Sculpture - Painting - Neon

Zhang Zali,

Sculpture -- Painting -- Neon

Chinese Contemporary, 535 W.24th St.

till April 10th., 2007


By John Ranard

Body casts bound with rope and hung upside down with Zhang Dali's neon self-portraits tags on the wall.

Photo: John Ranard



It is one of the ironies of Chinese communist history that the current economic "miracle," limited largely to urban centers, is carried on the backs of rural Chinese migrant workers. The Chinese household registration system hukou, introduced in the 1950's to prevent large geographic migrations of rural agricultural workers to metropolitan cities, is still a legal reality.  Without proper registration documents, the migrant Chinese citizen is not entitled access to decent housing, healthcare; their children are not allowed admittance to public education.


Amnesty International estimates 150 to 200 million rural migrants are building China's new modern cities, erasing historic neighborhoods to make way for blocks of glass and steel, piercing the Chinese night sky, lit by the aberrant hues of florescent light.  Most of the migrant worker's labor is given without legal contract; his payment for construction work depends largely on the honesty of the employer. He has little legal recourse to address unpaid wages in court. This is a problem expected to get worse, a Chinese powder keg with the threat of instigating dynamic social upheaval such as we have seen before.

This is the fuel that inspires much of Chinese contemporary art.  Among the crew of Chinese artists that have gained recent international attention, few are as consistent yet fluid as Zhang Zali, first introduced to New York audiences at the International Center for Photography, two years ago, with his photographic documentation of his early graffiti work. What makes contemporary Chinese art interesting is the convergence of it's modern vocabulary with the past; what makes it compelling is the historical depth of human suffering addressed.


Zhang Zali began working in the 90's with a black spray can tagging his profile in his neighborhood slated for destruction on the outskirts of Beijing. He became more aggressive when he etched out his iconic profile surrounding the holes punched through walls with a wrecking ball. His tag changed to AK-47, the early Russian model of the automatic assault weapon used by revolutionary armies globally. 


This show includes plaster body casts made from the migrant workers lining up for work on the street outside Zali's warehouse studio in Beijing every morning. Their eyes are closed; the bodies hang upside down, slaughter hung on a rack for consumption. Each is given a number, only their genitals and public hair give a hint these were once people capable of love and dreams.  Portraits of the workers, each as an individual with personalities, are painted with the soft modulated tonalities of the letters AK-47.  Neon tubes shaped to mimic his first graffiti self-portrait tags light the gallery, their florescent color mixing together to form a weird soft pastel sheen.  It is as if they are advertising the slogan "Everything is Hip " when we know, it is not.