A Story about a “Stone” – Zhan Wang’s Art Practice


At dusk on 2 May, 2000, twelve nautical miles out from Lingshan Island, China, the sky was colored by the setting sun, the sea water grew dark green, and the breeze blew stronger. A motor fishing boat was floating on the sea. At a command, three fishermen threw a twinkling hollow stone overboard. Colliding with the water, the stone made a metallic “plopping” sound. The boat then left the stone as it floated with the waves, to return home. The person who chose to discard this huge stone, the other observers, along with the fishermen, watched as the stone floated away and then “disappeared into the boundless sea.” The stone was hollow, made of stainless steel, and will float on the sea forever because of its tightly sealed casing and polystyrene interior. We don’t know when or where this stone will be discovered, or by whom, yet it is not an unknown stone since its fate is connected to us by our awareness of its existence. In fact, the stone is an artwork by Zhan Wang. The artist used this peculiar way to exhibit his work to let it reach the hearts of those people who are aware of the stone’s existence even though it is unlikely they will ever see it again.

In 1994 Zhan Wang developed his approach to art and began to distance himself from the idea of “aesthetics.” Even if previously he had recognized the illusory nature of “aesthetics,” he had avoided directly negating them, affirming that “the definition of the aesthetic function of art should be left to our successors.” He also noted the therapeutic function of art, its ability to spiritually heal, saying that “true art has the function of healing the spiritual diseases of human kind.” Perhaps Zhan really thought that “there is no need to trouble ourselves searching for the meaning of aesthetic values, because people in the next century will certainly appraise the arts of our epoch.” In this way, the artist provided himself with a broader platform for his own artistic experiments and activities. Zhan hoped that he himself—but also other people—could see that art has a profound influence. (July 14, 1994)

At this point in his career Zhan’s own aesthetic was mature enough to guide the artist towards further developments, leading to his artistic breakthrough:

One time, several friends came to my home for a party. While chatting with them, I was fiddling with some discarded chocolate foil wrappers. I noticed that the chance arrangement of wadded foil resembled nothing less than the Artificial Rock, a new work I wanted to create in the future. My friends thought that this episode provided the inspiration for my work, but this revelation catalyzed an already ongoing chain of thought about my rocks. [14]

This is Zhan’s description of the way in which his Artificial Rock was born. We can never really say that an artwork is created purely by chance, there is always some inevitability about it’s creation. Being an artist who looks at things from a sculptural perspective, Zhan’s “artistic will” would tend to lead him in that direction. In fact, there exists a “trickle-down effect” throughout all of this, as Zhan had been exposed to traditional culture since he was a child:

From the age of 2 to 4 years old I was sent to live with my grandparents. They lived in a typical Beijing courtyard. The compound included the main room, a small annex, the side rooms, a pottery fish tank full of goldfish, and a jujube tree. The rooms were furnished in “old Beijing style” furniture: a square table seating eight people, a long narrow table, a central scroll hung in the main room (painted by my maternal Grandfather), and traditional couplets (also written by him) as well as flower vases. Every night the paper curtains were drawn up and covered with wooden boards to make the place safe.

In the year a big earthquake hit Beijing, I began to learn traditional Chinese painting from my Grandfather. Observing the charming ancient pavilions, the terraces and towers encircled with mountains and water, I really wanted to merge with the landscape in the picture. [15]

This experience alone cannot be enough to explain why Zhan committed himself to Artificial Rocks, but practical experiences can often provide an artist’s soul with the inspiration he longs for. Since his childhood Zhan had copied traditional landscape painting and understood the uniqueness of Chinese brush, paper and ink. Until the middle of the 1980s, Zhan’s traditional landscape paintings used their light ink and brush strokes to show the shade and texture of rocks and mountains. This involvement with traditional art—no matter if it was long or short—activated a cultural “gene” in Zhan’s mind, which was just waiting to be fully developed.

