Zhang Dali Chinese, b. 1963

Zhang Dali describes himself as an artist looking for “ways to express reality beyond reality”. Reality of a nation and of a people that have been through transformations of considerable magnitude in recent decades. A teenager during the Cultural Revolution, a student at Beijing Academy of Art and Design in the 1980s, as the country was gradually opening up to the market economy, Zhang Dali witnessed the rise of modern China. Then in the early 90s, he moved for some years to Bologna, in Italy.


As he returned to Beijing in 1995, he was shocked to discover that the city had been turned into a permanent construction site. The hutongs, these old working-class neighborhoods in the heart of the capital where people used to live a traditional and communitarian way of life, were being methodically torn down to make room for the buildings and infrastructures of a new economic paradigm.


For years, on the walls of these districts soon to be demolished, Zhang Dali used black spray paint to outline the profile of a giant face. A work inspired by graffiti, which he came across during his stay in Italy, making Zhang the first Chinese contemporary artist to ever appropriate this particular means of expression associated with urban art. Dialogue and Demolition was the name given to this long-term project - more than 2,000 faces in total, mostly produced between 1995 and 1998. “I needed to enter into conversation with the city," he said.


Dialogue and Demolition contains the seeds of all the vocabulary, all the major themes he kept on developing thereafter: memory, China’s attitude towards its past, the fate of the less fortunate, the mechanisms of power and domination at play in society. We see all of these issues reappear in later works that are equally ambitious, equally emblematic, like One Hundred Chinese, a series of plaster casts bearing the likeness of a hundred migrant workers, blue collars from poor inner regions enrolled in the vast construction programs of the big cities, new figures of the modern proletariat. Or like the AK-47 series, a set of portraits of the same underprivileged people painted on canvas in a photorealistic way, except that here, each image is composed entirely of the repetition of the word AK-47, symbol of violence and conflict par excellence.


For each new project, just as he probes deeper into his themes of predilection, Zhang Dali explores new mediums. In A Second History, he uncovers fake photographs previously featured in the press, pointing out falsifications, looking for the original pictures, just like an archivist. Inspired by the work of Czech writer Milan Kundera on Communist Bohemia, Zhang reveals not only "a second history", but also the sort of relationships that exist between political fiction and reality.


In World's Shadows, his approach is yet entirely different. He uses cyanotype, a photographic technique, to fix to paper blurred silhouettes that seem diluted in blue ink. Here the viewer finds himself in a world much more dreamy and ethereal than in the previous works by the artist. A series where, beyond the context of China, the contemplation of time invites to a broader reflection about the impermanence of things, prompting questions of universal significance.


Zhang Dali was born in Harbin, Northern China, in 1963. He graduated in 1987 from Beijing National Academy of Fine Arts and Design. A major contemporary artist, his work is regularly exhibited by prestigious institutions like the MoMA and the MET in New York, the Venice Biennale, or the Shanghai Center of Photography. His work is featured, among others, in the collections of the MoMA, the British Museum in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He lives in Beijing.