Zhang Dali’s Dialogue with Beijing

Zhang Dali, Dialogue: Forbidden City, Beijing, 1999. Chromogenic color print, 23 11/16 x 35 9/16 in. Image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Since 1995, Zhang Dali has been attempting to communicate with the city of Beijing through graffiti. Though the conversational efficacy of his work is up for debate, the signs of his instigations still litter the streets, crumbling walls and hutongs (the ubiquitous narrow alleyways) of Beijing. They are spray painted silhouettes of a bald-headed man, often accompanied by his tag “AK-47” or hollowed out to reveal a striking scene of a city that is in a constant state of construction, preservation and demolition. Zhang explains his work in this way: “This image is a condensation of my own likeness as an individual. It stands in my place to communicate with this city. I want to know everything about this city- its state of being, its transformation, its structure.” The project continues, and he has since created more than 2,000 such images in and around Beijing.

Zhang Dali, Demolition (Ping'an Avenue Beijing), 1999. C-Print. 35 3/8 x 23 5/8 in. Image via the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.
Zhang was trained at the prestigious Central Academy of Art and Design before his six-year self-exile to Bologna in 1989. There he discovered the language of graffiti and the spontaneous communication of reciprocation and alteration that it engenders. When he returned to Beijing, he found a city that was more like a construction site than a metropolis, dotted as it was with advertisements for buildings and swirling with dust. Zhang contributed to this chaos by spraying his profile, at first on alleyways and underpasses. But because graffiti was foreign to Beijing’s populace, no one responded, and Zhang was forced to change his method.

Zhang Dali, DIALOGUE: BEIJING, 1999. Photograph. Image via Robischon Gallery.
His images began cropping up on walls of dilapidated buildings scheduled for demolition. In a way he was reclaiming the half-destroyed, empty houses that had been so important to the people who had lived there. Zhang was, in effect, forging a dialogue between himself and a Beijing of the past. To preserve his works, which were intentionally ephemeral, he took photographs of his sprayed portraits, revealing what Wu Hung calls the “visual dialogue internal to the city” – the contrast between development and destruction. It is, perhaps, the inherent violence that accompanies his photographs of his graffiti adorning the casualties of China’s ambitious urban modernization (which involves the razing of acres of older traditional homes and neighborhoods) that speaks most directly to the fractured and unstable social condition of current day Beijing. To emphasize the conversational intention of these works, Zhang calls them “Dialogues.”

Zhang Dali, DIALOGUE: DRUMM TOWER, BEIJING. Photograph. Image via Robischon Gallery.
What Zhang’s project depicts most obviously is Beijing’s changing cityscape – the vanishing old lanes, dilapidated demolition sites, and jealously guarded traditional monuments. Yet a more subtle reading exposes a dual approach to tradition expressed most clearly in Zhang’s photographs of the Forbidden City. In the accompanying photograph the picture plane is dominated by one of Zhang’s profiles, gouged out of the wall like a wound to reveal the glimmering golden roof of one of the four corner pavilions of the Forbidden City. It thematizes the coexistence of both destruction and preservation, of new and traditional Beijing, that has been characteristic of the city since modernization incentives began.

Zhang Dali, Demolition, Fuhua Mansion, 1998222, 1998. Photograph, edition of 10. 46 1/8 x 65 1/8 inches. Image via Meulensteen Gallery.
Built under the auspices of the Ming and Qing dynasties, old Beijing was a series of cities within cities (the Outer City, the Inner City, the Imperial City and the central Forbidden City) aligned on a symbolic North-South axis that unified these areas into a coherent whole. Starting in the early twentieth century, old Beijing began to be buried under the modernization that slowly eroded the Imperial City, the walls of the Outer and Inner Cities, the surrounding tower gates and the traditional streets that served the capital’s inhabitants. What remained were fragments of the Ming and Qing capital: a few old gardens, houses, scattered temples and the Forbidden City. In piercing the crumbling wall of an old building to frame a perfectly preserved, gleaming vision of one of the palace pavilions, Zhang highlights the brutality of modernization against the fervent preservation of canonical architectural structures informed by an elitist, hierarchical notion of tradition.

Zhang Dali, Demolition - Forbidden City, 1998. Color coupler print, mounted. 35 x 23.5 inches. Image via Phillips de Pury & Company.
Ultimately Zhang’s photographs are powerful testaments to the artist’s complex engagement with a city that has been balancing itself on the crux of a dichotomy between tradition and modernity, future and past. Alluding to the temporal complications of his practice, Zhang comments, “With the development of Beijing, my graffiti images will eventually disappear on their own. But they will leave a trace of memory – a dialogue between an artist and this city.”

This is the first in a series of posts surrounding Professor Jonathan Hay’s Fall 2011 Green Beijing colloquium at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. The Green Beijing Series is organized by MA candidate Elizabeth Lee.

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