a composed poetry from the very frivolous layers of Google and Wikipedia keyword searches. But they actually explain something about these personalities’ existence.

Who would you count as your artistic influences?
A lot of artists influenced me. I guess I go through moments. [Long pause] Yeah, I don’t think any of the artists I really like would like me to say that I like them. [Laughs] This was really the first project I ever did that was based on another artist. Ironically, it’s the project that kind of put me into the art world per se.

Maybe these iconic images present an easy entry point.
You know, it’s bizarre. I did screen printing a lot when I was much younger. My work was very straightforward back then. I remember this kind of massive Che Guevara face; everybody was wearing Che Guevara. When you see a random person on the street and you go, “Hey, do you know who that guy is on your shirt?” They’d say, like, “Yeah! It’s some Cuban guy…”

“… who smoked pot.”
Yeah, you know? Fucking idiots. And when I walked into a store, they had these Che Guevara ashtrays – I found it really disrespectful to be turning your cigarette out in some guy’s face, you know? At the time, I was reading the book Killing Pablo, on the life and death of [Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar. So I just made the same prints [as others did with Che], but with Pablo Escobar. I made T-shirts and skateboards; it was just a joke. Then I put it away. A year later, I was reading the newspaper and saw a story about a Spanish cocaine dealer who got out of jail after four years. He made the exact same print that I did: he took the same image and used the same template, and in two months he made two million euros selling them in the market. I was like, “Holy shit!” This is exactly what I was doing just to mock it, but some guy actually did it and made it his thing and it worked! You just can’t win, you know? [Laughs]

And your show is titled The Beautiful and the Damned. Is it a reference to Fitzgerald?
Yes and no. It was actually a reference to a Halloween party that was a reference to Fitzgerald. [Laughs] So Fitzgerald got a little bit diluted
in there.

The Beautiful and the Damned is at The Cat Street Gallery until March 5.


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