Double Imitation and Nature

Wang Min’an

Scholar’s rocks are moved, first from the place of their geological formation into the garden, then into contemporary metropolitan settings. In this process of translocation, they grow inexorably in meaning. A pure rock, an object shaped entirely by nature: as soon as it is put into a special space takes on every manner of humanist inflection. It is endowed with all sorts of moral qualities, attributed human traits. The scholar’s rock becomes a manifestation of literati sentiment. It fulfils the naturalistic fantasies of a people divorced from nature. What we must explain is that in an agricultural era, these fantasies were somehow appropriate: the scholars’ rock (Chinese: jiashanshi) was placed in the center of a courtyard or a garden – some man-made space capable of forming a self-sufficient whole. The jiashanshi in this context required a sort of tacit textual complicity with its integrated surroundings, coming into concert with its environment. 

But today while the courtyard has disappeared, jiashanshi are still with us, scattered throughout the metropolis. Seen today, they have left their former context, lost their former meaning, turning into pure symbols. Connoisseurship and taste for scholars’ rocks is all but gone. Now they are entirely out of step with their environment, their surroundings of steel and concrete, cars and noise, irritability and impatience, crowdedness and angst. Their leisurely and quiet tenor has changed entirely, as has their context, and in this sense, placed in the city center, they exist only as reminders of difference. They work as surplus material in a society deadset on modernity, standing bald and solitary in its midst. People in the city run into scholars’ rocks frequently, but they never encounter the courtyard, nor the comfort it represents. Scholars’ rocks have lost the references they carried when placed in courtyards or gardens, becoming barren, hollow symbols inserted by force into an urban space crowded with skyscrapers and crawling with machines. At this point, the scholars’ rock has lost its former meaning.

Based on this realization, Zhan Wang began his project of creating stainless steel jiashanshi. In the beginning, this project had an air of theater, even affectation, about it. He made scholars’ rocks wear "overcoats" of stainless steel. Zhan used the material of stainless steel to "copy" jiashanshi whose forms he left entirely intact. Which is to say, natural jiashanshi were thereby made artificial, mechanized. This sort of rewriting is a form of mimesis, but that belies the deeper meaning of this action as the mimesis of mimesis, a double imitation: as natural objects, jiashanshi are imitations of “real” mountains. This element of imitation is conveyed in the Chinese character “jia” (fake) with which the word jiashanshi (fake-mountain-stone) begins. This is the first layer of mimesis. But Zhan’s stainless steel jiashanshi are imitations of “real” jiashanshi, or fake-fake-mountain-stones. The stainless steel jiashanshi is thus an imitation of an imitation, existing in a register of meta-mimesis.

In these twin imitations, what actually appears? We see that in the first act of imitation, the jiashanshi, this pure natural object, takes on humanist meaning. In the act of imagining and imitating a mountain, a previously empty stone is imbued with meaning. At the same time, the jiashanshi loses its earlier naturalism, turning itself conceptually into a mountain, binding its signifying power to that of the mountain. This is the proliferation of meaning brought about by imitation. However, in the second act of imitation, the fake jiashanshi (here the stainless steel jiashanshi) imitates the real jiashanshi, thereby abandoning the meaning it originally took on in the process of imitating a mountain. The stainless steel jiashanshi no longer carries literati sentiment, nor does it maintain any connection to the mountain. And yet, in the second act of imitation, it takes on even newer meanings: in abandoning the literati context, it becomes signifier of an entirely different order.

But what exactly does it signify? It is precisely this double imitation that allows the jiashanshi back into contact with its natural environment. In the first imitation, the jiashanshi comes into relation with its courtyard setting. When the courtyard and the garden disappear along with the lifestyle they represent, the jiashanshi loses its background, and in this way, Zhan opens the space for his second act of imitation. This second act, in turn, brings the stainless steel jiashanshi into contact with its urban environment, which works particularly well given how stainless steel is suited to the city. This is a mechanized age, a cheap and superficial age, an age of hollow glamour, an age of technology and steel; steel is one of its most important elements. Zhan appreciates this, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why he chose to use stainless steel in the first place. Zhan then seeks to bury his stainless steel jiashanshi in every corner of the city, just as previous jiashanshi were buried in courtyards and gardens. Stainless steel jiashanshi ornament the modern city just as earlier jiashanshi ornamented courtyards and gardens, however, now the entire city is transformed into an enlarged garden.

