Zhang Dali Documents a Disappearing Metropolis

Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
Jun 11, 2015 2:27PM

“Everything has to do with the demolition of the old neighborhoods in Beijing; changing and shifting in a way that is destabilizing to the inhabitants,” Meg Maggio, curator and director of Pékin Fine Arts recently told Artsy. No stranger to the shifting nature of the city is Beijing native Zhang Dali, whose work is now on view at Pékin in “Under the Sky,” his first solo show in Hong Kong.

Brownian Motion - 2, 2012.03
Pékin Fine Arts

In addition to being one of China’s most well-known graffiti artist, Zhang has exhibited internationally. His research-based practice captures and records the transformations of the urban environment around his studio in Heiqiao, an outlying district of Beijing. The area offers cheap studio space to artists on the condition that they must leave as soon as the location is slated for redevelopment. Zhang has already been forced to move his studio several times over the years.

In “Under the Sky,” Zhang presents a recent series of cyanotype photograms and figurative sculptures. The exhibition continues his commentary on the demolition of the old “low-rise” neighborhoods of Beijing and his homage to the displaced lao bai xing (common people) and the construction workers who labor to modernize China.

At the entrance of the exhibition a powerful work titled Brownian Motion 2 (2012) offers a vivid reminder of the plight of many Chinese migrant workers. This life-size body cast of a construction worker caught in scaffolding memorializes the country’s nameless laborers, and stands in stark contrast to the subdued tone of the rest of the show. His latest series of white fiberglass sculptures, “The Squares,” are life-size, slightly disheveled figures at rest, often with pigeons perched on their heads or shoulders.

These works recall the monuments to public figures found in many Chinese city squares—but instead Zhang memorializes the common man. “I wanted to express the nonexistence of the people; they are in a no-place. They have no soul and no mind. The birds are like little spirits landing on their heads and bodies, but they can’t change their circumstances,” Zhang said. “‘The Squares’ represent a collective absence of life and awareness.”

Zhang’s large-scale photograms on rice paper also embody a collective absence of life. Outlines of fallen plants and shadows of dead birds, seemingly in flight, serve as mementos of Zhang’s surroundings—he collected his materials from the vacant lots and villages around his studio. In this way, the prints offer another method of recording and preserving objects from the city’s rapidly disappearing neighborhoods—like shadows of the fabric of old Beijing, a city with an 800-plus-year history.

Jennifer Baum Lagdameo

Under the Sky” is on view at Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong , May 16-September 12, 2015.

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