Interview: Artist Zhivago Duncan Finds a Home in Mexico




Some people roll into a town or a city, then spend the rest of their lives attempting to make sense of the place. They judge and they analyze, monitor and criticize, and usually wind up on the wrong side of a second guess. In other words, they get nowhere, slowly.

Other people roll into town and don’t bother trying to make sense of anything. They don’t judge or analyze or monitor or criticize. Instead they wander. And they wonder. And they don’t worry about a thing. It’s not so much that they close their eyes and hope for the best, mind you. It’s more like they open their eyes and expect the best. And yep, you guessed it, the best eventually arrives, right on cue.

Zhivago Duncan is one of the latter. When the Indiana-born artist hit Berlin, he didn’t have a clue how he’d make his way through the many-storied German capital. Then he walked up to Bruno Brunett and introduced himself. “I’m Zhivago Duncan. Someone told me you’re the only man with the balls to sell my work.” Needless to say, he was immediately signed to the famed gallerist’s immensely influential Contemporary Fine Arts.



In London, Duncan ended up showing with the Saatchi Gallery, and in Miami he was sponsored and exhibited by the noted Fredric Snitzer Gallery. Now based in Mexico City, he will be unveiling his wonder works at the the magnificent Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Querétaro (MACQ). The show is called Memetic Maps, and it’s an ultra vivid pairing of prodigious wall hangings and what appear to be pre-dystopian ceramics.

The paintings, which are hued from the bright side of the sun and delineate such intrigues as maze-like portals and hermetic schemata, take on a certain majestic historicity within the expansive confines of this 17th century former monastery. As do the exquisite and similarly-hued ceramics, which could as easily have been created by nomadic Aztecs as by their ancient Sumerian ancestors. Whatever the case, the exhibition’s a triumph of artistry and accomplishment. And it could only have happened to someone who puts their faith in the better angels that we nurture.

Of course, even the most upward-looking souls experience a downside every once in awhile, and, as you’ll read, Zhivago Duncan is no different in that respect. Nevertheless, his capacity to mine the downside and come up with such stellar reveals gives him an edge that’s almost cosmic. Then again, anyone who can tap into the stars need not worry about little black holes.

BlackBook got with him on the very eve of his Memetic Maps opening, to chat about his new South of the Border home, and other matters of faith and beauty.



Control: panel 2


For the few who don’t yet know you, just who is Zhivago Duncan?

Zhivago Duncan is a warrior obsessed with whatever it is he is working on at the moment.

When asked, what is it you say that you do?

Right now I would say that I am making catapults, raku, huge batik, and practicing Judo and Jiujitsu.

How’d you end up doing what you do in Mexico? 

I make stuff no matter where I am in the world. It’s pure survival.

Had Mexico been on your radar before you made the move?

Yes, in a magical way. Ten years ago, basically a week before my career exploded in Berlin, I was drunkenly leaving a Christmas party with my guitar. I had no career at the time; no gallery or collectors. Just a studio full of artwork, debt and enough money to buy a plane ticket somewhere. I thought to myself “fuck the Berlin winter, my studio and everything [else]. I’m gonna buy a one way ticket to Mexico and just take my guitar, live at the beach and figure something out.” The voice of reason in my head said, “go home, you’re drunk.” So I did. I was woken by Stefan Rinck, an artist friend of mine, who called me the next morning asking if he could send his gallerist to me. They came, took me on, word got out; then a curator gave me a show, and then a big Berlin gallery swiped me up. Within ten days I had three galleries, three shows and more money than I had ever made in my life.

But then…

Fast forward ten years, I had left Berlin and went through the hardest period of my life. I was broke, in LA, heading to London on a paid curator gig. My life was FUBAR. I won’t get into details except that I was applying to be an Uber driver…that’s how fucked I was. Anyways, I’m in the garden of my brother’s house looking up at the full moon thinking of that moment ten years before, when just as I was willing to throw it all away, the universe delivered. I was not thinking about Mexico but that innocent moment of despair. “Please give me something,” I whispered to the moon.


Projection: panel 3


Yet something did draw you to Mexico.

The next morning my good friend Manfredi Beninati drove me to the airport with his son Leone and ex-wife. I complained: “I just need a studio, I am going crazy.” And his ex said, “I have a studio in Merida, Mexico; use it for free; just give me a piece [of art].” This was music to my ears! Little did I know though that she would retract her promise once I was in Mexico, already heading to live by that beach. But almost four years later I could not be happier. Life is great, my work is going great and I am with the woman of my dreams.

And Berlin?

Berlin gave me a lot of structure in my work. I will always be grateful to Berlin and Germany as [that period] was a very important part of my development as an artist. But though I miss my friends there, I have no intention of ever living there again.

Would you say you’ve finally found a “home,” a place where you feel at once comfortable and inspired?

