Zhang Dali's Dialogue: Conversation with a City
A public controversy surfaced in Beijing’s newspapers in early 1998. At its center was an image that had become familiar to the city’s many urban residents: a spray-painted profile of a large bald head, sometimes two meters tall. The graffiti head seemed to have been duplicating itself, and its appearances gradually spread from the inner city to beyond the Third Ring Road. Alone or in groups, the head was found within the confines of small neighborhoods and along major avenues. Who was the man behind these images? What did he want to say or do? Should he be punished when identified? What kind of penalty should he receive? Was the image a sort of public art and therefore legitimate? What is public art anyway? To a city of 10 million that had not been exposed to the graffiti art of the West, these questions were new. None of them had straightforward answers.
Neither did Zhang Dali who created these images. Shortly after the debate started, he came forward as the anonymous painter; by March 1998, he began to give interviews to reporters and art critics. It turned out that, far from a “punk” or “gang member” as some local people had guessed, he was a professional artist trained in Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Art and Design. Moreover, he was not a typical Chinese professional artist because he had emigrated to Italy in 1989 and first forged the image of the bald head in Bologna, where he had lived for six years. He continued to paint the same head after returning to China in 1995, and by 1998 he had sprayed more than 2,000 such images throughout Beijing. It also turned out that he had developed a theory to rationalize his seemingly mindless act. In published interviews, Zhang explained that the image was a self-portrait through which he hoped to engage the city in a “dialogue” with himself: “This image is a condensation of my own likeness as an individual. It stands in my place to communicate with this city. I want to know everything about this city—its state of being, its transformation, its structure. I call this project Dialogue. Of course there are many ways for an artist to communicate with a city. I use this method because, for one thing, it allows me to place my work at every corner of this city in a short period.”1
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- Leng Lin, Shi wo [It’s me] (Beijing: Zhongguo Wenlian Chubanshe, 2000), 168 (my translation).