Imagine gathering in a city square to mourn the death of a beloved political leader. Days later, you participate in active political protests here, and eventually these demonstrations get increasingly intense. This causes the leader of your country to order arrests and massacre of your fellow demonstrators. After this, you decide to say goodbye to your country and flee. This is what Zhang Dali experienced during and after the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing China. This, as well as many other aspects of Chinese culture since the 1960’s have influenced Dali’s style and the message radiating from many of his artworks. Between graffiti, painting and sculpture, Dali has used many media over the years in his pieces as “a means of interacting with and memorializing the temporary environment that surrounds [him] in Beijing.”

Influenced by time away in Italy, Dali produced a unique and consistent graffiti logo that he graffitied around Beijing of “giant profiles of his bald head that were intentionally placed alongside chai characters, painted by city officials to indicate demolition. Additionally, he would often graffiti “AK-47” next to these heads. These works thrusted him into the major art scene and he named them “Demolition and Dialogue.” Dali intended to reveal the Chinese government’s totalitarian ways of oppression and destruction. The graffiti outline of his head represented dialogue by normal citizens and the inscription of AK-47 went on to show that none of this dialogue mattered due to the oppressive nature of the government. This was disheartening to many while they were already heartbroken watching the city they knew being destroyed by the very same government. Eventually, Dali began to demolish the walls he spray painted his profiles on in order for people to look through this destructed wall, only to view more destruction in the distance. When he did this he revealed and even deeper problem – a cycle of demolition with no value. This art attacked the communist party and the greed they possessed.

Similarly, Dali continued this theme through paintings with a series titled “AK-47.” In previous artworks, Dali used the phrase “AK-47” and it eventually turned into his artistic signature. These paintings featured “migrant workers who flocked from rural China that are poor and uneducated and as such, they are subject to widespread discrimination and oppression.” Viewing these paintings from a distance you see the portrait of the migrant worker, however from up close you see that the painting is composed of the phrase “AK-47” listed over and over. The dual nature of the painting reveals the meaning behind it. By showcasing the migrant workers, Dali is able to give them a face and by including AK-47 repeatedly, Dali is able to express the violence, oppression and discrimination these very workers face. This painting literally has you look closer into “The Migrant Worker” in order to extract more meaning about their lives.

Lastly, Dali is very well known for a sculpture series titled “Chinese Offspring.” This series once again brings to light the issues that migrant workers face.The artist views the migrants as crucial members of Chinese society but points out that “they are the faceless crowd who live at the bottom of our society” even though they are quite literally building China. The artist was able to depict these issues by creating 100 life size sculptures of humans of all shapes and sizes over a 2 year period. These sculptures were more often than not, hung naked upside down to highlight the powerlessness as well as the entrapment of these workers. Economically and otherwise, these workers were at the mercy of the Chinese government.

By and large, Zhang Dali uses his artwork to highlight what he sees as faults or wrongdoings committed by the Chinese government to average citizens. The Chinese government has seen his works often times to be criminal and not up to the standard they hold. Although to this day he is a free man, many still fear that the corrupted government will come after him for his art. His work may not make sense to the quick onlooker or those unaware of the oppression of the Chinese government. I argue however that this allows his work to have a deeper meaning, since it takes active attention and effort to fully understand and interpret his art. His art makes the viewer responsible to dig deeper and hopefully- take action against the ways of the Chinese government.

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Lauren Smalley

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