‘The idea of a world where human life might be artificially prolonged has a nightmare quality.’1
During the most recent Lyon Biennale (2019), a member of the editorial committee mentioned her exasperation with the current fascination for zombies in contemporary art. In her opinion, this widespread atmosphere of zombification amounted to a fatal acceptance of the state of society in this late capitalist period and of a certain aesthetic-romantic delight, instead of reacting artistically to it. However I suggested that the figure of the zombie is quite ambivalent in its treatment by artists, since zombies can also be seen as the dead returning to avenge a ‘life’ that has been stolen from them. At a time when the threat of contamination hovers over and continues to haunt the world, it is high time we talked about the ambivalence of this figure within the framework of our globalised society.
We are now surrounded by a large variety of what are commonly known as ‘zombies’, or the living dead, as the Western cultural imagination has presented them to us through literature, film, music videos, and series. Yet zombies exist beyond these popular narratives and, although they linger in this intermediary state between life and death, it is more between life and exploitation, manipulation, or slavery – all very real – that they lurk: ‘following the Haitian origins of this cursed figure, the zombie refers to the body of a soulless individual placed in a state of artificial death by the Voodoo witchdoctor or “boko”. In this case, the individual is exhumated several days after their inhumation by the boko, who administers a drug that annihilates all desires, in order to transform this living dead individual into a docile slave. The figure of the zombie corpse is intimately connected to the Voodoo religion (and its African roots), reflecting from within the obsessive fear of slavery.’2
Explicitly convoking this practice, Zombi Child (2018), directed by Bertrand Bonello, recontextualises it within recent and contemporary history. The filmmaker establishes a close link between this Haitian tradition (whose visual rendering might give it a somewhat dated look) and our globalised present, in which young girls of different nationalities can mingle at an elite Legion of Honour boarding school, complete with sorority, smartphones, and fascination for the occult: while it isn’t necessarily the main observation of this film, it does remind us that zombification is an evil that is not limited in time or space. Because it would be a mistake to imagine this state of self-dispossession as some faraway and exotic curiosity, from which Western democracies would be exempt. From phenomena such as hypnosis or somnambulism, in vogue in the late nineteenth century, to all of the media manœuvres that aim to transform the masses into remote-controlled ‘available brains’ to sustain an economic society based on consumption above all else, since the 1930–40s zombification has found multiple manifestations in societies governed by spectacle and control. Western culture has progressively built a network of stratagems and scientific methods designed for total control of human beings, whose revelations as whistle-blowers or #MeToo in Hollywood are just the tip of a sordid iceberg.
The wave of testimonies in the wake of #MeToo also revealed certain obscure practices that may have possibly harmed the mental health of many superstars in show business, in ways similar to zombification: use of drugs or psychological persuasion to exert control over children, young women, and men, just as weakened by traumatic experiences (rape, incest, humiliations, early imprisonments, etc.) as they were thirsty for success, and considered capable of having a major influence over young people worldwide. So the recent outings from singers or hit-girls like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or Lady Gaga provide a glimpse – for whoever wishes to read between the lines – of a classic process of zombification aimed to propagate a substance to control populations, via mass media channels: ‘just like the zombification of a subject, who the boko relieves of their soul in order to submit their body to his will and transform them into a docile and economically viable slave, the state of artificial somnambulism is provoked through a staging that involves a relationship of domination and constraint, which can go as far as death or erotic possession.’3 Possibly derived from the MK Ultra project, secretly undertaken by the CIA between 1953 and 19734 whose initial goal was to experiment with methods of behavioural modification for the purposes of espionage within the context of the Cold War (using drugs, psychological harassment, physical abuse, and so on), these practices and knowledges apparently later spread into civil society, and more specifically into the nebulous show business, in order to make use of the personality of stars as an effective mass broadcast medium for ideological content, reproducible archetypes and subliminal messages. The Faustian pact thus proves just as effective