To begin with, Zhan did not fully appreciate that artificial rocks are the most symbolic elements of traditional Chinese culture. He decided to focus on them purely because he wanted to experience the process of copying natural objects using modern materials. After receiving permission, he went to a stone factory to look at the stones by himself. He did not search for “interesting” stones, as people with traditional interests would do, he merely made a random selection among “three-pointed and gourd-shaped” stones. [16] Zhan thus hoped to realize his conceptual and logical transformations using any stone available in nature.

The experiment to create Artificial Rocks in stainless steel goes back to a business project developed by a Hong Kong-based company for the city of Nanjing. It consisted of making a wall relief for the lobby of a recreational center. At the time, for technical reasons, Zhan did not choose unusual stones, and since he could not rely on the support of an experienced assistant, he decided to experiment with this somewhat absurd idea himself: how to transform tough stainless steel sheets to achieve a form that reproduced every minute undulation on the surface of a natural stone. Zhan described his feelings from this experience:

The deafening sound of hammering was so extraordinarily loud that we usually put some cotton in our ears in order to avoid any damage. When ordinary workers hammer steel sheets, they usually leave a very rough surface, but I found that with the help of a tool similar to a chisel, I could reproduce precisely every minute undulation on the surface of the stone. In this way my artificial stones resemble real stones. The visual effect is far more striking if someone with an artistic background works on the stone. The way in which the undulations on the surface of the stones is achieved shows the level of craftsmanship of the worker. [17]

Finding a solution for technical issues like polishing the sheets of rough stainless steel to obtain a glittering, mirror-like surface, took Zhan two years. A question gradually formed itself: what did these empty stones made of stainless steel mean? Zhan’s ideas was that the artistic situation in 1995 offered the best answer. At that time the so-called “Gaudy Art” movement was very popular in China: vivid reds and greens suddenly became extremely fashionable in contemporary art circles. The “kitsch” style of American artist Jeff Koons had infused new confidence in Chinese artists.

During his process of experimentation, Zhan could not plan in advance, but had to make decisions on the spot: what kinds of stones should he use? Should they be elegant, interesting from the historical point of view, or fairly normal? And why? Through their practice artists gradually answer and resolve these questions:

I know that ancient cultural relics were brand-new when they were created. It was the chemical reactions caused by the passing of time that made them seem very old. This is the origin of the appraisal of the beauty of antiquities. It’s a kind of romantic aesthetic, not a conceptual one. Although I did these kinds of work before, I should break away from this romantic notion of aesthetics when doing experiments in conceptual sculpture. [18]

Why did he discuss ancient cultural relics? Because stones, as natural objects, can stand as metaphors for culture and history. While thinking over these issues, Zhan gradually realized that life and human history in general were a kind of reference for his work. He remembered the experiences he had in his early days when, after collecting a few stones, he had arranged them on a wall to create his own “wall sculpture.” He named this piece Happiness.

He soon made up his mind: “the fantasies hidden beneath the glittering surfaces of these empty rocks are my comment on today’s reality” (1995). This is Zhan’s starting point which, when combined with the artist’s individualist approach and the opportunities he had for research, created the premise for his art practice.

He began to focus on studying how to create Artificial Rocks with holes running through them. Although it was very difficult to sculpt these holes into the rocks, it seemed essential to use the concept of a “hole” derived from traditional culture. Although having accepted the influence of Henry Moore, Zhan felt that the “holes” he wanted to sculpt were not identical to Moore’s own. Zhan’s idea of emptiness and hollowness comes from these feelings and was expressed in the work Kong Ling Kong (Empty Soul – Empty), but the glittering surface of these sculptures renders the content and ideas behind the works meaningless. Zhan began to look at history and tradition in order to find some support. Stainless steel can stand as a metaphor for modernization, so he didn’t worry about the risk of copying tradition or natural objects; he finally came to the conclusion that “stones should have holes.”

