Du Zhenjun’s Collages: A Critical Voice Against Globalization

Contemporary art has not given us as yet many interesting works criticizing capitalist globalization. This is not because occasions and issues that could attract the attention and the sensitivity of radical artists were missing; on the contrary, globalization, with its large and growing contradictions, gave – and gives – rich material for inspiration. The very historic defeat and retreat of progressive movements and ideas during the last decades, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1990, however, went side by side with a parallel waning of progressive art. The result was a domination of colorless “lifestyle” vogue, all that apolitical and conformist subculture parading through the windows of bookstores and TV screens in recent years. Hand in hand with this went, of course, the abstract post-modernists constructions at the Biennales, destined to further the commodification of art and satisfy the elitist cravings of the newly rich.

Greece, in particular, with the great leftist traditions that arose from the National Resistance movement, is a striking example of that process. During the post-war period, the cultural values of the left were represented by world renowned artists. Suffice it to mention poets like Ritsos, Sikelianos, Anagnostakis; writers like Kazantzakis, Tsirkas, Varnalis; composers like Theodorakis, Loizos and so many others. Today, on the other hand, it is doubtful if we could cite just one name of comparable eminence. And the situation is the same internationally. Gone are the Hikmets and Nerudas of the past. And although there were some radical artists who remained loyal to the spirit of resistance, like Loach or Gavras, and some new ones appearing, like Schimmelpfennig, they were largely individual exceptions.

The great capitalist crisis that ushered in 2007 shook this floppy picture from its roots, unsettling all the “end of history” certainties and enhancing the critical voices in all fields, including that of art. Radical ideas gained weight and art, although not following rapidly this change of mood, could not remain indifferent to that. One such case of radical challenge to accepted values is the collage series “Babel World”, by the distinguished Chinese artist Du Zhenjun.

Zhenjun, an artist born in Shanghai who now lives in France, dealt with the impact of globalization and neoliberal capitalism on social conditions and on individual lives since the 1990s. His series “Babel World”, which he created in 2009-2011, crystallizes these efforts using a particular medium, the medium of collage, which is very suitable for immediate and realistic representation of reality. It includes a number of works dealing with almost every important aspect of developments of the last decades and the conflicts to which they have given rise.

Zhenjun’s collages, big compositions with digitally processed photographic material, are distinguished by their detail and complexity. But they are all structured on a common motif, from which the series took its title. A huge tower of Babel, the incarnation of capitalist globalization itself, imposing and extremely disharmonious at the same time, incomplete and constantly being erected without end, dominates the center. Around it are built the various environments which globalization engenders and in which it thrives: metropolitan and third-world images full of weapons of mass destruction and industrial waste; moments of contemporary history such as September 11th; ruined statues of Lenin and Mao; sceneries of decadence and of resistance; ordinary people caught in the nets of various disasters; fighters with red flags trying to open a way for social change. Zhenjun’s images are invariably black and white, stressing the dull, depressing spirit of the time, disturbed only by the red flags and colorful banners of protesters.

All these things together, and not just a part of them, says the artist, are capitalist globalization, modern frenzied capitalism on work and the reactions it generates. As pointed out by art critic Hou Hanrou, Zhenjun presents us in this way with “contemporary version of the apocalypse: barely have the new towers-symbols of newly gained wealth and superpower–been built, than they are already on fire and the earth is flooded… orchestrated with earthquakes and war”. And Sacha Goldman, another critic, adds: “The majestic towers of Babel, as originating in Du Zhenjun’s imagination, arise, as it were, like an announcement of the events to come: horror in all its beauty”. This is not just “about the world as it is today; it is his feedback as an artist to what the world is becoming” under the impact of the changes brought about by globalization, it is an inferno picture of the future which the nightmarish present broods in its womb.

Zhenjun’s collages have an awakening influence, conveying to us the feeling that “things cannot go on like the go with the world today”. In this regard, they could reasonably be compared with John Heartfield’s famous collages of the interwar period, which gave a warning against the imminent danger of fascism.

