Objects of Desire and Conception On the Art and Aesthetic of Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rocks

Wang Chiachi (Art Critic/Curator)

Zhan Wang’s creative practice began in September of 1993, with his Sun Yatsun Suit (also known as Mao Suit). On May 19, 1994, his first solo exhibition was [held at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing] titled Kong Ling Kong—Seduction Series (1994), after the series of works exhibited in it. Wu Hung, a research scholar on classical Chinese art history, proposed the concept of “transfiguration” in his interpretation of this series of works. Wu believed that Zhan presented a type of transformation, and the “suffering of rebirth” in his work, thus “revealing a longing with a freedom to fantasize.”[1]

In December 2002, Zhan revisited this series of works as a participant in the Guangzhou Triennial with Burial – Mao Suit Skin (2002). The artist chose a form of ritualistic performance, digging out a burial ground outside of the Guangzhou Museum of Art, and burying 15 pieces from the Mao Suits series.[2]

With these works, Zhan shows great interest in cultural symbols with historical and material significance. Kong Ling Kong—Seduction and the symbolic Burial – Mao Suit Skin performance project are both, to a certain degree, dealing with death. The former expresses grief arising from a warping by the system, and the latter a death knell for a system that is about to be buried in history.

The Mao Suits not only showed the burden of collectivism, but also reflected on national and social suffering and sorrow. Zhan’s vision is Socialistic, or even sociological. In other words, he not only responds to the social development of modern China, but he also seeks an active dialogue with their historical context.

One can even claim Zhan’s social concerns are open and frank, and they reflect the circumstantial changes in contemporary Chinese society. In October 1994 he undertook the Cleaning Ruins Project using as material the demolition of East Wangfujing Street.[3] Zhan wrote, “Even though this neighborhood is built in old and beautiful styles of architecture, in Eastern and Western styles, it will not escape the fate of demolition due to Beijing’s need of a modern commercial district.” The sense the helplessness is ever present in these words.

Cleaning Ruin Project (1994) is another example of a funeral. The cleaning and embellishment taking place in this performance resemble the ritual preparations for a funeral procession. The melodramatic lighting reveals the original structures and traces of historical architecture, allowing it to unveil its glamour. Such performances give new life to this location in its decline.

These two projects produced in 1994 established Zhan’s basic artistic concerns and creative grammar. After 1995, he began to systematically use faux mountains or taihu rocks, which appear in traditional Chinese gardens, treating them as the main subject matter in his sculptures. In comparison to the Mao Suits, or the Cleaning Ruins project, Zhan proposed his Artificial Rocks which are no longer a direct appropriation of ready-made taihu rocks, but stainless steel replicas, designed to present artificiality.

Zhan clarified his initial intentions for developing the stainless steel Artificial Rocks in the statement for New Map of Beijing: Today’s and Tomorrow’s Capital—Rockery Remolding Plan. He observed that at that time, “signs of industrialization [could] be found everywhere” in Beijing, but people still used faux rocks and mountains (the traditional decorations for courtyards and gardens). He consciously sought to transform this strange clashing visual image – the rocks in front of these modern buildings were neither Chinese nor Western.[4]

For Zhan, the Rocks’ stainless steel surfaces reveal “the false ostentatious appearance,” and he wished to replace rocks in traditional Chinese gardens with these Artificial Rocks that offer a “new dream” of aesthetics consistent with the industrial era.[5] Zhan believes that in comparison to the natural rocks in traditional Chinese courtyards, faux rocks reproduced in stainless steel with mirrored surfaces are more suited to modern Beijing. At the same time, the aesthetics of the materials (stainless steel in industrial urban architectures and space) render an all-inclusive effect.

Thus Zhan used the “falsity” of stainless steel rocks to question the aesthetics of the natural rocks of traditional gardens. Placing them in the spaces of the industrial era could be seen to be inappropriate, or even out of touch, but Zhan had witnessed various aesthetic gaps growing (between old and the new, Chinese and Western, natural and industrial) in Beijing’s urban transition, and from these gaps he found the point of departure for his artistic practice. Moreover, the artist’s historically significant cultural symbols expanded their significance and provoked debate on these aesthetic gaps.

