Zhan Wang - by Wu Hong
Zhan Wang's Temptation (pl.13) is a group of bodiless figures frozen in
dramatic poses; they signify the emptiness left by the missing subject. (See the
essay " Demolition Project" in this catalogue.) The idea of emptiness again
underlies his Ornamental Rock (1996) (pl. 16). But this stainless-steel
sculpture only copies the "facade" of a traditional rock; it is open at the
back. In this case "empty" is the space around the object reduced to pure
Temptation is about the state of transience: the hollowed human shells register the torture and pain at the moment of the subject's disappearance. Transience is again the theme of Ornamental Rock, but it has become an intrinsic quality of the object. The glittering surface of the rock reflects ever-changing images and further distorts them. Like a magic mirror, it does not confirm what is already there, but has the power of generating new illusions.1 In this way the rock acquires materiality and subjectivity. Zhan Wang can thus conceive his stainless-steel rock as a postmodern "monument" whose surface accounts for everything.
Temptation is one of a series of works by Zhan Wang concerned with urban ruins in contemporary China. The series has evolved without an initial master plan. While an earlier work often led to a later work, the evolving project also reframes the existing pieces and reinterprets them. This is also true of the project to which Ornamental Rock belongs. During the past three years, this large project has gradually unfolded from a smaller piece first shown in the 1995 Beijing-Berlin exhibition.2 A stainless-steel rock sat on a tripod; underneath it lay scattered fragments of the original rock, which had served as the mold. As Karen Smith has observed: "Here the emphasis was on contrast, one that could be seen and made by the audience, for once the molding of the replica had been completed, the original stone used to form the steel skin was smashed and laid in pieces at the foot of the man-made imitation."3
The relationship between the stainless-steel rock and its stone model absorbed Zhan Wang in 1995 and 1996. By applying a pliable sheet of steel over an ornamental rock and hammering it thoroughly, he could achieve a form that reproduced every minute undulation on the surface of the stone. A large group of such imitations were made. Their models ranged from geometric granite blocks to intricate ornamental rocks;4 the piece in this exhibition is one of the ornamental rock types. Meanwhile, Zhan Wang also began to produce a growing body of documents-statements; project proposals and summaries, interviews, and short essays-to accompany actual works. One of his earliest discussions of these rocks contains this statement:
Placed in a traditional courtyard, rockery satisfied people's desire to return to Nature by offering them stone fragments from nature. But huge changes in the world have made this traditional ideal increasingly out of date. I have thus used stainless steel to duplicate and transform natural rockery into manufactured forms. The material's glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance make it an ideal medium to convey new dreams [in Contemporary China.]5
We must realize that to Zhan Wang, "glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance" are not necessarily bad qualities, and that his stainless-steel rocks are definitely not designed as satire or mockery of contemporary material culture. Rather, both the original rockeries and his copies are material forms selected or created for people's spiritual needs; their different materiality suits different needs at different times. The problem he addresses is thus one of authenticity: Which rock- the original or his copy- more genuinely reflects contemporary Chinese culture? Interestingly, the Chinese call natural rockeries jia shan shi, or "fake mountain rocks." According to Zhan Wang, such rocks, even if made of real stones, have truly become "fakes" when used to decorate a contemporary environment. But his stainless-steel rocks, though artificial, signify the "genuine" of our own time.6
Gradually the focus of his experiments shifted from the relationship between stainless-steel rocks and their models to the relationship between these stainless-steel rocks and their environment. >From the beginning, his making of these rocks was connected with his critique of Beijing's urban planning and construction. Beginning in the eighties and especially during the nineties, the many high-rises built in Beijing have rapidly transformed the appearance of this ancient city. Mostly adapting Western modern or postmodern styles, these structures also have incorporated certain native elements to make themselves look Chinese. Such "incorporation," however, is often superficial and stereotypical; the two most frequently used formulas are topping a building with a Chinese tile roof or adding some traditional ornamental rocks in the yard. Zhan Wang disagrees with the opinion that Beijing should be kept in its old form, but he is also dissatisfied with the random and undigeste
d borrowing of Western or traditional forms. He hopes to create art forms that can genuinely reflect changes in a traditional Chinese city- works for "today's fast-paced and competitive society," in which "insatiable lust for material wealth takes the place of the detached leisure and comforts favored by intellectuals who adhere to their traditional heritage."7
Believing that his stainless-steel rockeries represent "authentic" Chinese culture in the postmodern condition, Zhan Wang then developed a plan in 1997 called New Map of Beijing: Today and Tomorrow's Capital-Rockery Remodeling Plan (fig. I6. I-3.) According to this plan, he will replace the natural rocks in front of a number of modern buildings with stainless-steel rocks made from the natural rocks. One of these buildings is the much-debated New Beijing Railway Station, a giant monolith in the shape of a large arch topped with a traditional pavilion. The arch symbolizes the station's role as Beijing's main gate; the pavilion is modeled upon an old wood-framed structure on Coal Hill in the former imperial complex. Many people have criticized the building's hybrid style and wasteful design. But Zhan Wang argues that one should not dismiss this and similar buildings, because hybridity and irony are necessary expressions of contemporary life. The important task is to make a
genuine effort to refine such expressions of contemporary life. The important task is to make a genuine effort to refine such expressions in art. His solution is to replace the natural rockeries in front of the railroad station with stainless-steel copies (figs. I6.2 and .3.) Half genuine and half-mocking, his project proposal lists the following reasons for the copies' superiority:
1. After buffing, the stainless steel will never rust. This will satisfy people's desire for an ideal material.
2. After buffing, the stainless steel will reflect the colors of the surroundings. Nearly colorless itself, the rock will change its color according to the Environment.
3. After buffing, the mirror like surface of the stainless steel rock will show the minute details of the original model. Anything it reflects will be distorted and turned into fragmentary images. This will inspire people dreams and new hopes.
4. Compared with gold and silver, stainless steel is vastly cheaper. But because it contains a tiny amount of gold, it appears brilliant, lustrous, and glamorous. Using this material one can "pay less for more."
In sum, the most important thing about the stainless steel rock is that it will be in harmony with the environment, and it will always keep up with the times [because it is only a reflecting surface!]
1. In fact Zhan Wang's most recent project is to make a series of full-size, screenlike mirrors, whose mirroring panels are made of stainless-steel sheets molded on rock surfaces. For a discussion of this and other works by Zhan Wang, See Karen Smith, "Contemporary Rocks," World Sculpture News, 30[Winter 1997],30-32.
2. This exhibition was held at the Art Museum of the Capital Normal University in Beijing in November 1995.
3. K. Smith, "Contemporary Rocks," op. cit., 30.
4. For illustrations of these works, see Meishu wenxian [Art Literature], no. 8 (1997), 46-47
5. Zhan Wang, "Jia Shan Shi" ["Ornamental rock"], cited in Shoujie dangdai yishu xueshu yaoqing zhan [The First Academic Exhibition of Chinese contemporary art], [Hong Kong: China Oil Painting Gallery, 1996], 114. A manuscript dates this writing to November 26, 1995.
6. Zhan Wang, "Dui jiashan shi xianxiang di pingshu" [Some comments on the phenomenon od "ornamental rocks"] Unpublished manuscript. Translation here is based on an English translation provided by the artist.