His analysis of the concept of a “hole” began by departing from early art history and from how stones have been considered in general throughout history. He analyzed the works of Hans Arp and Moore; he researched the symbolic meaning of stones with regard to the cultural frame of mind developed during the Song Dynasty in China. In addition he referred to the metaphorical meaning of “holes” narrated in Chinese folk stories of fairies living inside caves. He used the “metaphysical” expression “hidden but beautiful” to describe the secret beauty of these holes. But other questions soon came up: did making holes in his sculptures with the use of technologically advanced techniques and stainless steel mean to copy the mindset which was the basis for traditional stones? Was polishing the inside of the hole a way to infuse a new spirit into the stones while the audience looked at them and thus preventing the audience’s imagination from being distracted by technical deficiencies? [19]

The first stone with “holes” was displayed in the exhibition Open Your Mouth Close Your Eyes—Beijing Berlin Contemporary Art Exchange, curated by Huang Du in 1996. In this exhibition, Zhan’s Experimental Stone was installed on a stainless steel shelf instead of a plinth – so there would have been the feeling of the Stone having just been created. “Scattered under the artwork were stone fragments. Unfortunately these fragments of stones had continued to be hammered into pieces after the production was completed, obviously against my original intention: using human power to reproduce something is not unnatural, but is a way to let human power follow nature. In conclusion, although I hadn’t planned it, this piece documented my state of mind and immaturity at that time.” [20]

He then began to plan the production of his traditional “rockeries.” Even if, at the beginning of his experimentation, history provided him with the inspiration for his stainless steel rocks, once the artist focused on new concepts he situated his artistic practice within a broader context and so his works revealed new meanings. In this lies the value of Zhan’s work, he produced his stainless steel rocks—false rockeries—according to traditional techniques, and borrowed traditional symbols and icons. The peculiar shape of these stainless steel rocks reminds us of the past, of the lives of numerous intellectuals, officials and nobles. False rockeries have their own traditions, originating from the ancients’ understanding of nature. From ancient times up to the present day, the saying “human beings follow the law of earth, earth follows the law of heaven, heaven follows the law of the Way (Dao), and the Way follows the law of nature” [21] as written in the Daodejing (The Classic of the Way and the Natural Virtue) has become the motto used in every epoch when it comes to face issues related to nature – even if everyone has a different understanding of the word “Dao” (the Way) and “Nature.”

In ancient times, intellectuals used to find refuge within forests: nature was their shelter. Intellectuals looked for ways to escape [both literally and metaphorically], so natural rockeries came to be imbued with symbolic meaning. The history of Chinese painting and the art of stone appreciation fully reveal the rich and complex symbolic meanings hidden in these artificial rocks. Artificial rocks are but a starting point; once history and culture are projected onto these rocks, these three elements [history, culture and the rocks] become equally enriched and multifaceted. Thanks to his cultural and academic background, when Zhan discovered “artificial rocks,” he couldn’t but be fascinated by the infinite potential they hide within themselves.

In 1988 the artist traveled to Hainan Island, and was attracted by the local coral stone. He brought back several specimens and placed them about his home. What did these natural objects remind him of? Zhan was familiar with the work of Moore, perhaps he had associated these natural objects with the artificial “holes” in his sculptures. He was also quite familiar with the irregular shapes of stones portrayed in traditional Chinese painting. Perhaps at that time he already had the feeling that this vague intuition would one day be awakened by his artistic vision. In the past the artist had transformed human bodies into empty shells—which nevertheless had a soul—so he realized that being carriers of historical meaning these stones could go on expressing their original significance even after “having been emptied.” Once stainless steel was used to copy historical symbols or these traditional things, the artist could analyze the meaning of Artificial Rocks from a broader perspective, thus being able to re-visit related issues from today’s point of view.

Are Artificial Rocks true or false? History shows that these stones stand as a metaphor for nature. So what is the meaning of “artificial”? The ancients could perfectly express the meaning of natural spirit, but how can we explain the meaning of “real rockeries”? Is there any real difference between today’s and yesterday’s Artificial Rocks? Has the metaphor for which Artificial Rocks stand for changed because of the different materials employed?