The aesthetic of the Chinese landscape emphasizes seeing nature through man’s action. Garden Management (published in 1634, the late Ming period), claims to be China’s (or even the world’s) earliest document on landscaping. The author, Ji Cheng (1582–1642), points out in the third chapter, “Decorating the Mountain”: “The literati’s concept of the faux mountain must be desired as a hobby to gain the praise of others, and the mountains and rocks must seem to have the quality of those in the wild…”[6] In other words, the greatness of the faux mountain is a result of man, and is only great if the designer had existing knowledge of mountains and rocks with which to demonstrate the “wild quality” of nature.

In fact, aesthetic views and attitudes to making things according to natural principles appear more than once in the book Garden Management. In the first chapter, on the theory of constructing a garden, Ji Cheng emphasized his basic principle: “Although done by man, but as if originated from heaven.”[7] Even though “done by man” and “originated from heaven” seem oppositional, Ji Cheng emphasized a combined theory of artificiality and nature. In other words, the garden should be an artificial construct aiming to be as natural as that made by god.

Ji Cheng further extended the ideas of “artificial” and “heavenly” in contrast with “real” and “faux.” In the chapter “Decorating the Mountain,” he writes, “Treating the real as faux, making the faux seem real, relying on heavenly principles, using the wisdom of men.”[8] The faux mountains should be rendered as if they were real; the design should rely on natural concepts, but the completion should rely on man.

As for the aesthetics of “real” and “faux” related to traditional Chinese gardens, the “real” is associated with natural phenomena, and the “faux” implies an artificial construct. The “faux” in “faux mountains” does not imply superficiality, pretentiousness, or falsity, but rather the antonym of “real mountains.” Making the “faux mountain” consists of selecting “mountains” and “rivers” from nature.[9] Therefore, as an important element of the garden, “faux mountains” are comparable to the replacement of the real, with their parts coming from nature.

In Ji Cheng’s view, “made by man” or “the efforts of man,” follows the essential aesthetic guiding principles of “found in heaven” and the “wisdom of heaven.” “Faux rocks” are obtained from nature, and then placed in the garden “as if the heaven opened” which depends on the “one who knows” having “the knowledge of it.”[10] In other words, the goal is to achieve the harmonious unity of art and nature.[11]

In terms of aesthetic context, the relationship between real and faux in the aesthetic concepts of Chinese garden construction primarily believes that the man made “reality” corresponds to that of nature.. Wen Zhenheng (1585–1645) wrote The Anthology of Botany (published c.1615), which documented the history of material culture in close relation to the lives of the literati and their aesthetic attitudes in the late Ming period. The second chapter of this book, “Water and Rocks” focuses on elements related to rocks and water features in making a garden.[12] Wen writes: “The rocks make one reminisce, and water makes one travel; the waters and rocks in a garden are the most indispensable.”[13] If they are installed appropriately, “One peak would attain the grandeur of the thousands of mountains at Taihua, and one stream would be comparable to thousands of miles of river.”[14] If human intervention is appropriate, even faux mountains and artificial water can evoke our imagination of nature.

Under the title “Taihu Rocks,” Wen stressed, “The most valuable stones are those in water.” In comparison, the “dried rocks” found on the mountain appear rather crude. Some fake “dried rocks” have holes to emulate the erosion on taihu rocks, nevertheless, Wen points out, “If it has weathered the years, traces of ax have waned and it can be seen as a site of elegance.”[15] Evidently, using dried rocks to imitate taihu rocks is apparent in their history. In the long term, rocks weather with natural erosion, and axed rocks lose their traces and return to their original state.

The aesthetic view proposed by Wen Zhenheng on taihu rocks further consolidates the “faux” in “faux mountain” as parallel to the “real” of nature, and has never been in absolute opposition. Shen Chunze, Wen’s friend, wrote a preface for The Anthology of Botany that pointed out, “A house should have its order, importance is placed on: relaxing and simple, humble and clean. Plants, rocks, water (the landscape), birds and fishes should be controlled, their importance is their beauty and by not being bunched together, giving an impression of freedom and naturality. Calligraphy should have it’s order, the importance being its rarity and excellence; tall and short tables (几 案) have their proper proportions (as furniture); tableware should be solemn and graceful, their positions and placement should have an order; their [furniture, tableware] importance is placed on simplicity, design and detail, while also seeming natural.”[16] A description which reflects on the system of cultural aesthetics of gardens in the literati’s daily life. Moreover, the various elements of a garden, vegetation, water, rocks, fish and birds are all related to each other spatially.

