Zhang Dali studied painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art and Design in Beijing before traveling to Italy. The graffiti on display in the streets of Italy inspired Zhang Dali to paint the streets of Beijing, before displaying his other work in Italy at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale and the Mediterranea Gallery in Palermo. Although Zhang has also held exhibitions in the United States, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Estonia, South Korea, and Austria, his art remains focused on issues in Communist China. He told VICE.com that ‘taking my art to the streets was a way to express my opposition’ and to make it known throughout China.
Zhang participated in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and fled China, along with many other intellectuals, after the massacre. However, after China moved to a socialist market economy in 1992, Zhang returned home in 1995. Based in Beijing ever since, Zhang uses art as an outlet to express the changes in Chinese culture and society. When the government in Beijing began marking old buildings scheduled for demolition (as part of a program to modernize the country), Zhang would graffiti an image of his head on the building in protest. This was symbolic of his fight against government-mandated cultural destruction. In addition to using graffiti images of his head to protest, Zhang also used the tag ‘AK-47′ and ’18K’ to represent the violence he witnessed and the wealth that is still changing the socioeconomic layout of modern China’s population. These acts of protest not only gained attention from the Beijing police but also made Zhang the most famous graffiti artist in China.
Zhang has also commemorated the massacre at Tiananmen Square in other projects. Moving from common spray paint into the 21st-century world of advanced technology, Zhang has 3D-printed doves as a symbol of love and peace. He has created them to represent those murdered by their government in a square in which there has never stood any tribute to the victims.
However, Zhang stopped grafftiing old Beijing in 2006 to take on other projects. Chinese Offspring is an installation that represents the migrant labor workforce in China, with bodies hanging upside down in life-size resin sculptures of varying shapes. From 2003 to 2005, Zhang sculpted 100 different labors, all with a number, Zhang’s signature, and ‘Chinese Offspring’ tattooed onto them. Each installation contains 15 figures representing these members of Chinese society, lost to the changing workforce in China with little power to control their own direction.
Zhang’s lesser-known Slogan paintings continue to draw attention to the problems facing the migrant workforce. These paintings are made up of huge paintings of smaller portraits of this underclass, arranged to form Chinese characters in black and white. These characters spell out common slogans in the use of Chinese society, such as ‘One World One Dream’ or ‘Support the Lead of the Party.’
Zhang’s other notable project, A Second History, also revolves around propaganda in Chinese regimes. Before the Internet age, Chinese censors controlled how their citizens received information in other ways than the Great Firewall. During Chairman Mao’s time, photographs circulated to reinforce what the government was promoting. Often these photographs were edited to either include or remove important figures or pictures of the countryside. Zhang undertook the project of unearthing these photographs from publications during that era and investigating and documenting the changes made.
Zhang has also dabbled in large cyanotype prints, also referred to as blueprinting. In this process, cloth is exposed to light to darken the color to blue. However, Zhang places objects on the cloth to form a silhouette — a scene that he has created through the exposure of chemicals to light. The artist views these transient works as representative of the transitory nature of Chinese citizens’ modern lifestyle — how threatened it is from multiple angles.
Currently, Zhang has a solo exhibition on display at the Wuhan United Museum in Hong Kong entitled From Reality to Extreme Reality: The Road of Zhang Dali.