Whitehot Magazine

Rodney Zelenka's Rivers of Babylon at Lichtundfire

Gold Digger


Rodney Zelenka's Rivers of Babylon


June 27 through July 28, 2023

Co-Curated by Elga Wimmer and Priska Juschka

By ROBERT C. MORGAN, August 2023

According to Rodney Zelenka, the phenomenon of global migrations has come to play a major role in terms of how we see our reality today. This includes the manner in which diverse populations are victimized by unfortunate occurrences in contrast to those who are spared victimization by way of proving themselves prosperous and secure at the outset.  It is here on the Isthmus of Panama that these populations either extend their lives in ways never thought possible or that they are forced to confront being on the edge of poverty, thereby suggesting their former lives have not found a means to change significantly.

“Golden Wall”, Zelenka`2022, Mixed media (gold leaf, acrylic, ink and metal pins on paper), Size: 0.40 x 0.31 mts, Signed in front and back by artist.


It is curious that Rodney Zelenka has taken advantage of the more victimized migrations in order to reveal the darker side of the human condition. This is done through a remarkable series of works on paper that indulge in a variety of media, including metal pins on paper, gold leaf, ink, and acrylic. Throughout the exhibition we are exposed to drawings and mass media works that reveal human figures positioned amidst large gatherings of broken furniture, discarded clothing, and common home-oriented devices, such as sinks, vases, bottles, and mechanical devices that, for all intents and purposes, have virtually lost their function. Instead these items are shown pushed together in a heap, wherein they take-on the visual appearance of ocean waves. 

“El Cruce – The Crossing”, Zelenka`2023, Mixed media (acrylic, ink, pencil and metal pins) on pape, Size: 0.58 x 0.77 mts, Signed in front and back by artist.

One has only to look carefully to discern the presence of these objects in the context of an over-all oceanic appearance, provided entirely by the hand of the artist. These oceanic domains of seemingly purposeless trash are referred to as “cosmic debris” – but are, in fact, various items that make up the visual symbolism on a human scale, where one can detect paintings of human eyes peering at us through the density of the trash, as if the trash had taken on a life of its own. 
The title of this exhibition is taken from a religious source focusing on the Semitic tribes of Mesopotamia, which were exiled to Babylon 2500 years ago under the tyrannical leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar who previously destroyed their temple in Jerusalem. Rivers of Babylon have several origins, the primary being the location where the Israelites were taken to sing the songs of Zion against their will during the time of their fierce capture. For many, Babylon was considered an evil city. Ironically, it supported Judea in order to weaken the Assyrians who they were also intent on capturing. 

“Free Ticket” Cod., Zelenka`2023, Mixed media (acrylic, 22kt gold leaf, ink and metal pins) on paper, Size: 0.57 x 0.77 mts, Signed in front and back by artist.


In addition to the political history of Rivers of Babylon, there is an impressive musical history that goes back to the seventies with a song by the same title written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, released as a Rastafarian song by The Melodians. The content of the song is appropriated from Psalm 137 and is focused on the captives (Israelis) mourning, which corresponds to the Jewish holiday, Tesha B’av (July 29). A video of the song was released in 1978 with a hit performance by Boney M. The content of the song was the captives mourning. The song was considered a Song of Exile, focused on the captivity and destruction of the temple. 

Gold  Diggers (2022) applies metal pins on paper together with gold leaf, ink, and acrylic paint. This striking mixed media work focuses on a planetary theme in which cosmic debris is given full attention. The gold leaf adds a staggering dimension to this work as do the five needles extending outward from the debris. The emphasis is given to aerial space with a pop art distillation. The combination opens up a journey through space that combines with the theme of a global migration which, of course, is next to an impossibility.

“Migration Road” Cod., Zelenka`2023, Mixed media (acrylic, 22kt gold leaf, ink and metal pins) on paper, Size: 0.57 x 0.77 mts, Signed in front and back by artist.

This version of a global migration is also true of Free Ticket (2023), a work that plays on the theme of a crowded airplane except for the fact that the cosmic debris is visibly loaded on top rather than inside the plane. Another work, El Cruce or The Crossing (2023) is a mixed media work in which similar objects are present including the metal pins which play a definitive role in relation to linen and baby blue clothing.

The extreme versatility of these mixed media drawings is a wonder to see, as made clear in the diversity of characterizations shown in most of the cartoon work. In Migration Road (2023), for example, a giant spider is featured on a bridge with boots. How this spider is able to function in outer space is a mystery as is his contribution to a global migration. The supreme variety of thematic possibilities in Rodney Zelenka’s mass media drawings and paintings offers a continuous streak of surprises, expertly drawn and fascinating to contemplate as are the Rivers of Babylon seen and understood from within another context. WM


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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