Material, Form and Concept
From Gelatin Laborers to Marble Laborers
  Author:Lu Hong   2017-03-31 14:34:53  

The title of my speech is Material, Form and Concept — from Gelatin Laborers to Marble Laborers.

Since entering the new century, Zhang Dali has still continued his graffiti art started since the 1990s, a series of works related to demolition so as to express his high concern about the issues of demolition which arose in China’s urbanization process. Meanwhile, he has also created a series of artworks related to the problems at the bottom of the social ladder, entitled Chinese Offspring , which is just like Balzac, the great French writer who once wrote a series of famous stories entitled The Human Comedy. Hence, Zhang Dali has changed his focus of creation significantly.

From his “gelatin laborers” to his “marble laborers,” he has created many series of inter-related works as well as stressed the significance of this problem in current development.

What's rare is that not only has he never repeated himself in all these series of artworks, he has not copied others either. Instead, he has constantly changed his media and artistic techniques. These changes have served to highlight the concepts he wished to express, while also solving the problem of making his works and their value permanent.

During one conversation, he pointed out clearly that, "Fundamentally, form is not the ultimate problem to be solved in art. Instead, solving the problem of thoughts in art means the emancipation of mankind as well as the release of new driving forces for creation." I believe this is the key to understanding his recent works.

According to the conventional means of classification, Gelatin Migrant Laborers , created in 2000, should be assigned to the category of sculpture. In making such a work, Zhang Dali chose not the bronze and marble traditionally used in Western art, but instead made the bold choice of pigskin gelatin. I think this goes beyond considerations of innovation in form to also emphasize the true living conditions of migrant laborers today.

The inspiration for this work arose from a trip to the market. At that time, he saw many migrant laborers buying pigskin gelatin, and taking large loads of it back to their worksites. He investigated and found that pigskin gelatin, which is made by simmering pigskin, was a very inexpensive source of nutrition that tastes like meat, and that migrant laborers were using it to replenish their dietary protein. This left a deep impression on Zhang Dali, leaving him distraught about the living conditions and experiences of migrant laborers. Since the reform and opening, a large numb of farmers have flocked to the cities from across rural China as migrant laborers. These people have sacrificed the most for China’s reforms, while gaining the least in return. A more thorough analysis would show that this is due to the different legal status of urban and rural areas, which has kept China’s rural populations at the bottom rungs of our society and pushed them to the margins. To a great extent, they are at once human and not quite human.

It was at this time that Zhang Dali was inspired to create 100 heads of these migrant laborers in pigskin gelatin. Later in his series, he added some pig’s offal and instant noodles for a more shocking effect. I only showed two pictures here but in fact heads of migrant laborers in pigskin gelatin, when placed together, create a very impressive spectacle indeed. But what's most impressive is its effect on the mind and soul of the audience, because the materials used in this work are integral to the lives of migrant laborers. These materials are migrant laborers and vice versa.

Indeed, as a material pigskin gelatin is by nature impermanent, because once processed, it will quickly spoil. This kind of artwork cannot be preserved for a very long time like sculptures made of bronze or marble. But he has conveyed the problems that have arisen in China's development with an unprecedented method and in a vivid and impactful manner, thus this art will be preserved in the history of Chinese modern art and culture for a long time. Undoubtedly, this kind of permanence is more important than whether the physical work can last forever.

Now Zhang Dali again introduces a work which stands for migrant laborers with white marble in 2016. In Western culture, there is a tradition to create busts of nobles and cultural celebrities in marble and bronze. These people have surnames and names as well as literary records in history. Such sculpture and literature are made for later generations to remember their great accomplishments and extraordinary lives.

Comparing with this, there is no such a tradition to create sculpture or literature dedicated to nobles and cultural celebrities in Chinese history. But under the influence of western culture, this tradition has become popular in China in recent years, as seen with the many sculptures of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong.

