John Duncan, career retrospective and a first solo show in Los Angeles at Nicodim Gallery (February 3 – March 17, 2018)

After being senselessly attacked by strangers and experiencing terror of imminent death, artist John Duncan felt a range of intense emotions: panic, fear, anger and also relief. Such emotional high made him feel so alive that he wanted to share these sensations with others. That was the origin of Scare (1976), where Duncan was knocking on friends’s doors in the middle of the night, while wearing a mask, and shooting them in the face with a gun loaded with blanks.

In 1980, Duncan had gone through a horrible break-up. On many levels, he was not equipped to deal with it. According to the artist, he felt as if he failed at something very essential to being human, failed at love. That led to the Blind Date (1980), the most controversial act of his career. “I wanted to punish myself as thoroughly as I could. I’d decided to have a vasectomy, but that wasn’t enough: I wanted my last potent seed to be spent in a dead body. I made arrangements to have sex with a cadaver. I was bodily thrown out of several sex shops before meeting a man who set me up with a mortician’s assistant in a Mexican border town…” Having done that, he proceeded to have a vasectomy.

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In the last room of the exhibition, references to the above-mentioned two performances are surrounded by large 4-meter (about 13 feet) photographs, three on each side, of female genitalia, which the artist called Icons (1996) and saw them as objects of veneration. Each photo is copied in a drawing, placed next to it and executed in artist’s own blood. Though smaller in size, the choice of medium delivers a punch, suggesting the magnitude of the human tragedy behind the act. Duncan came from an abusive household, which led him to develop many troubled relationships not knowing how to deal with women. One example of that is in the next room, presented by 3 large tablecloths from the artist’s 3rd wedding. Quotes from his now ex-wife, such as “Fear of Life”, “La Vita è Bella” (Life is beautiful), “It’s All Good” (2013), were traced in his own feces. Nearby, there is a Self-portrait, also from 2013, in mold crusted around the outline of his body after his assistants smeared yogurt on and around him.

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This attitude of inadequacy, self-shaming and vulnerability comes across in his staged events as well. One of such, Maze (1995), is documented in the retrospective by two still photographs done with infrared cameras. Here, Duncan told people to strip naked and enter a maze, which in reality was just a pitch-dark room. Without telling the participants, he planned to keep them there overnight. It seems that instilling panic and making his performers share his feeling of being exposed and powerless was the goal.

Dream House: Rage Room (2010), which is assembled in the middle of the gallery as a wood-walled roofless container, was proposed as a larger design outlined in the schematic drawing attached to the wall near the installation. Duncan wanted to configure several containers in the shape of a human brain, and at the center locate the Rage Room. The violent anger almost palpable inside it as vicious splashes of cow blood on the walls and smashed furniture on the floor recreate the debilitating resentful wrath.

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Such state of mind is understandable: after the Blind Date performance, Duncan was shunned not only by the Los Angeles art world, but also his closest friends turned against him. That led to a self-imposed exile to Japan. The only documentation that exists about the Blind Date is an audio-recording. In Japan, Duncan continued working and had dived into audio, exploring the ways of how it affected the body and how one feels. A lot of the work since then evolves around sound. In Japan, Duncan is considered a godfather of Japanese Noise Rock.

“These experiences — the acts themselves, the shame that inspired them, isolation in Japan soon afterwards, suddenly in a completely alien culture unable to read, understand or communicate with anyone — all taught me far more that I could possibly have anticipated. As a result, my perception of all existence, including my own, has permanently and fundamentally changed. […] I’ve come to understand the act and experience of learning as sensual, as a form of beauty.” From the Blind Date statement, John Duncan, 1997

Duncan is a complex and interesting character, sensitive to reactions of others, but not crazy. According to Benjamin Handler, Director of Nicodim gallery and the curator of this exhibition, in the past he attempted suicide a number of times, but in the last decade, he’s been sober, grew more adjusted and comfortable in his own skin.

Duncan is a controversial artist, who pushed the boundaries of what could be considered art. Looking at his output challenges viewer’s morals and artistic taste. One either likes it or doesn’t. Emotional response to his work is so strong that remaining indifferent is not an option. So I devised an alternative approach, for myself, to processing and reacting to it – I looked beyond all of it and tried to see a human being, who was creating his art in response to life and growing in the process.

“Since Blind Date, all forms of my work are created to raise questions, to find out everything I can about who I am without fear or judgement, and to encourage you to do the same. Think of me as you will.” From the Blind Date statement, John Duncan, 1997

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If you decide to research and learn more about this artists, I suggest to also watch this Vimeo interview Think of Me as You Will (about John Duncan and “Blind Date”), 2002
done by Thomas Nordanstad. At the end, Duncan says something very reminiscent of Kabbalah teachings, “If you look into where this judgement comes from, into what compels you to make this judgement, look at what it is based on. Then you see something about yourself, that is useful to know […] and can give you a lot of insight into who you are…”

Author: YABNYC

Passionate about people with passions, I write about artists, their lives and artistic journeys; sometimes, I post my musings on exhibitions that speak to me. I don't believe in critiquing, but I believe in connecting. Knowing someone better hopefully leads to understanding, which also gives rise to a connection (intellectual, emotional or spiritual). People, who establish such a link with an artist, are more likely to want to live with their art. And, not only, often buying an artwork is a gesture of support for the artists we like and encouragement to keep creating. To quote Swiss curator, artist and art historian Harald Szeemann, "If the personal relationship is taken out, the dimension of intimacy, then the museum and art business gradually starts to become annoying."

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