Home for me is a feeling inside. I am home everywhere. Vanessa, my partner in crime, is home. We often think of buying some land somewhere, but we’re not ready to know where yet. So for now it’s the jungly forest of Amatlan.

Speaking of inspired, what compelled you to create the Memetic Maps?

Well Memetic Maps is an evolutionary title of a body of work that I have been fixated on called, When Our Pineal Glands Were Big. It defines the evolution of an idea and how it can be everything and nothing. A little bit like civilization in the sense that it’s full of structure and rules that we all follow—an operating system that functions, but towards what? What does it mean and why? It really means nothing and yet is everything. Within these empty walls of existence mythology is born. The large painting, Primordial Soup, represents the development of a thought being born. Where form represents both the micro and macro organisms transcending the various evolutionary stages of the idea itself; creating a form of theanthropic architecture.



Harmony: panel 4


Have you long been intrigued by antediluvian existence? 

Who hasn’t?? I mean the earth was covered in water. The Sahara desert used to be a sea bed and there are entire cities that are underwater and buried beneath the earth. It is fascinating to think what came before us. My work has always revolved around birth and death, apocalypse and creation. These are the most interesting parts of life for me.

There seems to be a real resurgence in the field, both scholarly (i.e. via non-canonical writings such as The Book of Enoch) and culturally (i.e. Ancient Aliens, etc). Have you explored, and in turn been inspired by, any non-canonical literature?

Yeah, it’s quite funny how all of the sudden it’s of super interest. I was looking into a lot of different books like The 12th Planet by Zechariah Sitchin, and a lot of Graham Hancock. I mean these guys are writing about connections between various canonical theories and other theories. But there are also hints to these “fantastical” ideas in books such as the Bhagavad Ghita and The Iliad. It’s just that they were written by a certain people of a certain time and the explanations were like that of a chimp trying to describe an iPad.

How about such series’ as Ancient Aliens?

Never watched it. It’s not healthy to watch cheesy stuff.

Whatever the truth of our origin, both seem to point to a dumbing down of humanity—is that a view you pursued through your new works?

Well, yes and no. What I think has happened is that we once lived on a super comfortable planet, had huge pineal glands and were constantly in touch with the fourth dimension. You know, the type of consciousness that you experience while on psychotropic substances. That’s why the “gods” all have the same looks according to all the cave paintings throughout the ages; except back then those “gods” were always present. We were highly in tune with nature, which was our technology, communicated telepathically, travelled in a non-physical manner, so on and so forth.


Re-appropriation: panel 8


But then there was an epochal event…

There was a huge meteor shower that rearranged the earth and annihilated most of human existence. The majority of survivors went underground to be protected from the deluge, which explains many of the indigenous myths of creation. The “gods” who were still present instructed the survivors how to endure in the new changing climates of the world. Thus was born agriculture, architecture and organized civilization. This change in living and diet altered the human mind and over the course of thousands of years shrunk the size of the pineal gland to a tiny little rock. This evolution enabled us to survive in the enhanced physical world, and altered the human focus towards the physical realm.
Today, in a sense, we have manipulated our physical reality into our intuitive past. We can once again communicate with everyone and travel everywhere with phones, planes and cars. We are able to visualize any person anywhere at any time through our devices. The internet is our exo-consciousness and everyone is connected. 

Are you also interested in pointing out how we compound our ignorance by doubling down upon and refusing to acknowledge our mistakes?  

Ego ego ego. Most individuals do not like to be wrong; thus, as a collective ego we are the same. I believe that we are as a whole as we are as individuals. The only way for an individual to evolve in a productive manner is to accept the mistakes and move on in an improved version of the previous self. A large majority people of are behaving like a gambler who keeps losing, and instead of walking away with whatever is left he keeps trying to win it all back until it’s all gone.


Harmony: panel 9


On the other hand, have you noticed an increasingly growing community of people who are gleaning on and occasionally even implementing some of that pre-ancient knowledge?

Yeah, it’s coming back. There is so much simple ancient technology that works. And now with the rapidity of our current technology, everyone has access to some incredible information. Again, it’s really on what you focus your energy. Everyone complains about how all these social media programs know what you are interested in, send bespoke advertisements and track you, etc. So many people are crying like big fucking victim babies. Honestly, I love the shit that my phone advertises to me. It’s the shit that I am interested in. I like that my technology adapts to me. 

So you don’t think it’s too late to steer our proverbial ship out of what appear to be very troubled waters?

I am a strong believer that everything in the world is exactly where it needs to be; if we get smart and switch the game around, then that’s it. If we extinct ourselves, then that’s what needs to be. The unified ego will steer in the direction in which its individuals are headed. 

What steps would you recommend we take, as individuals, as a community, and as a world?

Compassion, love and kindness.


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