Since “form” has its own history, perhaps the artist’s Artificial Rocks made of stainless steel have lost their symbolic meaning. But then perhaps these glittering stones stand as a metaphor for today’s modernization and culture.

Zhan knows the social context in which he lives, so he feels he has no choice but to place his Artificial Rocks in the modern city. In 1997, he proposed his Rocks for a public sculpture project located in the forecourt of Beijing West Railway Station. In a city like Beijing where countless building projects are being carried out at an incredible pace, there is much concern over the cultural and aesthetic impact of public projects. China is characterized by its own special system of “aesthetics” or “style,” which is closely linked to authority and ideology, but influences from the West has meant that people are now uncertain what a particular “style” really means.

The design of Beijing West Railway Station has been criticized by many specialists, and the standards and criteria these specialists relied on are Western aesthetic standards. Some articles published at that time show that the two main yardsticks are on the one hand Modernism and on the other Postmodernism or an anti-Modernist approach. But the political leaders in charge of the project completely ignored these things, and paid attention only to their ideological requirements. Therefore they wanted to use a ‘national symbol’ of a small pavilion located on top of the building. [23]

This uncertain style reveals today’s “Chinese characteristics.”

Zhan provided an aesthetic report to support his proposal to arrange his work in front of Beijing West Railway Station:

By placing the stainless steel Artificial Rocks in front of Beijing West Railway Station, these sculptures would signify that I am aware of the absurdity of combining Chinese and Western elements. I am aware of how reality looks like, so I make the building look like this on purpose, because it stands as a metaphor for reality. My rule is to build something which represents reality during this stage of social development. It may be ugly, but at least it is not the rule – the standard of an epoch we haven’t reached yet, even if perhaps this future epoch will be much more advanced than ours. [24]

Zhan’s desire to communicate this absurdity and the aims of the decision-makers for the project were completely at odds, so it was no surprise that his project failed to be accepted. For public projects, the inspiration of the artist may come from something which opposes the requirements of the decision-makers. One of the many objections to Zhan’s works was whether they were really sculptures, however, what was really at issue was knowing what the Station really wanted. This apparently simple purpose vanished under the welter of influences.

Postmodernism has expressed a wide-spread concern with satire. This was a major characteristic of the art of the middle of the 1990s, when it became an almost universal subject and aesthetic standpoint. Within such a context, what kind of phenomena did Zhan’s Rocks reveal? If these glittering Artificial Rocks were set in different public environments, what would they mean for the public space? And what kind of interaction could they establish with it? Do the stones evoke a “national spirit,” or are they just a superficial proof that “national spirit” can be seen everywhere? People are aware of the ornamental nature of Artificial Rocks, but does this aspect constitute an obstacle for the appreciation of these glittering “stones”? What is the relationship between the atmosphere created (for example) by green glazed tiles on a typical Chinese roof, bright neon lights, and the inner beauty of a traditional artificial rock? In 1996, Zhan began the project New Map of Beijing: Today’s and Tomorrow’s Capital—Rockery Remolding Plan. He transformed a contemporary map of Beijing into one showing his new reconstruction plan using Artificial Rocks. The artist chose as sites computer shopping malls, department stores, schools and residential areas: a total of seven new “faces” of Beijing. These buildings were examples of “Western-style buildings, made in China.” Zhan proposed a dialogue between these sites and the Artificial Rocks.

