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Anatomy of the Digital: a Vital Spark in the Machine

Manuela de Barros

Université de Paris VIII



Let the vision be mesmerizing: naked men, taking a shower, emaciated, haggard and greedy gazes, ghostly appearances reminiscent of horrors we would like to believe no longer exist. The video images are reworked with lines like the work of a painter inside out, with the charcoal drawing on top of the image, as if to specify the structure and show the cards’ undersides. The images are part of an interactive installation in which one quickly understands that it is the viewer himself who activates the spellbinding atrocity—is it to show us our complicity?

Du Zhenjun, the author of the disturbing ghostly encounter Presumption (of innocence or guilt?) (2000), did not relinquish his previous artistic experience in this piece: artist and professor in Shanghai, he was a painter as can be seen in his work from the mid-eighties (Yi qing or The Door). The black and white of the video images, accentuated by the “highlighting” work on the figures, further reinforce the feeling of “calligraphic abstraction.” The blurriness of the whole is another quality that, though specific to the photographic medium, contributes to smearing the boundaries between genres.

For while his recent works do sustain a flamboyant stroke from his pictorial practice, they produce a shift not only of questions tied to the pictorial but also those related to video and even interactive installation. Made of video but mingled with pictorial qualities, this installation draws its strength from a computerized interactivity which is not appearant. We use it without handling it, almost without knowing it, and observers are trapped by their own movements: a masterful exercise, of sorts, that surpasses the medium and its possibilities. This is undoubtedly due to the remarkable pertinence of the choice and the use of the medium in accord with respect to the intended signification.


Du Zhenjun’s apparatuses are haunted by masculine bodies. Always nude and always mute, they are a paradigmatic reference to a certain animality that is further exacerbated by the  introduction of the spectator-actor. It Hurts Me Every Minute (1998) is a perfect example of this, as the viewer induces the figure’s painful reaction just by exploring the image. Likewise, I Erase Your Trace (2001) traps the viewer in a corridor where naked men appear at his feet to immediately clean his tracks as he walks around, giving rise to a disturbing feeling of deficient hierarchical human relationships.

In these installations, the spectator’s body echoes those who stand before him or follow him, entreating him to mentally respond to situations in which one cannot simply behave as one wishes. Images of men without language or culture, of the human being reduced to an organism, deprived of the clothes, speech, and postures that normally distinguish him from an animal. They hold up a mirror to a human feature that is usually buried deep within us, at once hidden and poorly controlled, and that could  show up again without any warning.

This animal-man is even more explicit in Dogman (1998), in which figures in chains grapple as if in a dogfight. This miserable battle points to a state of solitude and isolation and removes any arrogance that the representation of a war and its grandiloquence of cruelty could have preserved. A summary of a human condition reduced to its own weaknesses and failures.


But the irony in Du Zhenjun’s works should not be overlooked. Indeed, the stigma of  a certain downfall does not go without roars of laughter. This scathing humor, present in even the gloomiest works, is a  consequence of the distance afforded when looking at something from an angle, like an autobiographical story told in third person.

This amused distance is most  present in the works with a reflexive perspective on art history. In Fountain (2001), for example, the viewer’s arrival in front of  a screen presenting a toilet bowl triggers a (virtual) spout of liquid and then activates the toilet flush. Duchamp is interpreted to the letter and the fountain is returned to its original function. Similarly, in Travelers Caught in a Sudden Gust of Wind (2001), Du Zhenjun quotes an eponymous photograph by Jeff Wall, who, in turn, was quoting a Hokusai print dating from 1832.


Quotation and reuse are at the core of Du Zhenjun’s work. The gap he stigmatizes, like the rift between nature and culture, is fueled by an assessment of the excessive presence of images, which are emptied of meaning through their continuous circulation; and in turn, this loss of meaning somehow obliterates the world to which its representations refer. We can only appreciate what we have learned to see, but can we continue seeing what we know only too well? As terrible as they may be, what impact can images still have when they are repeated to the point of tedium? In A Week in the World of Du Zhenjun (2001), we can access a stream of televised news from each day of the week through a system—a mosaic of monitors that the viewer can choose from—that is very revealing of how the artist thinks of these images as an active force. The Raft of Medusa (2000) confronts us with a visibly overcrowded boat, which, when the viewer moves, is suddenly hit by a coastal guard’s harsh helicopter search light spotting the emigrants on their way to a clandestine existence . . . or on their way to death. Presumption was already using images of camps taken during the war in Bosnia.

We must recall that Du Zhenjun was born in mainland China, grew up, studied, and worked there, and then chose to go into exile. His works, which never leave any trace of the images’ source and thus engender an ambiguity where our memories and our individual dread rush in, also constitute the view of someone who must have abandoned all illusions over the years of a sinuous segment of Chinese history that likely did not spare him.


One will have understood that Du Zhenjun speaks to us about a state of the human being uncovered, an ambivalent feeling mixing revolt with powerlessness, and a lucid hopelessness without pathos. For he speaks to us about a being, which he describes without pretence, and a vision that reminds us of our animal condition, our shortcomings, and our defeats. He also talks about a world fallen into its own trap, as it loses all depth by covering itself with an opacifying varnish, layer after layer, a millefeuille of insignificance that ends up ruining the thing that gives it value.

But it is lucidity without indifference, distance without cynicism. And the viewer sees himself confronting experiences in which he is offered the very framework of subjection through a reversed oppressive process. For by making forms captivating again, by reinvesting the digital medium, which art has all too often reduced to its particular technological procedures, with real content, and by using the means of an artist, Du Zhenjun refuses to give into the loss of meaning he denounces. Some flesh in the machine and  some substance in the simulacrum.

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