One thing missing in China is the pervasive graffiti of tags, pieces, hip-hop art which you can see in almost any city of the world. Near my old apartment in an abandoned building site, there was some very amateur attempts, but that was about it, other than the phone numbers scrawled on every pavement and wall like mold.
The there’s artist Zhang Dali, whose graffiti and art is among the most political in China. He is currently exhibiting works from AK-47 and Chinese Offspring in London at the Chinese Contemporary gallery.
Their ankles are tethered with ropes. There is some thin, red over-painting down the backs, and around the genital areas; other figures clasp their hands behind their heads. All are painfully thin, suspended in this white gallery space like carcasses in an old-fashioned butcher’s shop. Their collective title is Chinese Offspring.
These are body casts made from some of China’s marginalised people: migrant workers who come into the cities in pursuit of a living; prostitutes. “I would say that of all the younger Chinese artists alive today,” says Julia Coleman, an art historian, “Zhang Dali’s work perhaps comes the closest to being an attack on [the] official policy of rebuilding Beijing and the disintegration of the welfare system that has allowed the creation of the migrant welfare class.”
How have artists who live in China responded to the tumultuous eradication of the past? Zhang first came to notice in the late 1990s when walls of buildings all over Beijing began to be covered with a human profile in graffiti, simplified, close to cartooning. This was the artist’s own profile, his mark of protest. In the process he became Beijing’s leading graffiti artist – and perhaps its first. He made his mark in the old hutong, ancient alleys or lanes, just before they were flattened by the bulldozers; then he turned his attention to the new high-rises. It was at this moment that the authorities came after him and he dis- appeared from view for a while.
“The changes are too quick,” he wrote in 2002. “The Chinese environment is like a meat-mincer, crushing policy, economy and culture.” Now Zhang is tolerated but he is not exactly embraced – some of his hanging-body sculptures were first shown on the fringe of the first Beijing Biennial last year. The point is this: they were on the fringe.