Reconstructing today’s environment with his Artificial Rocks is Zhan’s artistic starting point. Despite this fact, the artist has always known that his reconstruction plan is just symbolic and impossible to realize, nevertheless he wanted to convince people that his “stones” were valuable. In New Map of Beijing: Today’s and Tomorrow’s Capital—Rockery Remolding Plan (August 20, 1997), he described the characteristics of stainless steel:

1. After stainless steel has been polished it has the unique quality of never rusting; thus, it will fulfill people’s most idealistic expectations of a material;

2. Polished stainless steel reflects the colors of its surroundings so that it has essentially no color of its own, changing according to alterations in its environment;

3. Following the polishing process, stainless steel combines a mirror-like surface with the texture and contours of natural stone. Everything reflected on its irregular surface appears twisted and broken. The merit of this lies in its ability to inspire in people all kinds of fantasies and new hopes;

4. In comparison to gold and silver, stainless steel is a relatively cheap material… yet so glittering as to appear exorbitantly expensive: you can get twice the result with half the expense; 

5. Stainless steel is much lighter than stone, it is empty, so it can easily float on the water. Finally, and most importantly, because stainless steel is able to change with its surroundings, it will never again encounter the problem of not keeping up with the changing times. [25]

These words bear an ironic purpose: is “polish” really the ideal effect people want to obtain? Do the distorted images reflected by the stones really evoke new hopes? How do these glittering “stones” represent changing times? Artificial Rocks provide a starting point for a critical analysis. In fact, by reconstructing these traditional symbols, Zhan combines complex issues which can be analyzed from many different perspectives. The artist’s subsequent project Copies of Famous Mountains—Urban Landscape (1998) had a similar meaning.

Zhan’s Artificial Rock Series—Imperial Garden is an imitation of a traditional landscape painting. Artificial Rocks made of stainless steel, more than two meters high are placed in a circular container with gold fish, evidence of the artist’s attempts to restore the interests of the ancients. This work makes you wonder: what do such “misleading” things stand for? Do they stand for contemporary aesthetics or as a thought-provoking symbol? They can be both.

Artificial Rocks naturally direct your imagination towards tradition and the ancients, while stainless steel goes in the opposite direction: the resulting tension represents the energy and the absurdity imbuing these stainless steel Artificial Rocks. If both assumptions are true, the legitimate appearance of Artificial Rocks in any place is valid, so absurdity has turned into a style that can be interpreted freely.

Zhan employed this ready-made object, which time and culture have endowed with a wide range of meanings, but imitated and reproduced it in a way that the ancients would never have imagined. Time has imbued artificial rocks with everlasting meaning, so, although Zhan used the most modern material with no relation with the interests of the ancients, people still preserve the everlasting meaning represented by these stones, and bring it into modern civilization. Zhan uses a postmodern approach in his work, but at the same time reveals issues which cannot be resolved in postmodern terms. His works strongly stress the origin of the effects of postmodernism, but also underlines the manner in which tradition can possibly regenerate itself. From the point of view of a cultural interpretation, this is one of the most important characteristics of the Artificial Rocks.

Although the tradition of stone appreciation is related to a rich variety of interests—including those to do with death—all transitory things deserve to be preserved and remembered. Perhaps using stainless steel can make people nostalgic for their traditions, cherishing their memories of the past, especially when the traditions related with these interests are brutally destroyed. “Nature” has always been at the core of the interests of the Chinese. The ancients regarded the stones they used to divert themselves with as a metaphor for nature. No matter how “tough” and “superficial” stainless steel is, it appeals to our soul, spirit and disposition, we endow it with a meaning beyond its practical use. This material bears the responsibility of connecting the past to the present. When Zhan’s Artificial Rocks are placed or floated in the world, they interact with the new environment because of their cultural strength. Undoubtedly, this is the power of history and culture. In this sense, Artificial Rocks have become one of the most important examples of contemporary art.

