chinese contemporary art

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Zhang Dali
Chinese government city planners have imposed a physical and psychological revolution on their cities. In most cities of any size old neighbourhoods have been completely erased and replaced by buildings the planners consider worthy of a modern, first world nation. The erasure of traditional neighbourhoods has resulted in the displacement of communities and the disruption of a long-standing neighbourhood structure. Add to this a greater freedom of movement for individuals within China and the lure of jobs working in the construction of these new cities and the result is a constant reshaping of lives and creation of new social classes. All artists' work is socially involved to some degree as they cannot extricate themselves completely from their social surroundings, and especially those as chimeric as in contemporary China. Nevertheless there are artists who make a point of making social issues the raison d'etre of their work. Zhang Dali is one such artist, keen to make his compatriots aware of the less glamorous elements of this great social upheaval.

Having a studio on the outskirts of Beijing, Zhang Dali became acquainted with a community of migrant workers who lived nearby. Migrant workers have emerged as a product of the urbanization and growth of the main Chinese cities. This class of people did not exist twenty-five odd years ago. Most people were born, lived and died in the same village or town and their livelihood was decided by the local government. Mobility has come with reform and this is not always an easy choice. The cities have developed into places of wealth and opportunity, thus drawing all sorts of people in search of better lives. However with this growth of the cities and the introduction of so much from the West: architecture, food, fashion, social manners, etc. has come also great uncertainty. For the migrant worker uncertainty is one of the key elements of their existence. Zhang Dali wanted to bring these people and their hard, bitter lives to the attention of others, and did so by creating head and body casts of volunteers from among these people as well as painting their portraits in his AK-47 series. The technique of casting on the body captures in intimate detail each person and thus transmits an intense feeling of an individual, a real person, literally "warts and all" as opposed to just being one of a nameless and faceless mass of workers. These sculptures are far less beautiful than the AK-47 paintings. There is little distance between the work of art and the model, no chance for any form of idealism to alter the nature of these bodies. Zhang Dali feels great sympathy with these people saying they could be himself or his or anyone else's relatives. If you laugh at them then you are laughing at your own kind.

The presentation of the body casts is vital to transmitting the artist's message. They are shown hanging upside down from ropes tied around their ankles. The imagery is shocking: hanging like carcasses of meat, in mid-air, in limbo. The artist uses the Chinese "dao xuan" to express being upside down in limbo without any inner strength to turn their bodies. These works capture the spirit, or lack thereof, of these workers. For Zhang Dali his sculptures are living taxonomy, a human version of insect samples ("biao ben") except the specimens are live people. It is a documentation of the species at a specific moment in history. In another time the bodies would be different. The material used for the body casts has a ghost like quality. Its dull whiteness is lifeless. The fact that these are casts and not sculptures made from a model also heightens the eerie quality of the works. Portrait sculpture tends to capture a personality or an emotion while these casts capture an individual at one moment under certain conditions.

These people and the fact that Zhang Dali documents them are symbols of so many characteristics of the new urbanizing Chinese society. These people are truly offspring, Chinese offspring, the products of the new China. Whereas previously they would not have been able to travel in search of work, the opening up of their country and economy has offered opportunity and the risk associated with it. Whereas all their needs would have been seen to by their work unit or commune a few decades ago, their new independence means no such security. They are not part of any official register of inhabitants and therefore have no right to state education, health care or other benefits. They are the fringes of society. Zhang Dali uses the expression "strong and wild" to describe the situation of the migrant workers and thus is the expression of Zhang Dali's art. If one is not moved, one cannot move others.

You may also learn more about Zhang Dali on our Beijing website under the "artists" section.