10 lessons of philosophy
Du Zhenjun is a philosopher who thinks with images: a visual philosopher. Not that he despises language, as he also knows how to express himself very clearly, but because he chose a way to make us cogitate, to make us conscious of the weight – heavy, too heavy – of our humanity, without words, and in a much more convincing manner. Each of the works presented in this exhibition puts us in a state in which we are no longer watchers but become actors, or even more, authors. Authors, not of the realities we are confronted to in these images, but authors of our own sight, and as such responsible for what we look at.
In the installation called Vent (Wind), for instance, as we move forwards the three screens where images extracted from different media are shown, we start (real) electric fans which have the (virtual) effect of making leaves, newspapers, sheets to fly away on the screens, in every direction, or to blur the images on the monitors used by the artist, thus disturbing the media order imposed and, according to our will, the direction of our displacements.
In another work, J’efface votre trace (I erase your trace), we engage in a corridor on the ground of which, as we walk by, four squatting characters erase our traces, with blow of brush or floor-cloth, while following us step by step. Nothing remains behind us afterwards, anywhere we go, less than dust, purely annihilated.
With Le radeau de la Méduse, we attend – distant spectators – a documentary film about clandestine immigration. Images now « traditional » (men, women and children crowded together in fragile boats), that we are used to and no longer see because they have been seen too many times. But everything changes as we get closer. Our presence starts howling sirens and spots of light scan the images, just as projectors of the maritime police forces do.
These three examples will be enough to illustrate my matter. (I leave to the spectator the care of discovering and interpreting by himself the images and the sounds that the other devices will give him to see and hear.) One can discover without difficulty in these three works the method employed by Du Zhenjun to lead us to reason and share his philosophy. It is simple: he obliges us to take the way of the body. Du makes us think, and he gives us his thoughts to read, through our own body. It is while acting corporally – by changing our place, while moving forwards or backwards, or remaining simply there, in front of the image – that he subjugates this image to our physical presence. Initially an inquisitive presence, playing and exploring, then resolute and active, and not hazardous, random, or insignificant. Because if Du chose a binary “all or nothing” mode of interactivity, that could described as elementary if not fearing to impoverish it, he knew how to explore this mode with remarkable variations.
Sometimes cruel, unbearable as in Presomption (Presumption) where this crowd of stripped, tortured and quiet bodies, tears a painful empathy out of us; sometimes ironic and funny as in Baptême or Fountain; or full of a signification to be discovered as in the Lesson of anatomy, never does any of these images keep us unconcerned when in front of it. Each device moves us, in a deep meaning: makes us move, not only in space, but also in ourselves. Each image makes resonate our body and thus leads us to reason. As he puts it itself, Du Zhenjun wants « to make palpable the movement of the bodies », but for him, the body is not an end in itself, an aesthetic term, « it is a way like another to approach the fundamental nature of the things ». His own body often staged, but also ours, the one of the watcher.
One will not fail to classify Du Zhenjun in the category of the engaged artists, anxious to rebuild the world politically. But actually, our philosopher would be rather a « disengaged » artist, disengaged of any will to say where is good and evil, of any dogmatism, of any religion or utopia (Christianity, Buddhism, capitalism, Communism). He declares that he is not a professor of morals. And he specifies: « the artist cannot change the world, but he can show what could possibly be changed ». To show, to give to see, not by explaining but by implying. Not throught a discourse with politically correct arguments, but by forcing us to act. One could not see without shifting, or look without being moved. This internal ethics, this humility, associated with a very great generosity, makes Du a rare artist in the art world. It is because he addresses directly the body, much more than explicit images and topics – that he is truly political, meaning that he is included and that he includes us in a polis at the scale of the world.
But one will say: painting always makes the watcher move; one goes and comes in front of a painting, one moves back to seize the whole canvas in only one glance, one approaches to see the traces of the brush, to find the gesture of the painter; any painting which aims to become art drives and moves. What is new then in the procedure of our visual philosopher? Nothing, really, nothing is new in his point of view. On the contrary, his process falls under a long tradition which crosses the pictorial art of all the times and all the cultures, anxious to cause this body resonance between the painter and the watcher necessary to the flash of meaning. Thus he can reuse with talent the graphic techniques of Chinese painting or the art of photography.
But Du is also an inventor. He reinvents the conditions of dialogue between the watcher and the image by resorting to tools which are incontestably new. That explains the role of technique in his work which, if he wanted it discrete, even invisible, is no less decisive. In fact, it is rather necessary to speak about techniques in the plural, because they are numerous. First, there are the traditional techniques specific to Chinese art of which he has a thorough knowledge, in particular those of drawing and calligraphy; they enable him to rework and alter, for example, the bodies to give them an expression that does not exist on photographs or video images borrowed from the media. There are also the more modern techniques of photography, video and cinema. From photography, Du retains above all the possibility of cutting out from the image the still characters he later uses in its animations. From cinema, he keeps the processes of shooting (often very sophisticated as in Vent, shot both in Montbeliard and Shanghai), of framing, lighting, incrustation. He uses video images quite a lot, without however being in the continuity of the video art which, in his opinion, gives too completed works with which the watcher cannot interfere.
Digital technologies finally enable him to subject the other techniques to his projects, but also to imagine original interfaces between the spectator and the computed images – interfaces sometimes very complex technically which put the spectator in an unexpected implication of the body. When I met Du for the first time, as he was applying, hardly five years ago, to follow a magistère in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Rennes dedicated to digital technologies, his experience with computers was stammering. But he had the feeling that these machines, « small mysterious monsters », would, according to his own words, « condition the future of art ». He understood very quickly how the computer was going to enable him to bring up to date his artistic experiment while innovating. For his diploma work – Chienman, the furious man-dog who cannot stop self-destruction – he mobilized all his knowledge of photographer and calligrapher and this was a successful beginning.
Contrary to an ideology stating that the artist uses a technique only after having conceived in abstracto his work (the technique being only the means of carrying out the work, as if to conceive and to realize were different matters), the technique constitutes for Du Zhenjun a part of his fantaisy. Any technique, traditional or digital, is an opportunity for irreplaceable and fertile perceptive experiments to be taken into account. And the « mysterious small monster » whispers him to do what he would never have done without it. As I asked him about the projects he had, he answered me that they followed the evolution of technology. « If technology stops, he said to me, time also stops ». And thereof, the very life of the man and our modern societies. Contrary to many artists who conceive their freedom as a precondition to the technique, Du is freed – and releases us – by accepting technique not as an end, for sure, but by closely incorporating it in his work. Serious but smiling, Du Zhenjun, visual philosopher, helps us to carry the heavy, too heavy burden of our own humanity.