As for the kind of art that needs society and the efforts of the public in order to be realized, an artist often needs to trust in the opportunity [they have been given], because an opportunity doesn’t only need their investment, but also needs to be given a chance for its realization. But for other people in society aside from artists, the decisive turning points in their lives may be different. Early in 2001, Zhou Guangzhao, Jia Lanpo and 22 other academicians, along with the members of the committee of the PRC’s Environmental Protection Foundation for the Green Great Wall, initiated the Green Great Wall Project. This project has no ideological meaning background, but can be understood as a kind of blessing towards mankind. The actual work was initiated very quickly and it was decided that on “the first day of spring of the new century” they would plant “the Great Wall’s century forest” along 30 mu [one mu = 666.67 square meters] of barren land along the Badaling stretch of the Great Wall. It was requested that they add an element of “cultural content”—a phrase often used in the commercial world—to this event. This was obviously connected with the long history of the Great Wall as a symbol. The members of the project, of course, hoped that this tree planting event would have great resonance, and in their eyes, using art was a means for “cultural content.”

As a consequence the work Project to Inlay the Great Wall was developed by Zhan. But the starting point for this work was completely different:

In some ancient societies, when people lost a tooth, they would replace it with a gold one. It was a way to replace the tooth, a way of representing their wealth, and the aesthetic factor must also be considered. However the most important reason for this action was to represent their social stature, for gold implies value, and to have a gold tooth was an ostentatious expression of wealth. This logic has been carried on into our contemporary society, some people who become wealthy cover their teeth with gold, even if the tooth does not need to be replaced. In some novels, they sometimes say: “When he [a wealthy man] laughed, a row of gold teeth was visible.”`… The Great Wall is like a threshold; it acts as teeth; and, from afar, it looks like a never-ending row of teeth. So, to repair the Great Wall is the same as repairing the teeth. [33]

Zhan took two months to examine the shape of the land and measure its area, then used stainless steel to create the golden bricks. Once these “golden bricks” are mounted into the Great Wall “the sunlight reflected from these bricks will hurt the eyes, and it will look as though the Great Wall really does have two gold teeth, flashing in the sunlight.” To use shiny golden stainless steel to repair the Great Wall is the formal method, the real intention of the artist is to “use this theme to reflect the absurdity of today’s society.” In the early morning of June 3rd, a group of migrant workers each carried 5 “golden bricks” and climbed up the Great Wall. Zhan says: “From far away, watching thirty migrant workers form a line marching up the Great Wall, it’s like seeing a modern version of when the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ordered its building.” What’s really ironic is that this somewhat trivial artistic activity has been added to The Annals of the Great Wall by the local government. But this isn’t about protecting the historical or cultural legacy – who could guarantee that “repairing the Great Wall remnant at Badaling will raise people’s environmental awareness and love for their country”? In any case this work brings up many issues. The Great Wall is a complex historical symbol. The Emperors of the past have consistently repaired it in order to protect their land. Today, it has taken an artist, his friends and 30 migrant workers to remind us of these things. The irony of this episode is typical of the way contemporary art questions ideology and history.

Following its use in the Artificial Rocks, Zhan found more possibilities for stainless steel. In 2002, he participated in Gao Minglu and Wang Mingxian’s Good Harvest—Contemporary Art Exhibition with his piece called Urban Landscape. This piece is made from stainless steel pots, bowls and ladles. Zhan was traveling a lot that year, and as he looked down over the city from the plane, he felt sentimental: all the tall buildings that make up this city made one feel lost. This made him think back to of the early 1990s, the feelings that he and his companions had had about the architecture that was being lost – it was a strong memory and association. What this city is undergoing is a fast process of change from an agricultural society to a modern information-technological society. This lightening-fast change makes one feel afraid – it’s unimaginable. Here one strongly feels the root of Zhan’s artwork, he has combined the nostalgia for an agricultural society with the achievements of the modern city to create this artwork whose meaning cannot simply be limited to what appears on the scene. This shows the complexity of the inner spirit of a Chinese artist during this period.

We are traditional people. The scholarly environment that I grew up in is a kind of tradition. Then, at the same time as facing Western modernism and the changes brought about by industrialization, we are also being changed or opposing these changes. It can no longer be the same as when you were a child. We weren’t born in an industrialized city, we were born in a very traditional city. I’m completely modernized now, and this process of modernization implies some earth-shattering and tremendous changes.

