Zhivago Duncan is of Syrian and Danish origin, was born in the United States, educated in the UK, and has lived in various cities across Europe and the Middle East. His art practice is influenced by his eclectic background and experiences and his interest in learning about different cultures and common histories of mankind. The multi-lingual, multi-media artist is currently based in Mexico City, and has experimented with the unusual medium of batik on canvas in his latest show in Dubai, Beauty Blocked My View.
Duncan’s large-scale abstract batik paintings are filled with circular forms. They seem to depict ethereal landscapes, cosmic bodies, the birth of stars and galaxies, or the bubbling broth from which life emerged on our planet. Hidden amidst the abstract forms are words and letters taken from ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian texts alluding to the beginning of written history.
The mystical abstract/text works thus play with the viewer’s physical and metaphysical perception relating to the two hemispheres of the brain. By weaving together an ancient artistic technique with a variety of creation stories and cultural histories Duncan has created a metaphysical space where he can connect with his Syrian heritage and contemplate existential questions about the origin, purpose and meaning of life.
The artist spoke to the Weekend Review about his latest body of work. Excerpts:
What was the inspiration for this series?
I have always wondered about existential questions such as who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and where we belong. This led me to research various concepts of creation ranging from philosophical and mythological notions to scientific theories. I read translations of ancient cuneiform engravings, Aramaic texts and comparative studies of texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish — the Sumerian book of creation, and the Book of Enoch as well as the writings of English poet and artist William Blake, and The 12th Planet by Zecharia Sitchinas that proposes an extraterrestrial origin of humankind based on the study of ancient Sumerian and other texts.
The abstract nature of the batiks triggers the creative mind to invent a narrative to comprehend the abstraction. The organic, seemingly chaotic images open an infinite array of possibilities to the viewer.
I played with these stories to create my own narratives. The circles in my paintings are an abstraction of the first microscopic living cells and evoke our genesis on a biological level. They also reference planetary rotation and phases of the moon, touching on the astrophysical reasons behind evolution and the concept that we may have come from ‘elsewhere’.
How does this body of work relate to your unfulfilled longing to visit Syria?
Although I was born in the US, I grew up in a very Syrian environment, listening to stories about the country from my extended family. I always thought I would visit Syria someday, but the conflicts in the region have thwarted my efforts. When I began reading about the beginning of human life on this planet references to Mesopotamian and Sumerian culture kept coming up. I realised that Syria is not just the land of my ancestors, but also a cradle of human civilisation, and the destruction of the region is a loss for all of humanity. I know that I will never be able to see Syria the way it used to be, so in my paintings I tried to imagine the landscapes that are buried in my subconscious and express my feelings about them.
What does the title, Beauty Blocked My View, mean?
It is about the experience of being so hypnotised by the beauty of something that you miss out on noticing other things, but also about being so absorbed in a moment that you are impervious to distraction. The idea is embedded in the works because these are abstract paintings that stimulate the imagination, but when you look deep you will see a letter or words concealed beneath the abstract forms. The title comments on contemporary society where curated lifestyles on social media and celebrity culture make us blind to the realities and complexities of life and suggests that we need to look beyond the beauty on the surface for something more meaningful.
What is the significance of the hidden letters and words in these paintings?
These batiks are part of a larger body of work that includes graphic screen prints layered on texts and poetry. The works are based on the Ishihara colour-blind test and the idea is to create an experience that links the left and right hemispheres of the brain, analytical and abstract thinking and physical and metaphysical understanding.
The abstract nature of the batiks triggers the creative mind to invent a narrative to comprehend the abstraction. The organic, seemingly chaotic images open an infinite array of possibilities to the viewer. And once the nature of the work is clear to the viewer, the underlying text emerges from its abstract camouflage, triggering the analytical side of the brain. Either you can see the abstract painting or the text, but never both at the same time.
This reflects how we look at history, science or even our own existence. We look for some material evidence and then create imaginary scenarios based on our assumptions. Hence our understanding of history and the world around us changes constantly based on new discoveries and the assumptions we make about them.
What do the intriguing titles of individual works indicate?
The titles are an important part of the work. For example, Sumerian Sunsets imagines an ancient sight that we can never see, and Barley Fields Forever refers to the fact that one of the earliest written records is a receipt related to barley trade. When Stars Collide alludes to the theory that gold was formed by the collision of stars and that Sumerian gods came to earth from some star to look for it.
Why did you choose batik for this series?
I learnt this technique of wax resistant dyeing in high school in Malta 20 years ago and loved it. It was challenging to adapt it to canvas, but I like this technique because it has a long history throughout the East and it involves natural materials. The process is exciting because you cannot control the ultimate result, so there are always some surprises, but the unexpected flaws and variations add depth to the compositions.
Jyoti Kalsi is a arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
Beauty Blocked My View will run at Meem Gallery, Al Barsha until January 10, 2019.