WHITEHOT MAGAZINE:IN CONVERSATION WITH ZHIVAGO DUNCAN AND ARSALAN MOHAMMAD, 2010 BY ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
Andy Warhol was famously a fan and his Interview magazine made fan-rags fashionable. Yet while Interview champions celebrity trends, it remains up to artists and academics to deconstruct the timeless allure of Warhol and Interview's influence on pop-culture. Taking up this challenge is Zhivago Duncan.
The half-Danish, half-Syrian Berlin-based multi-media artist is currently producing a series of large-scale paintings and an elephantine limited-edition book of silkscreens, dozens of doctored images from the party-pages and profile portraits in Interview's heady early era. The book measures at 50x70cm. It is a massive, dense and artfully bound bespoke piece of art. Along with Duncan's images are exclusive, heated interviews by critic Arsalan Mohammad with some of Warholâs intimates such as Bob Colacello, Vincent Fremont, Gerard Malanga Chris Makos and Glenn O'Brien.
Each individual page is uniquely screen-printed, hand stamped and printed in an idiosyncratic type-writer hand that recalls dramatic flaws of Warhol's own silkscreens. As for the images themselves, Duncan's technique adds an especially problematic patina which reveals the fragile nature of fame. In contrast to Warhol's bold, primarily graphic aesthetic, Duncan's images appear as muddy and garbled as the manic, messy culture they represent. Where Warhol's silk-screens are sleek and elegant, Duncan's versions have the grungy energy of rock posters. Even now, in the early stages of their decay, the images look like the end product of a badly digested cultural stew.
Here Mohammad and Duncan discuss the depths of superficial celebrity.
Ana Finel Honigman: Zhivago, why are you creating both a limited edition book and an exhibition? How do these separate presentations relate?
Zhivago Duncan: The book and paintings work as an ensemble. The paintings span into another visual field, a more chaotic, mysterious feel, almost a ghostly presence with no concrete attachment or link to reality contradicting and coinciding with the book and its attachment to the public.
AFH: Arsalan, how do the paintings relate to the interviews?
Arsalan Mohammad: The paintings are the motivation behind the interviews. Zhivago and I talked about it a great deal and we came up with a list - or, rather, he mainly did - of people who were connected in some way to the world he was exploring. We didn't want to be too literal about the whole thing, and just get biographies of the people in the pictures, there's an ambiguity and mystery about these pieces that should remain in place and hopefully, strike the viewer in a similar way as they did Z. But I was concerned mainly with creating an impression of the world that generated these images - the places these people went, where they had come from, what they were doing. And on the other side, I wanted to hear about Interview itself - as an extension of Andy Warhol's lifelong obsession with celebrity and the way it presented people. This magazine was really groundbreaking, in its approach - editorially, artistically - to celebrity. Both bestowing it and honouring it. The best interviews we got were from people directly connected to the magazine, who understood what we were doing and what we wanted to know.
AFH: What are the lessons from Warhol's factory that can be gleaned for today's aspiring stars?
ZD: The lessons are imbedded in the âchipâ of instant stardom. Anyone can be a star by signing up for a reality show, humiliating him or herself in public, just being at the right place at the right time or saying the wrong thing at the right time. One can also be sufficiently beautiful, wear the right outfit and be seen at the right place. But fame for the sake of fame is flat. You might as well hide your kid in the attic and claim that he accidentally flew away in a giant air balloon!
AM: That fame which is easily won is easily lost. The dynamic of the Factory in the 1960s was crazy - Warhol surrounded himself with a motley assortment of odd types, he was magnetically drawn to those who had slipped through the cracks of conventional society and he kind of validated them - he made them feel like stars, though being in his films, hanging out at the Factory, touring the New York scene with them. Look at people like Edie Sedgwick, for instance. But he often saw people as expendable - when they no longer had any appeal for him, he dropped them. This led to all manner of infighting, jealousies and craziness amidst this troupe of pretty emotionally-fragile people. You just have to read about Valerie Solanas's failed assassination attempt on him in '68 to see what happened. As a metaphor for celebrity culture, I think that still holds true.
AFH: Fame after gets mistaken for admiration or success. Infamy is even more dignified than some forms of fame. Yet contemporary culture is consumed with fame as a goal and subject matter. Do you aspire to fame?
AM: No, not particularly. I wouldn't know what to do with it. And I don't think fame would be especially attracted to me!
ZD: I am attracted to fame the way that a moth is attracted to a flame. But, unlike a moth, I thankfully can wonder what the blue light actually is. Is it heaven or hell?
AFH: What attracts to fame?