Artificial Rocks remind Zhan of how the ancients worshipped rocks, but also spur his imagination of how modern people also worship certain objects:

At first, my idea was to use a huge rock, then stick dining tools all over one side; I wanted to make a totem, a worship-totem. Most people worship idols, here is a worship-object. I also think that artificial rocks were totems in ancient times, and were objects of worship. By adding the dining tools the resulting scene is similar to an ancient landscape, but it is a materialistic landscape. It is the opposite of what ancient scholars tried to describe. It’s an extremely materialistic city, and it’s typical of all of today’s cities. So this work is called Urban Landscape, but before that it was called Big Meal Landscape.

This work has gone to various places all over the world – including America and Great Britain. He used the local dining tools and materials to express his understanding of a city and to create its sparkling, flashing materialistic life.

As a contemporary artist, Zhan has always had the urge to move beyond his boundaries. After Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles—Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea [discussed at the beginning of this text], he even thought of placing his works in the sky. Ancient folk tales and especially “Nuwa fixes the sky” inspired the artist. He used this story as his motivation and starting point to create New Plan to Fix the Sky(2001). He used Lu Jie’s Long March—A Walking Visual Display as an opportunity to bring his “meteorite” to Xichang’s Satellite Launch Center. He wanted to convince the workers at the center to launch the “rock” into space. But China’s aerospace technology is limited: the shuttles’ windows cannot be opened midflight, and the astronauts cannot stop while in space to leave an object there. [34] On another occasion Zhan had one of his Rocks taken up to the top of Mount Everest by a group of climbers (Project for Mount Everest, 2004).

Any method can be used to observe change. In early 1997, Zhan imitated a natural rock in steel, he put it in front of the natural rock which had been copied which became a kind of mirror. The artist worked with the reflective quality of stainless steel and discovered that reflection can be put to good use. After the opening up of China, many new buildings used large expanses of glass, ignoring the fact that the reflection of the sun off these glass walls is a kind of pollution and can be damaging to our eyes. This kind of thing naturally left a deep impression on Zhan, who is sensitive to life in big cities. So he thought of whether or not his ready-made Artificial Rocks could become a mirror to reflect the changes undergone by the environment:

I remember that one of the earliest pieces of architecture that used glass walls was built on the East 3rd Ring Road, the “Beijing Great Wall Sheraton Hotel” – it’s exterior walls are almost completely covered in glass. From then on, reflective glass facing the blue sky, the white clouds and its surroundings became a symbol of China’s modern cities. In the past, people thought of gardens as the ideal dwellings, but nowadays people see glass walled-architecture as the ideal. These years have witnessed abrupt changes. [35]

Chinese people are familiar with the ideas sparked by traditional landscape painting on marble panels visible in Chinese gardens, but in Zhan’s case the patterns visible on his “landscape panels” are the reflections on the surface of the stainless steel artworks – a result that comes from the imitation of traditional “artificial rocks.” These reflected patterns are not created by natural changes, but by societal change; they are the designs of mankind. His mirror-like surfaces were also brought to the United States, and reflected the city scenery there. The reflections visible on the surface of the artist’s work are “distortions” and “misinterpretations” created by the artist which don’t rely on the use of an artistic language imported from Western discourse. People who are familiar with Chinese gardens know that the artist’s “landscape panels,” created thanks to Artificial Rocks, still belong to traditional culture; they are a part of something that makes people nostalgic but unable to recover those feelings of the past. Just like stainless steel Artificial Rocks, the artist’s “landscape panels” seem to connect things that cannot be connected and from this perspective, Zhan’s series of works Flowers in the Mirror don’t merely show random motifs, they form a “reminder” of the distance of the modern person from the ancient person – “We really did leave you.”

