Demolition

Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art
April 1, 2010
Demolition (Ping'an Avenue Beijing)
Demolition (Ping'an Avenue Beijing)
1999, Zhang Dali, China. C-Print. 35 3/8 x 23 5/8 inches
Purchased with funds provided by the Lori ('79) and David ('88) Arthur Fund for Asian Art.
Courtesy Nasher Museum of Art

As a documentary record of what is now long gone, Zhang's Demolition (Ping'an Avenue Beijing) is a sculptural and photographic comment on the urban redevelopment of China over the past decade.

Zhang's typical raw materials are walls slated for demolition, on which he paints a graffiti-style head and then chisels out the shape to reveal views into the distance. This is not a haphazard choice; at once we see the crumbling bricks and mortar in the foreground and a contrasting view of nature or a historic structure beyond. Here, a solitary tree rises above a garden wall in the distance, suggesting that this tree and wall will be casualties of future development once the wall has been destroyed.

The artist has said the aim of his work is not to express a simple nostalgia for the past. Rather, his photographs are a form of what he calls "visual intervention," intended to challenge the viewer to weigh the balance between the cost of financial opportunity and the value of historical patrimony.

His message is multilayered. Spray paint, the preferred medium of the graffiti artist, marks the wall as someone's territory, as does the profile of a human head. The anonymous and universal face, which Zhang has used as a stylized self-portrait since his early days as an artist, suggests that history belongs to the public, not to individuals.

In addition, puncturing an ancient wall highlights the fragility of things that seem so permanent. Finally, by photographing his work, Zhang archives this once ubiquitous structure that is now being erased from the urban landscape.