In this respect, a faux mountain is not only an indispensable technical element for the literati-style garden, but also a rich cultural emblem implying specific genius loci and spatial order in Chinese literati culture. However, as time progressed and with the differentiation in modern urban spaces, the original genius loci and spatial order have been lost.

Adopting French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s (1929–2007) theory from The System of Objects, the faux rocks in Chinese traditional gardens refer to an “installation structure” in the “traditional environment.”[17] As urban space transforms and becomes Westernized, the faux rocks lose their intrinsic spatial relationships; gardens which correspond comprehensively and uniformly to traditional culture cannot be found. Faux rocks stand out in Westernized cities, because they are non-contextualized and consolidate falsity, highlighting the cultural gap.

In 2001, Zhan chose a 20m section of the Great Wall, West of Badaling, more or less intact except for two ruined arrow walls. There, Crowning the Great Wall was performed and named after “crowning teeth with gold.”[18]

Compared to the original bricks for the Great Wall, the golden stainless steel bricks are imitations, replacements, as well as alternative constructs – like crowns on teeth. Conceptually, Zhan exaggerated dental “faux” with imitations in stainless steel plated with gold. 

Hypothetically, if we consider the existing structure of the Great Wall as reality, then Zhan’s crowning of the wall is unquestionably an alternative, a “faux.” Because the “false teeth” are conspicuously ostentatious, there is contrast with the missing reality of the Great Wall. 

As China’s historical and cultural symbol, the Great Wall, has long been adopted as a model or emblem. Zhan strategized a faux-ness to conceptually problematize “reality” and “truth.” As the cultural symbol of China, the Great Wall is already a replacement, or faux alternative.

Furthermore, the performance of crowning the Great Wall is an attempt to mend gaps. Since the Great Wall is treated as a historical and cultural symbol representing China, it implies continuity and comprehensiveness. Zhan’s performance of symbolic repairs is not to underline the disjunction, but to demonstrate his awareness of cultural in the gap.

Using nature (original truth) as a dialectical object, Zhan transformed the aforementioned non-contextual faux mountain and enforced its “falsity.” His strategy of replication abstracted the intrinsic aura of the faux mountains in its garden atmosphere, forcing the faux rocks to become the Artificial Rocks in stainless steel. Thus, Zhan’s Artificial Rocks became independent cultural symbols, with no systematic support from the garden, or organic relationship with its surrounding environment.

The non-contextual and cultural gaps are the basic characteristics of Zhan’s Artificial Rocks. The stainless steel mirrored surface gives an industrial frigidity, deepening their solemn, distant, solitary characters. Zhan’s sculptural installation Artificial Rock on a Stand (1995) used a tripod to suspend stainless steel Artificial Rocks like fragments of their original models. The comparison suggests a severe disjunction between tradition and nature, replaced by the timeless, non-contextual, empty, mechanical, artificial imitations.

In 1997, Zhan completed his first Artificial Rocks series.[19] Interestingly, Zhan’s Artificial Rocks and their replicated identity replaced the original faux rocks and emancipated their identity due to their non-historicism and disjunction with the original cultural spatial relations. Since Artificial Rocks are imitations of nature, they are also representational objects (faux) obtaining the legitimacy of “artworks.” The stainless steel Artificial Rocks are liberated from the original garden by becoming sculptural objects, and enter the field of aesthetics.

In the context of contemporary Chinese cultural development the Artificial Rocks are Chinese cultural symbols. It is easy for people to perceive their possible implications. As cultural objects, the heritage of Artificial Rocks is with the Chinese garden, and their spirit is associated with landscape painters in the literati tradition. Although Zhan adopted replication as an approach, Artificial Rocks have been liberated from their original garden function, and their forms carry their new cultural context.

