Zhang Dali


Zhang Dali was born in Beijing in 1963. He studied at the Central Academy of Fine Art and Design in Beijing. He lived in Italy from 1989-1993. He currently lives in Beijing.

Zhang Dali is a conceptual artist with a diverse practice. He began his artmaking as a painter but now uses a range of different media and materials in order to express his concept. His work includes painting, photography, sculptural installations and text.

In 1995 he began to make documentary photographs of the graffiti works that he had been making in Beijing. The “Dialogue and Demolition” series includes photography of his graffiti as well as his writings on the spread of development and changing face of China’s capital. Zhang Dali spray-painted silhouettes of his head on walls of condemned traditional structures throughout Beijing. Other works take the form of the same silhouette punched through the brick wall to create the head in profile as the negative space. He was motivated by the destruction of the older communal neighbourhoods that were being replaced by high-rise and the rise of materialism. Zhang Dali’s works have been concerned with the vast social and cultural changes that occurred since the initiation of economic reforms in 1980s. His intention was to include documentation about the issues that his work evoked through a dialogue with his audience. The engagement with audience is part of the conceptual practice of the artist. A hollowed out profile provides a window to a view of the Imperial Palace, the Forbidden City, in the photograph below from 1998. It makes a striking contrast against the partly demolished walls of the traditional hutong communities that have lived just outside the palace walls for centuries. There is a great sense of loss in Zhang Dali’s works.

Zhang argues: ”I believe that humans are the product of their environment. I am concerned about the changes in our living environment that have been imposed by money and power” 

“Demolition & Dialogue (Chaoyangmen Wai Avenue, Beijing 1998)”, 1998, C-Print

“Demolition: Forbidden City, Beijing”, 1998, from the series “Dialogue and Demolition”, 89 x 60 cm, C-Print

Zhang Dali’s tag “AK-47” also appeared on the walls marked for demolition. An AK47 is the widely used name of an assault rifle, developed by the Soviets, and used in many illicit coups worldwide. To the artist, AK-47 is the only symbol that appropriately conveys the scale of the violence that the communist state inflicts upon the individual. The AK47 tag was used as a motif in a series of paintings, the repeated motif defining the features of the portrait. The people depicted in Zhang Dali’s AK-47 portraits are migrant workers who flock to China’s booming cities in search of work and higher wages.  Because they are poor and uneducated they are subject to widespread discrimination and oppression.  Zhang Dali’s intention is to give them a face to highlight their plight. More recent sculptural installations continue this theme.

AK-47, 2005, 100 x 80 cm, Acrylic Painting

“Chinese Offspring”, 2005, mixed media and life-sized resin sculptures 

From 2003 to 2005, Zhang has portrayed 100 immigrant workers in life-size resin sculptures of various postures, with a designated number, the artist's signature and the work's title “Chinese Offspring” tattooed onto each of their bodies. The figures are hung upside down, indicating the uncertainty of their life and their powerlessness in changing their own fates.

In more recent work Zhang Dali creates large cyanotype prints. Cyanotype is also known as blueprinting as the main characteristic of the process is its blue colouring.  The technique is very simple as a photographic process. Two chemicals are mixed to produce a light sensitive emulsion that is applied with a brush to cotton cloth. The cloth is allowed to dry in a darkened space then an exposure is made using ultra violet lights or sunlight. Objects can be placed on the cloth and the result is a silhouette of the object, white against the blue background, which darkens due to the light. The cloth is rinsed in water to fix the image.

One of the reasons Zhang Dali has opted to make use of this old technique is that the popularisation of contemporary digital techniques has rendered us unable to distinguish between real and manipulated. Even images that appear to be natural representations of the world are often over-saturated and manipulated to produce a photograph that is far from the world as seen with the human eye. Photoshop has been used to change just about every portrait that we see in current mass media. The second reason is that the entire world is engulfed in the age of information proliferation. Much of this information is inaccurate. Zhang Dali has used cyanotype in the series “Life” to return to the fundamentals of photography, light and light sensitive materials to render an image.

In Zhang Dali’s “Life” series, shadowy figures are caught in a state of activity: prams with small children, laden carts or bicycles with baskets full of market purchases. These are the images of the everyday especially in China where transportation ranges from the simplest wheeled vehicles to the most expensive. In two works there are groups of people waving flags.

Zhang Dali comments about his cyanotype works:

“The material world constructs and controls our nervous system, and can make us feel agitated and troubled. When we keep calm and quiet, we realise that the world under our control is only a small part of the universe, certainly not the whole. The shadows I document exist only for a very short time, but through the photogram technique I capture them, so they can exist for a much longer time, in front of our eyes, and under our gaze.”

The social and environmental impact of accelerated industrialisation and urbanisation with the dislocation of enormous populations from the countryside has resulted in much instability. Many rural areas around cities live under the threat of redevelopment. Many traditions and values have been threatened as part of the changes to society that accompany such periods of rapid economic growth. Zhang Dali creates these works as proof of the existence not only of the material objects that are rendered as shadows on the cloth but also of a lifestyle, which is continually threatened.

“Cycling Men and Women”, 2010, 230 x 300, Cyanotype on Cotton Cloth

“Life 3”, 2011, 260 x 360, Cyanotype on Cotton Cloth

Truthfulness in photography is a theme explored by Zhang Dali in an ongoing project “A Second History”. The alteration of photographs flourished for a time in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong, to meet the needs of political propaganda. Photographs were altered to suit the agenda of Mao by changing the elements of scene. This often included the addition or removal of people. Photographs were also enhanced with hand colouring and retouching to make them more positive depictions of the regime. The skill of the technicians who created the altered photographs is to be admired.

Zhang Dali explains:

"I started this research because I was wondering how to explore what is not clearly visible, I was wondering how to get into the head of someone else—the censors, in this instance. My photographic project has revealed some unexpected things: the main one, that propaganda is much more complex than it seems; it encompasses more than simply making a political point. What the censors were doing was not simply faking documents but also obeying the aesthetic requirements of the time. Unattractive faces become beautiful, short people become tall, narrow eyes are widened, people looking too scruffy in countryside scenes are deleted altogether."

Zhang Dali has rigorously examined many archived copies of historical photographs to discover alterations. He has then set his task to ‘reassemble’ the original photographs to make comparisons with the altered photographs. This reveals insights into modern Chinese history. His work has implications for the veracity of contemporary mass media.

From “Second Life”, 2010

From “Second Life”, 2010

Images courtesy of the artist