ZD: I am much more attracted to life and its situations. I am more fascinated by the people I encounter and looking at the latest adventures of some ârandomâ on Facebook.
AFH: Since Facebook allows us to voyeuristically witness the lives of strangers as if they were celebrities, how do you feel our relationship to fame relates to our relationships with strangers?
ZD: I am fascinated by the huge gaps between small people in small towns with big problems and the modern day Olympians whose activities and eccentricities obsess them. I âgot my feet on the ground,â although flying sounds pretty sweet.
AFH: Arsalan, were you surprised by the responses of your subjects to an invitation to be interviewed about their pasts?
AM: Well, initially, yes. I think we were both surprised - and pretty thrilled - by the generosity and time given to us by just about everyone we spoke to. Hardly anyone refused an interview, and many of our subjects recommended us to other people. People like Gerard Malanga [Warhol's first assistant and 1960s Factory lynchpin] spoke at length, and he very rarely speaks about that era now. We found in the cases of Interview/Warhol associates, people were more than keen to share their memories of that time and what working with warhol was like. I think in some cases, there was an element of setting the record straight. I had interviewed Bob Colacello, ex-Interview editor previously and found him a great subject - he was incredibly helpful, not only giving us hours of fascinating recollections, but pointing us in the direction of others who could talk to us too. We made some good friends.
AFH: Arsalan, what was your previous attachment to that era?
AM: I had grown up fascinated by Warhol, the Factory, New York. Growing up in a small town in 1980s Britain, it was just this magical world to me, and I read everything I could get my hands on about that scene. I also was really curious to know what it was *like*, I had this really strong urge to know what these people did every day, where they would go at night, what they would wear, eat, talk about, laugh at, get bored by, get turned on with. For me, this was quite literally, a dream job.
AFH: Were you intimidated or particularly impressed by any of your subjects?
AM: I was a bit nervous ahead of meeting Vincent Fremont. He oversaw Warhol's business interests from the early 70s and continues to do so today. Books have been written about this guy. He controls the vast Warhol estate and the super-rare collections of work that have yet to hit the market. He has a bit of a fierce reputation. But when we met him, he couldn't have been more charming. OK, he called Zhivago insane within minutes of meeting him, but he was a proper gent. Funny, down-to-earth and blessed with a superb memory. I liked him very much.
INTERVIEW MAGAZINE:ARTIST ZHIVAGO DUNCAN GIVES INTERVIEW 15 MINUTES OF FAME, 2009 BY ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
Interview Magazine can claim a fair chunk of the credit (or blame) for contemporary, celebrity-crazed culture. And Berlin-based artist Zhivago Duncan is determined to give Interview its due. For "The Beautiful and the Damned," an exhibition at Cologne's Teapot Gallery this spring, Duncan is producing dozens of doctored images from the heydays of Halston and Studio 54 recorded in Andy Warhol's Interview.
Duncan will be including the images in a limited edition book of individually hand screen-printed pages and exclusive interviews by Interviewmagazine.com contributor Arsalan Mohammad with Warhol superstars like Bob Colacello, Gerard Malanga, and Chris Makos.
Duncan first silk-screens the images from Interview as an overt homage to Warhol's own technique. He then exaggerates his subjects' features and obscures part of each image with large bands of biographical text taken from Wikipedia and Google, which he considers to be today's organs of mass gossip.
In contrast to Warhol's bold, primarily graphic aesthetic, Duncan's images appear as muddy and garbled as the manic, messy culture they represent. Where Warhol's silk-screens are sleek and elegant, Duncan's versions have the grungy energy of rock posters. As Duncan explains, "Certain paintings of both celebrities and unknowns have been treated with various varnishes and U.V. protective coatings so that eventually, with time, they will age and yellow, and the once glossy surface will crack leaving nothing but the protected vibrant colors beneath." Even now, in the early stages of their decay, the images look like the end product of a badly digested cultural stew.
Duncan's interest in Interview, however, derives from a more naive relationship to celebrity culture. When he was a child, Duncan's family was utterly unmoored and the half-Syrian and half-Danish multi-media artist had never familiarized himself enough with a location to absorb ist pop fixations. He first learned of Interview when he discovered a stack of issues in the neighbouring Berlin studio of artist and lecturer Tristan Praniko.
Although Duncan depicts A-listers and has-beens alike, his interest is mainly the faded stars whose identity would stump even the savviest scholar of pop party-culture. "The images of vanished and faded 'stars' were the ones that really sparked the fire in me," Duncan recounts. "They are the founding fathers and mothers of reality TV, only they never got enough credit for their long-lasting cultural impact." Until now.