The faux rocks in traditional gardens (since the Yuan and Ming dynasties) became the objects of “desire” in the aesthetic pursuit of the literati. Zhan’s approach of replication maintained the “characteristics of false appearance” of the faux rocks, but separated their structural relationship with nature. The Artificial Rocks maintained their original cultural significance but transformed into “conceptual” objects appearing in the name of “art.” 

From a different perspective, the Artificial Rocks are spatially liberated from the faux rocks. Zhan’s Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles—Floating Rock Drifts On The Open Sea (2000), can also be interpreted as longing for freedom. Although the Artificial Rocks are “fake” and lifeless, Zhan adopted the act of “liberation” from Buddhism allowing it to float endlessly on the ocean.

After 2006, Floating Rock developed into Floating Mountain of Immortals. His symbolism combined faux mountains with floating rocks. People naturally associate Floating Mountain of Immortals with the legendary story of “Mountain of the Immortals Beyond the Sea” (from the Qin and Han dynasties). Contextualizing it in Chinese cultural history, the Floating Mountain of Immortals implies reclusion, escape, isolation, self-exile, and the desire to transcend eternity both physically and spiritually. Passively or actively, Floating Mountain of Immortals is an analogy of a cultural desire for freedom and liberation.

Looking back on Zhan’s creativity over the last 15 years, he began with the faux rocks of traditional gardens, appropriating their cultural symbolism and transforming it by the “real” and “faux” dichotomy based on his thinking through the natural and artificial aesthetics of gardens. Zhan’s Artificial Rocks are based on his observations and skepticism of the real world. His artwork demonstrates an in-depth contemporary awareness. Through the Artificial Rocks, Zhan shows his active intellectual ability.

Zhan’s Artificial Rocks are reflexive projections of reality. He consciously highlights the “falsity” in the Artificial Rocks to demonstrate the gaps in contemporary Chinese culture. One can also say that Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rocks are born from these gaps, nurtured by traditional aesthetics, and the object of art through refinement.

[1] Wu Hung, Zhan Wang’s Artistic Experiment, electronic document provided by Zhan Wang.

[2] Electronic document provided by the artist.

[3] In reference to ’94 Cleansing the Ruins Project – plan of implementation and outcome (October 14, 1994), electronic documents provided by the artist.

[4] “Awkward” comes from Zhan Wang’s “Principle Theory on Artificial Rocks” (unpublished, written in 2000), provided by the artist.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ji Cheng (1987), Garden Management, translated by Huang Changmei, Taipei: Jinfeng Publishing Ltd, p.209

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.194

[9] Ji Cheng’s statement on selecting rocks: “The reference for the scholar to know the origin of the rocks, is based on the position of the mountain … if they come from the water, would it matter if it comes from afar …?” See ibid., p.216.

[10] Ibid., p.197

[11] Art refers to the harmonious unity with nature, as Li Zehou stated, “People’s senses and emotions correspond to their external surroundings.” See Li Zehou (2001), Four Lectures on Aesthetics, Taipei: Sanmin Shuju, p.140.

[12] Wen Zhenheng (1947), The Anthology on Botany, Ch.3, collected in Meishu Congshu, No.3, Iss.9, Taipei: Yiwen Publisher, p.149.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p.154

[16] Shen Chunze (1928), Foreword, In Wen Zhenheng, The Anthology on Botany, collected in Meishu Congshu, No.3, Iss.9, Shanghai: Shenzhou Guoguo Publisher, pp.1–2.

[17] Here I have appropriated the discussion of traditional European spatial arrangement and impressions found in Baudrillard’s book The System of Objects. Although its content is irrelevant to China, its description resembles to gardens, faux rocks and the literati lived environment of the Ming dynasty. Thus I have adopted it as a comparison. See Baudrillard, Jean (1997), The System of Objects, translated by Lin Zhiming, Taipei: Shibao Wenhua, pp.13–14.

[18] Zhan Wang (2001), Crowning the Great Wall with Golden Teeth, provided by the artist.

[19] Eds. Johnson Chang and Guan Shangpeng (2007), Zhan Wang, Mirror Flower Fate, Hong Kong: Hanart Gallery, p.55.

Prev Back Next