Such a comparison, being legitimate, at the same time reveals Du Zhenjun’s superiority as an artist, in his much richer and more comprehensive use of collage. Indeed, Heartfield’s works were distinguished by their propagandistic character and immediacy: denouncing Hitler and Goebbels as organs of capital and butchers, and so on. While this was necessary, he left unanswered, and indeed did not even raise, a crucial question: how, then, these butchers and lackeys achieved such tremendous power? Zhenjun instead, by representing realistically globalization as a totality, does not only denounce, but makes us face the modern analogue of that question. His monumental presentation of the steamroller of capitalist globalization makes us feel that its power will not be defeated in an easy way and that a successful fight against it poses major historical tasks and obligations.

We cannot deal here in detail with Zhenjun’s compositions, but one or two words about a number of them will better substantiate the above points.

In “Old Europe”, one of the most remarkable works, we see how Europe remains, in a certain sense, the center of resistance to the onslaught of globalization. The importance of the European cultural heritage is stressed by his inclusion in the Babel tower of parts of Parthenon and other monuments, a dissonant matching adding to the sense of disharmony. In that composition, mass protests are not limited to the vicinity of the tower, but extended to its floors (the same is also true for “Carnival”, but there the clowns of the time are shown in the foreground). The “Crusades” and “Distress”, on the other hand, make a bitter comment on the effects of globalization and imperialist interventions all over the world on ordinary people.

The “Independence of the country”, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Chinese 1911 Revolution, captures the peculiarity of China’s savage capitalist reconstruction. In the foreground, we see a commemorative event organized by its “communist” rulers, with the standard red flags and signs, and so on. However, behind the heavily polluted air in the background and the official fanfare about “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, there mercilessly emerges the same tower of capitalist Babel.

“Destruction” has a different subject, drawing from the past of “actually existing socialism” and the history of the 20th century. Cluttered statues of Lenin, Mao, and Stalin, images of popular fighters, etc. create a motley mosaic of figures and movements that marked its course. The ruined edifice of Greek and Roman monuments erected in the background does not symbolize globalization – there is no sign of present globalizing activity in it, as in other works – but rather the unfinished work of the 20th century’s revolutions, which were ultimately unable to open the road to socialism.

Like most artists, Zhenjun does not have a completely accurate perception of the realities he is depicting. He described his collages as “a way of working on the dimension of power inherent to a society of information and new technologies. We are in a dictatorship of information and new technologies; it’s exactly what it is today”. ((Zhenjun’s interview to Bruno Lathuliere.)) But it is clear that not information, society and technology as such, but their manipulation by the greedy world of markets and corporations are at the root of all problems.

Zhenjun rightly observes about the distinctive feature of his art: “…it’s very difficult to express a sentiment of today’s living conditions with paintings. The digital arts, on the other hand, allow these personal sentiments to ‘evacuate’ and ‘emerge’, but at the same time they are shared collectively”. ((Ibid.))

The difficulty Du Zhenjun notes here is real, but it certainly does not put an insurmountable barrier to the creation of the radical and awakening works our times need so direly. In this context, Zhenjun’s collages provide a starting point for critical presentations of the galloping capitalist barbarity, which can be expressed through a variety of means and forms of traditional and modern art. “Alienation”, a series by another Chinese artist, Zhang Biying, dealing with the same subjects by more traditional paintings, although far from exhausting the artistic possibilities in this sphere, is a proof of this ((Sue Wang,“Beyond Art Space presents the solo exhibition of “Alienation” by Zhang Biying))

Modern art is passing a stage of transition and travail. Already the appearance of a number of critical anti-capitalist movies during the last years, the most notable of them being Gavras’s “Capital” ((For an analysis of Gavra’s movie, see an item by the present writer, “Le Capital: An Anti-capitalist Masterpiece”)) shows that the abstract themes of the recent past no longer satisfy serious creators, who understand that art cannot live in heaven, detached from existing social realities. On the long run, there can be no doubt, progressive art will renew itself and regenerate.

Christos Kefalis is a Greek Marxist, editor of the journal Marxist Thought. Read other articles by Christos.