Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 749-768
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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 [End Page 749] 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
Instructive as it is, there is a disturbing deviation between the artist's sure voice and the uncertainty involved in the images themselves. Looking through hundreds of Zhang's photographs of his graffiti portraits from different places and circumstances, one gains less knowledge of Beijing than of the artist's contested relationship with the city. It is true that these photos show Beijing's changing cityscape--vanishing old lanes, dilapidated demolition sites, scaffold-embraced high-rises, and protected traditional monuments. But as the title of Zhang's project indicates, what these photographs mean to record is not a city as an object of sociological observation or aesthetic appreciation, but a "dialogue" initiated by an artist's subjective intervention, which in this case is his self-image forced on the community at large. In fact, the question these photographs evoke is not so much about the content or purpose of dialogue, but whether the artist's desire to communicate with the city can actually be realized--whether the city is willing or ready to be engaged in a forced interaction. Thus, while each photograph is invariably animated by a yearning for dialogue, the response by Beijing's residents ranges from indifference to suspicion, fear, misunderstanding, and rejection. Searching for a solution, the artist is forced to change the meaning of his project, to the point that he has to retreat, however unconsciously, to the position of an observer or accomplice, letting the city speak to itself.
What interests me most about Zhang's project, therefore, is...