Even if the value of Zhan’s Artificial Rocks has been widely recognized, to identify him as an artist working mainly with a symbolic language and always repeating the same themes is not accurate. Zhan doesn’t believe that one specific symbol can infinitely disclose an artist’s issues; but at the same time he does not use unrelated issues as starting points. At the very beginning, he accepted the figurative concepts at the basis of sculpture; he accepted Socialist Realism and even the Soviet art style, all at the service of politics and ideology. Despite this, there has always been some flexibility in his themes and methods. After 1976, the ideological function of art quickly vanished as the political environment changed. This meant that artists could concentrate on the essences of art. Zhan started his rebellion at this time. He started to rethink the meaning of the process of imitation, and tried to go back to an unadulterated idea of sculpture, exemplified by his super-realist pieces. He then got rid of the entity of sculpture: for example, if there was a statue of a person wearing clothes, he would chip the person away and just keep the clothes; this is the start of Zhan’s departure from a clear concept of what sculpture is, to enter into the pitfalls of artistic issues. I believe this logic is related to the artist’s future Artificial Rocks, Zhan discovered that cultural symbols were also fraught with pitfalls. When he used the Mao Suit in his work, he kept only the outer shell of stone. This outer shell was not part of the original stone, but was rather the artist’s creation. When Zhan realized the potential of this logic he wanted to create copies of famous works. In the end, he got rid of the originals entirely but the memory of them was still present. It is purely speculative that he can preserve the outer shell as well as the “spirit” informing it, but despite this we cannot deny the inherent relation between the two.

This inner logic penetrates the work New Art Quick Training Workshop – even if the materials and methods of copying are different, the logic behind the works is the same.

After 2004, Zhan’s works begin to deal with religious issues. He started with Buddhist Medicine, and then works related to mythology, showing how open he is to new artistic challenges. Although he doesn’t necessarily use stainless steel, he still clearly expresses his artistic thoughts through new media. Garden Utopian is still clearly related to his way of thinking, and it expresses further the artist’s direction for his “world.” For example, Zhan agrees with the rationale behind Christianity, but he disagrees with this religion’s hegemony. He believes that the many gods that Asian people believe in will finally bring this world to a resolution: “I think that within each person’s heart, they have the right to choose their own god and to have their own explanation for god.” Even though he looks for input from history and tradition, he also naturally connects with mankind’s contemporary issues. When he heard that some sects of Christianity believe that God has only one son, Jesus, and some don’t recognize the existence of a single God, Zhan felt he needed to respond to this conflict among civilizations with his work. Just as how he must face city life every day, the news is constantly showing him the problems of the world; therefore, issues like the war in Iraq (sparked by the conflict between Christianity and Islam), naturally become topics the artist is concerned with. He hopes that people will use his Deity Temple to look for their own deity and find their own “Utopia.”

People, especially in the West, are surprised at China’s changes: not long ago, Chinese people lived in an autocratic society, their lives were poor, the economy was backward, a society where very few aspects of traditional culture survived. After 30 short years of opening up—compare this to the hundreds of years Capitalist societies of the West needed to develop—Chinese people and Western people are now similar in many ways: we both live in modern cities that utilize science and technology. But the Chinese reality, this country, this nation, is still a very different situation. Among the artists who express this difference, Zhan doesn’t simply use Western logic; at the same time as he preserves an open mind, he looks for the possibilities of contemporary art within the classical culture of the “Chinese garden.” Chinese people have always believed in the power of nature, in the importance of what nature has entrusted. While Westerners use a “bottomless chessboard” to shape their belief of an essence (à la Kant and Hegel), Chinese people use only the dialogue with nature to free themselves from traditionalism.

Zhan’s art wants to express this – no matter what materials or tools the artist uses. Western people and Chinese people both have traditions of stone appreciation, but the difference is Western people believe that each rock in nature receives the shining ray of light from God; Chinese people believe that each rock in nature is its own ray of light and has its own world, because through an equal dialogue with the natural world, people can place their energy and spirit onto any piece of “rock.”

9 December, 2007

[Translation: Manuela Lietti]

[Editor’s note: “Bottomless checkerboard”: a reference to Jacques Derrida’s understanding of the nature of Being]

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