when it comes to driving children, men, or women towards the most ignoble acts, and to selling their souls for the purposes of supreme recognition while entities such as the fashion and performance industries always remain on the lookout for this type of case. Numerous stories within literature or film relate these manœuvres, such as Glamorama (1998) by Bret Easton Ellis, Lost Highway (1997) by David Lynch, or L.A. Confidential (1990) by James Ellroy, making a direct link between show business and human slavery, sexual abuse, control, and psychological warfare. Still hotly debated, these practices interest us insofar as many artists integrate the figure of the zombie into their artworks in quite a flagrant way, to observe that it cannot be a coincidence, since art has always reflected the political, economic, and social atmosphere of an era. Yet the current zeitgeist is undeniably neo-gothic.5 The fascination for death, occult rituals, and apocalyptic-romantic imaginaries from a generation of artists marked by the star system and mainstream culture – while aware of the evil that these medias can generate among their audiences – seem to reflect the potential reality of the state of the world continuing to remain too ambiguous and discomforting to wholly emerge from the shadows. In his exhibition entitled Britney/Skull (2020), Christophe de Rohan Chabot returned to the theme of dispossession of the self through a series of gif-type images, pulled from the pop star’s face, and synthetic skulls, while sad blond wigs, recalling the colour of her hair, lay on low pedestals on the floor. This unequivocal presentation as to the exploitation of celebrity or demi-celebrity data on the internet, the image of the singer reduced to an almost robotic surface – possibly retouched to render it all the more realistic – penetrates within the sombre zone of our relationship to images, those that we consume without necessarily being aware of the zombification at work in their production. We already found Britney in Starstruck (2017) by Jimmy Beauquesne, a sculpted and made-up head reflecting the singer’s look after she shaved her head, thinking in vain that through this symbolic gesture she might reappropriate her image by destroying the sexualised one exploited by the media. Since the artist had once been a model, it is interesting to observe how much this type of Western-style zombification appears in artists’ works who have practised or continue to practise this profession, in which exploitation is a well-known rule (photo shoots are rarely paid, for instance). Surely the most famous model from the art world, artist Eliza Douglas, recently dressed up as a zombie for an exhibition along with Puppies (Jade Kuriki Olivo) at the Francesca Pia Gallery in Zurich (2019). Performing in front of a screen presenting excerpts from the series The Walking Dead in which only the zombies appear, she exposes herself as one of their number that has toppled from the screen. But it is well and truly Eliza Douglas – with her attributes (she wears a Balenciaga t-shirt) and her recognisable style – as a zombie, dragging herself along the floor, reproducing their gestures, codified by show business: taking advantage of a personal presentation, the artist poses both as subject and object of this performance, using self-reflexivity to signify the zombification at work on her person. Firstly, as an object of cost-effective consumption for the fashion industry, then as a star-performer for Anne Imhof, the Venice Biennale award-winning artist for whom Eliza Douglas shed her image to become the face of her Wagnerian performances. Like pop stars, must artists sell their souls to the devil and become zombies to gain (fast) access to success? During various performances presented by Anne Imhof since 2014, the impassive bodies of young, errant creatives have come together, seemingly no longer wanting access to anything at all. During her latest performance entitled SEX (2019), they also adopt the codes of grouped displacement of zombies; and while the artist does not want to limit her corpus to this, she acknowledges: ‘There is a bit of zombie inside there for sure, when they dance the waltz as if they are undead, but I also think there’s a lot of mindless action around us, so why not take it as an image and put it in.’6 The status of the zombie nevertheless remains ambiguous in these stagings, as Anne Imhof’s performers give the impression of resisting their condition, of insurrection, even though we don’t ever really know what they’re against. In this, they reveal the equivocal status of the zombie, which, while it commonly symbolises alienation and manipulation, can also act (thanks to its abject appearance and the terror it provokes) on the powers that be. Since power in modern life believes itself immortal and rejects towards the peripheries any putrid, foreign, or dying body, after having used it economically, the return of the zombie to the centre represents an effective form of refusal of the status quo, the imperative that something be given back to them from society.