In addition, white marble has always been a material imbued with the idea of hierarchy and noble status, which was mainly used in the building of palaces for the nobility. During Zhang Dali's most recent creation, he intentionally used this noble material—white marble—to depict common migrant laborers in exquisite techniques, which in my opinion is very significant in terms of art history. Though we have no idea of the surnames or names of these people, they do emerge as modern migrant laborers. From what Zhang Dali has done we can tell that, on the one hand, he hopes that history and later generations can remember the migrant laborers of our era, and on the other hand, he wants to stress that though these migrant laborers have extremely inferior status in our society, they are actually a noble group of people who have made the greatest contribution to society but enjoyed the least benefits, giving this work permanent reflective and artistic value.

This work and the above Gelatin Migrant Laborers have illustrated that choices of materials and form are associated with the conceptual expression of the artist in modern art. If we ignore the reality and only focus on form, it will be even more difficult to make innovations in form. This way of thinking has also been displayed in another series of works entitled Wind/ Horse/Flags, which Zhang created in 2008. Unlike the above two series of works, the migrant laborers in this series were made of silica gel in life size, and the horses they ride are real horse specimens. The red flags, saddles and stirrups are all readymade objects.

Here the discursive method is not the pursuit of pure stylized display, but instead to obtain more profound content by drawing from the socialist experience. That is because the image of people riding on horses with red flags in their hands conjures images of “charging forward on horseback,” which of course is dependent on corresponding historical memories. The artist's clever adoption of this revolutionary imagery can at least tell us two things. The first is that when people charge forward with abandon, many problems will arise in the meantime. If this deep problem cannot be solved properly, such as what kind of a city we should build, how modernized cities should protect the benefits and values of the majority or how should we ensure the living environment of humanity, then no matter how fast we run, it is all pointless. The other is that migrant laborers riding on horses with red banners in their hands seems to imply that migrant laborers have fostered the development of cities through their labors, but their lives and social status have not changed in kind. I am confident that people will have more opinions about this work, but the above two thoughts should suffice for now.

We notice that in the 2007 series Man and Beast, Zhang Dali utilized the traditional material of bronze, but this series does not, as traditional bronze sculptures do, memorialize certain people or things with materials that can be preserved for a very long time, but rather implies suppressors and the suppressed, and the unequal relationships among people over thousands of years. Therefore, Man and Beast has applied a surrealistic approach to displaying people in the bottom rungs of our society alongside animals such as dragons and wolves, which govern them in a symbolic manner.

The artist has stressed many times that the so called animals in art works are not beasts in real life but the brutish nature in humans, namely power and desire. It is the fact those in power have always extracted from the underprivileged by force that makes them more vicious than beasts.

Compared with the above work, We created in 2009, focuses not on migrant laborers, but still reveals the relationship between the human condition and ideological conditions in a special manner. In this group of works, the artist has modified human cadavers to create some symbolized, signified and canonized

scenes from our political life, such as the story of Dong Cunrui’s great sacrifice in combat. Those once familiar actions have become the past and faded away from our lives, but these works easily remind us of some certain era and the ideologies and concepts that dominated such actions.

Therefore, I believe this series of works to be more significant than the Body World exhibition held by German Doctor Gunther von Hagens in Cologne, Germany, in 2000. Anyone familiar with modern art history will know that the question of whether to use the human body in artistic creations has always been a controversial topic, and some people in religious and legal circles have raised moral and legal challenges to the practice. But the protests and controversies have just added to the popularity of this exhibition. The same exhibition was later held in Berlin, Tokyo, and New York, among other cities, with a total of over 4.5 million attendees, making it a legendary success.

Zhang Dali believes that human cadavers can be used as creative materials, but only if the art requires it. For example, in his work We, no other material can replace the cadaver. The problems involved here will require further in-depth discussion.

Zhang Dali has said that for thousands of years, human civilization has focused on human beings, who we are, where we come from, where we are going, the ultimate, unanswerable questions in philosophy. In eras when we could not preserve our bodies, we tended to believe that we could find permanence in the human soul. From the Egyptians making mummies to this day, after 5,000 years, our technological advancement has finally allowed us to preserve cadavers under natural conditions, but where do our souls go if our bodies can be retained? If Zhang Dali presents such a question in his art, will people recognize it? This is very intriguing and I look forward to seeing the answer.

Thank you!

corporate overhaul(