Blue is the dominant colour of Zhang Dali’s new series of photograms and cyanotypes, framing the shadowed forms cast upon them. These large-scale photographic impressions on cloth present figures, bicycles and pagodas, in negative; the surroundings are left in the rich cyan blue, verging on indigo. These “material objects” (as Zhang refers to them) leave their marks as absence and adjust our received impressions of them, reversing the shadow’s fleeting aspect to permanently fix and memorialize them.
The traces left behind by image-making processes and their subsequent re-presentation or removal has been a recurring subject matter for Zhang, from his early graffiti works that traced the profile of his head onto buildings (particularly those in the process of demolition), to the Second History series of counterposed photographs documenting the changes wrought on images by history through which ideology is reflected. In each case the trace of an object and the meaning of that trace is susceptible to erasure and interpretation, becoming a new reality that further impinges on the world we ourselves inhabit.
In these new pieces, figures are caught in a state of activity against the active surface of Zhang’s photograms: walking prams, peddling laden carts or bicycles. Other pieces suggest more symbolically charged images- a figure appears to release a flock of birds, two works show groups waving flags. In only one piece is the human figure missing – an image of the shadow of a pagoda. Zhang directly attributes this shadow to the soul of the building imprinting itself on the cloth, its fleeting presence as a link to eternity: “The shadow is the soul impressed on the land, after a short time it disappears, and my photogram canvas tries to retain it.”
The artist sees the inspiration for these shadow images coming partly from the fields around his studio that live in a state of perpetual instability, threatened with redevelopment at any moment in Beijing’s unceasing outward thrust.
I read a heavy touch of nostalgia in these pieces. They are documents of the shadows left behind, but these cloths present images that say more about memory and wishful thinking than of preserving an accurate record. The forms are monochromatic and silhouetted. This could be seen to provide clarity by removing unnecessary elements, but really they give the imagination free reign, the viewer filling in the blanks to complete the image. While shadows “prove the existence of material objects,” as Zhang proposes, there is a limit to how much more they can do, and how much we can learn from that.
What reality is being presented in each case? Do these images in themselves create new realities – they are, after all, only an impression left behind after a reality has fled the scene, as all photography and image-making must be. This move to reduce the mediation between the real and image is just as fraught with the possibility of confusion as any other image-making technique. One might argue that the closer we get to reality, the more insidious any confusion will be. If Zhang’s aim is to reach beyond ideology, then it must be recognized these images are doomed to failure. There is the realization that this romantic idea of presence in absence is as much a staging of ideology as the propaganda shots Zhang investigated in the Second History history.
But as objects in their own right, these cloths are beautiful things. We are left with a series of stunning blue planes with their white shadows, reminiscent of the Anthropométries by Yves Klein. The comparison is reversed though: whereas Klein’s bodies directly marked the canvas with paint in a violent fashion, Klein wielding the bodies as if they were brushes – Zhang’s surfaces are insubstantially brushed by the subjects. Light is the medium, setting off the chemical reaction from which the image ultimately forms. Apart from the arrangement of the objects into the near vicinity so the shadows intersect with the cloth, the artist leaves the subsequent image formation down this effect of light. The image appears in the pause in activity, as the light waves stream past or through the objects. As the artist says: “Besides shadows ability to prove the existence of material objects, shadows also carry their own intrinsic value and existence…”
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Pekin Fine Arts and the artist.)