As paradoxical as this may seem, other artists using the same codes no longer see in the zombie the manifestation of human exploitation, but that of liberation. This is what Mati Diop opts for in Atlantique (2019), in which the French-Senegalese filmmaker draws inspiration from the Islamic legend of djinns: spirits that take possession of the living in order to influence them spiritually and mentally. Against the backdrop of the migrant crisis, real-estate speculation, and a globalised African youth, the film presents young construction workers who have vainly attempted to emigrate to Europe. After their death at sea, they haunt the bodies of their girlfriends to recover their wages from their exploiter, who is invaded by these young women-zombies each night, commanding him to return the money. Two registers of emancipation thus emerge: that of the poverty-stricken young men relying on their girlfriends to restore what belongs to them, that is, the product of their labour; that of the young women, victims of archaic traditional roles (arranged marriage) taking back from the traditional African patriarchy the share of freedom that is theirs by right. In a different genre, purgatory staged by Wu Tsang and Tosh Basco in The Show Is Over (2020) no longer concerns itself with the binary division of genres and concentrates androgynous beings wandering in the dark. Chanting a text about the alienation of bodies and emancipation, it is notably through the fluid movement of the dancing bodies, performing a choreography and sliding across the viscosity of surfaces of territories that are still shared, that these zombies count on imagination and creativity to extricate themselves from their condition. By affirming that ‘the show is over’, the artwork affirms in a way that it is now time to surpass this form of cultural dissemination, which up until now has done so much harm to the living. The figure of the living dead is absolutely central to Ditch Plains (2013) by Loretta Fahrenholz, a pseudo-science-fiction film that reworks the codes of the post-apocalyptic story (the work was filmed in the devastated neighbourhood of Far Rockaway, New York, shortly after the passage of Cyclone Sandy). We follow members of the Ringmasters Crew, a group of hip-hop dancers with the particularity of contorting as though their bones were popping out, performing strange choreographies within a dark and deserted urban context. These dancers roam with no apparent goal, like zombies, while presenting a strong community bond resisting the effects of ambient cataclysm, that of global technological surveillance, everyday violence, normalised individualism, and the weakening of the living. The strong aesthetic presence of Ringmasters Crew at the heart of this shadowy tale serves as a reminder that ‘the maintaining of community, comprising an assemblage of differences, is a buffer that protects from the dehumanising effects of the increasingly present techno-social system,’7 as critic Annie Godfrey Larmon noted in a very good analysis of the film. So, the zombie is still admitted as a socially resistant entity, because it is frightening, because it is unassailable; and while certain individuals take the liberty of playing on the weaknesses and vulnerability inherent to the human condition, there is nothing however to be done against a zombie. The current period, a particularly dark one from all points of view, which seems to commit artists to overthrowing the traditional semiotics of the zombie to transform them into figures of protest. While our entire human society has gradually become zombified, as the industrial revolution flowed into the society of the spectacle, and in turn into the society of control, now the global surveillance society, all that’s left for all of these zombies that we represent is to choose which of these two options we’d like to see proliferate.
- Georges Bataille, trans. Mary Dalwood, Erotism, Death and Sensuality (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 101.
- Olivier Schefer, ‘Fabrique du zombie ou l’errance des morts vivants’ in the dossier ‘Le cinéma surpris par les arts’, in Les cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no. 112/113, summer-autumn, Paris, 2010, 108. [Our translation, unless otherwise stated.]
- Ibid., p. 111
- In this regard, read the results from the investigation commission of the United States Congress of 3 August 1977, Project MKUltra, the CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification [DOI: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015013739290&view=1up&seq=33]
- See for instance ‘GOTHIC REDUX’, in Kaleidoscope, no. 35, Fall/Winter 2019–2020, 106–185.
- Elizabeth Fullerton, ‘Zombie Expressionism: A Conversation with Anne Imhof’, in Art in America, 19 April 2019 [DOI : https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/zombie-expressionism-a-conversation-with-anne-imhof-60165]
- Annie Godfrey Larmon, ‘Sur Loretta Fahrenholz, Ditch Plains à Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York’, in MAY, no. 12, Paris, April 2014.