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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Zhivago Duncan’s artistic journey covers many complex themes

The artist captures the complexity of the modern day condition in his latest show, Never But Always. We review it here.
Zhivago Duncan's Undisputed Reality. Courtesy Zhivago Duncan and Meem Gallery
Zhivago Duncan's Undisputed Reality. Courtesy Zhivago Duncan and Meem Gallery

In so many ways, the work of Zhivago Duncan captures the predicament of young people today.

Born to parents of mixed heritage, and having lived in so many countries, he is not sure which one to think of as home – his art flits from subject to subject with no sense of permanent ground. In the nomadic, globalised world we live in, many people can relate to this theme.

Take Never But Always, his current exhibition in Meem Gallery, as an example. The paintings, which combine screenprints on linen embellished with gold, feature patterns of Arabic mashrabiya and other geometric patterns, interspersed with diverse cultural references, including a disassembled toy car, Superman, Godzilla and even a 19th-century French guillotine. It is as if he has taken a random voyage through the myriad images, influences and cultures that have informed his life and distilled them onto the canvases.

Upstairs at the gallery there are plates and a set of etchings, which present a similar mash-up of symbols but in a totally different format. Somehow these energetic and strange pieces of work summarise the artist’s personal experience.

“Wherever I am, I am constantly home but I never really have a home,” Duncan said during his artist talk at the gallery on the opening night. It was something that rang true, I am sure, with many of the people in the room.

Duncan is Syrian-Danish and lives in Berlin. His work was acquired by Saatchi Gallery in 2011 and the artist had a show in Dubai in 2014. This year, his work took centre stage at the prestigious Meem Gallery’s booth during Art Dubai. It was also part of the latest exhibition at Salsali Private Museum in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.

Young, dynamic and with a sharp sense of humour, his work reflects this – but if you struggle to find a foothold in his work, you would not be alone. My best advice is to look for the constants.

First, there are the birds which, in various forms and breeds, appear in several of his works.

“Birds are a symbol of patriotism,” he says. “They appear on flags and currency but what I find ironic is that birds are migratory creatures – they are part-time here, part-time there and don’t really belong anywhere.”

A metaphor then, perhaps, for his life. Also, the titles of his work are consistently illuminating and help you to find a way in.

“I think titles are essential and I put a lot of time into thinking about them,” he says. “But at the same time, I don’t want them to offer the complete answer. It’s like I’ve chosen the head and the tail but the audience can choose what animal comes in between.”

And that intriguingly bizarre comment is yet another reason to check out his work.

• Zhivago Duncan’s Never But Always runs until May 10 at Meem Gallery, Al Quoz, Dubai. www.meemartgallery.com

aseaman@thenational.ae