Growing up on a steady diet of Hanna-Barbera and Disney might stunt your growth if it’s not balanced with a healthy dose of reality. But if your childhood was set against the backdrop of post Communist-era Poland, you could learn a lot from cartoon characters. Sebastian Burdon, aka Whatshisname, the Polish-born and London-based artist that managed to satarise Jeff Koons’ satirical balloon dogs, was a good student. Not only did he learn to speak English thanks to Scooby-Doo; he discovered what a curious place the west was, in stark contrast to what he describes as the “dissonance” of his homeland. When TV programming has the stone-age Flintstones playing out straight after the futuristic Jetsons, against a backdrop of rationing and failing collective enterprise, you can literally see how it could make for a confusing impression for a young kid about what the wider world looks like.
The incongruous way that young Sebastian joined the dots on pop culture has now formed the basis of his unique, tongue-in-cheek style as an artist. His outsider perspective gives him the natural ability to see the same things we see and reinterpret them in a totally unique, amusing-to-the-point-of-chuckling, and mildly provocative way. In his own words, “I find joy in seeing things differently. My work is about celebrating an alternative to the ordinary.” He wasn’t always aware that his interpretation of the world had gaps in it. But cartoons juxtaposed against a crumbling Communist society gave him the inkling that there were either a few small holes in it or Scooby-Doo was the result of too many Scooby snacks had by story developers and animators.
A school holiday trip to London in 1997 revealed a world of possibility and strange new concepts, influences and iconography. He heard songs for the first time by American 3-piece, Green Day, and felt a sudden connection. Everything Sebastian was exposed to in Blighty stirred in him “a love of the dark side”, from punk rock to artists submerging sharks in formaldehyde. It left a lasting impression and he vowed to return. At the same time, it triggered a flourishing fascination with the contrast between light and dark, good and bad, and how you can’t have one without the other. He explains, “I understood I had this rebellious streak but I would always look for contrast. I liked skulls and heavy metal but the revolutionary Toy Story and Hanna-Barbera cartoons delighted me. I would watch TV for hours absorbing it all. The colours seemed so much brighter growing up in the grey of Poland. I suppose a love of seeing playful characters in dark places is what led me to create my Gone series.”
Featuring the soft filter silhouette of characters such as Pooh and Piglet holding hands, some encrusted with diamond dust that ignites the artworks with intrigue, the Gone series is a beautiful, slightly eerie journey into the recesses of the mind, tracing back to childhood. “As I started taking my kids to birthday parties I think I started to wonder what had happened to those characters I knew as a kid. They were like these shadowy figures in the back of my mind. Recreating them, it feels like they could be saying good-bye as you forget them or hello as you remember them,” says Sebastian.
Prior to arriving at this latest series though, Sebastian has amassed a large body of work across an array of mediums and applications including outdoor installation art, product design, sculpture and statue work, as well as paint and ink — he’d been busy in the years since arriving from Poland. After graduating from university, Sebastian and his girlfriend — now wife — returned to London and never looked back. Originally planning to score a job as a designer at a big visual effects house, he ended up working as an assistant to a number of high-profile artists. The production process involved in bringing concepts to life appealed to his curiosity and creativity. Since a lot of the well-established artists were older, with limited knowledge of the new and emerging tech, he helped them realise their visions through 3D graphics, 3D printing and animation. This experience also helped bring to life a kinetic artwork for Mat Collishaw in 2009 — a large and exhaustively detailed zoetrope called “The Garden of Unearthly Delights” — before Sebastian moved into more accessible formats that could produce work at a much quicker pace.
Consequently, Sebastian picked up a lot of skills (hence the variety of his portfolio), and over time found himself pitching his own ideas to the artists he worked for. Rather than taking them as their own they encouraged him to strike out on his own. And he did. But it was a gradual transition.“I’ve always tried to avoid risky situations as much as I can. When we were still at Uni and wondering what our life would be like, my wife asked me what I wanted to do. Straight away I said I saw myself as an artist. Fast forward to now, that’s what I’m doing. But for a long time, I did half and half, working for others and working for myself, until I felt ready,” explains Sebastian. “A long time ago, I listened to an interview with the bass player from Green Day. He said, ‘don’t be afraid to be successful’. It stuck with me and changed what I was doing. It kept me pushing.”
To the point that he took the wind out of Jeff Koons’ balloons and inflated it in his own dog creations! “I made sure I reached out when I was about to release them, so to speak, so he’s aware. I’ve never had a response, but I assume he’s ok with it. In my case, the idea is transformative, not derivative, so I think that’s ok. I’m not trying to be controversial, I just want my collectors to smile and feel happy when looking at my art.” Just as they do when they come across his LOVE screen print with its raised middle finger or his Riot Shield Smiley Face. And probably will do again when he releases his upcoming Statue of Liberty throwing a torch, or break-dancing Astronaut. “We live in a world where art is valued against a Banksy stencil. So, we need to think differently. Edward de Bono talks about this idea called PO — Provocative Operation. Basically, it asks what would happen if we do the opposite of what is supposed to happen. So I look at simple things from a different point of view.”
And what of the name Whatshisname? “I just love the work of so many artists but when I refer to them I can never remember their names. So it’s only fair that that’s how I’m remembered.”