Zhan places his stainless steel jiashanshi in the city, where they come into relation with it. Is this simply in the name of preserving the harmonious relationship once enjoyed between earlier jiashanshi and their pastoral settings? If so, then Zhan is doubtless a conservative. But in fact, these jiashanshi floating in the city are spurs as much as ornaments, turning the metropolis into an object of sarcasm: only with the appearance of these stainless steel rocks does the city discover its absurdity, its unnatural ailments. The city can no longer absorb a natural rock, and by extension, it can no longer tolerate a natural way of living. In this way, the stainless steel jiashanshi floating in the city assumes a double capacity: it becomes at once a decoration and a farce, at once an elegy for a way of life that has disappeared and a sharp embellishment of modern urban living. We can also turn this around and say that this is neither purely sarcasm, nor purely ornament; neither simple nostalgia, nor an unqualified affirmation of the present. No matter what, we can be sure that Zhan’s forging of stainless steel jiashanshi displays a complex and contradictory attitude toward modern urban living.

But whence this contradiction? In one sense, it is rooted in the irreparable disappearance of agricultural society and its natural lifestyle. And yet people’s desire to get back to nature has never ceased. Nature possesses an unassailable legitimacy. People are always bemoaning the death of nature, and calling for concerted efforts to recover it. They look constantly for their own roots in nature. But we must ask, what really is “nature?” Is the meaning of “nature” itself natural? Can it have such a fixed meaning? Is nature not a concept, like any other, with a historical backstory? In fact, each era has its own distinct understanding of nature. The meanings of the word “nature” change in step with historical change. People should not aim to lock nature, once and forever, in a single demarcated zone. Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Zhan’s stainless steel is whether, in today’s world, steel, machines, and cities have become our nature. We already live in a mechanical age, where the rhythms of machines and electronics have become the rhythms of our natural life. Mechanical reality is natural reality. In Zhan’s Urban Landscape works, he presents his own understanding of the city in no uncertain terms: the metropolis is a machine of metal, a machine of stainless steel. Here, nature has already assumed a new meaning. Or more precisely, in today’s city, the boundary between the manmade and the natural has disappeared. Zhan’s jiashanshi are evidence of this: their forms come from the forms of scholars’ rocks, but the material of which they are built is manmade: this is an artificial nature, or more precisely, a natural artifice.

At this point, scholars’ rocks and stainless steel engage in a subtle union. Why does Zhan choose to use stainless steel as his material? We have already pointed out that stainless steel is among the most representative elements of our era. At the same time, it has an eternal quality, its insides shining, hard, long-lasting, full of stamina, but instantly mutable, blowing in the wind, with a sort of capricious philistinism. The stainless steel rocks look at once cheap and eternal. In this way, these jiashanshi convey the idea of something eternal, twinkling constantly, changing repeatedly, transmutable and yet somehow still impregnable. That is to say, a natural object, still capable of change. A changed object that remains natural and eternal. In more detail, we might say that a natural object must always undergo human change, and that the resulting manmade object then becomes again part of nature. This stainless-steel jiashanshi acutely captures the convergence between natural artifice and artificial nature, one of the major trends of modern society at a moment when we can barely tell what is natural, what is manmade, what is technologically enhanced. What today is not natural? What is not manmade? Are the animals we eat not manmade? Are the great mountains and rivers we trek off to see not likewise conditioned by manmade technologies? Indeed even our wind, rain, and air are artificial. Nature is full of the traces of human technology.

Zhan’s works, whether placed atop highest Everest, or set afloat on the open seas, exist not only as a manmade gift to nature, but as a new concept inserted into nature; some of these natural sites were even transformed by the arrival of these fake jiashanshi. Indeed, earlier notions of nature have disappeared; we are left with technological nature, artificial nature. This is the special characteristic of the natural realm, and the basic tenor of modern society. In this sense, the artificial nature of Zhan Wang’s stainless steel jiashanshi makes an apt metaphor for these times.

Translated from the Chinese by Philip Tinari.

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