January 2010, In Conversation with Zhivago Duncan and Arsalan Mohammad

 

Ana Finel Honigman in Conversation with Zhivago Duncan and Arsalan Mohammad

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 Warhol’s 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 “chip” 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.


Zhivago Duncan; Photo: Maxime Ballesteros


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 “random” 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 “got my feet on the ground,” 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.


Arsalan Mohammad interviewing Vincent Fremont at Union Sqare


AFH: What are the subjects' responses to the contemporary art world?

AM: It varied. Some weren't involved any more, one or two probably shouldn't have been. But then there were people like Chris Makos, a truly memorable character who was kind of the lovably bad boy of the Factory in the late 70s and early 80s and one of Andy's favourite people. He's still going strong, with his partner Paul, in an odd sort of incarnation as 'The Hilton Brothers', making photographic diptychs and generally enjoying himself around the world. But for the most part, responses to the current art world, outside of the Warhol context weren't discussed.
 
AFH: Are there stories or attitudes that keep reoccurring in the interviews?

AM: A lot of memories of Warhol, obviously. Each interview was approached differently, depending on subject and what bearing they had had on events. Each interviewee had their own take on Warhol, and obviously, it was interesting to sit back and compare memories and anecdotes. Most influential artist of the 20th century he may have been, but those around him clearly put up with a lot! But what was interesting was just how much fun everyone had had in the 70s. Pre-AIDS, post-Vietnam it seems like this golden era of complete abandon. 

AFH: Have the interview subjects responded to the prints and paintings?

AM: Z for this one

AFH:
What are your responses to the figures in Interview who have faded or vanished completely from public view? 

ZD: The vanished and faded stars were the ones that really sparked the fire in me. They are the ones with the most amazing stories.  

AFH: How do you feel that your subjects version of fame relates to fame today? 

ZD: It was like seeing behind the scenes to a time when digital documentation was not as abundant as it is today. They were almost like the founding fathers of reality TV. Although they never got any credit for what they began. 

 
AFH: Zhivago, how have you selected the images and personages to represent in the visual aspect of the project? 

ZD: My selection began with my instant attraction to certain compositions. My subjects include David Hockney, Shirley Temple, Kay Kendal, Jack Nicholson, Salvador Dali, Burt Reynolds and other principal figures of that time. However, I also selected “mal fortune” cases where my initial attraction to the image was surface beauty. I originally documented hundreds of images; all classified and organized with the original dates, issue number, personage, and photographer. 
 
AFH: What was the next step? 

ZD: Research. That is how I made my selection. I now have a of thirty-two characters that spanning from popular culture super stars to the unfortunate ones lost on the edge of fame. 

AFH: What do you feel are the long-lasting impacts of Interview's aesthetic and focus? 

ZD: Early Interview magazine pre-dated much of today's the mass-media. It was a precursor to the majority of reality TV and definitely to addictive internet friend-sites. Yet, there are clear connections. I am especially fascinated by the ways that trends today coincide with what was happening then. While the time lapse between eras is minute, comparing them can almost feel like merging two worlds together. 

AFH: How does the style and technique of the project relate to your observations about fame in
Interview? 

ZD: The technique and process is a huge aspect of the final work. It refers to the original consumer aesthetics the American fifties and early sixties, the birth of the beast. We are currently living in an era shaped by conventions formed in these eras. I have basically taken original images, digitally filtered them and reproduced it through stencil and silk-screen, which I see as analogue Photoshop techniques. Over this, I have added a top layer of information gathered from Google and Wikipedia, our modern oracles.

 


Zhivago Duncan; Photo: Maxime Ballesteros


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ana Finel Honigman is a Berlin-based critic. She writes about contemporary art and fashion for magazines including Artforum.com, Art in America, V, TANK, Art Journal, Whitewall, Dazed & Confused, Saatchi Online, Style.com, Dazeddigital.com, British Vogue, Interview and the New York Times's Style section. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, Ana has completed a Masters degree and is currently reading for a D.Phil in the History of Art at Oxford University. She also teaches a contemporary art course for NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development students. You can read her series Ana Finel Honigman Presents

Photo: Maxime Ballesteros

 


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