Is Realism an “Artificial Mountain”?

Do Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rocks possess the “Realism” that we hear about so often? After the qualities of these Artificial Rocks have been replaced by stainless steel, do they manifest “Romanticism”? Of course, these issues are already irrelevant to the art of today. Since 1949, an artwork’s ideological framework has continuously had an effect on how it is appreciated. Ever since the beginning of China’s “Reform and Opening” period in 1979, humanitarianism and humanism have become important concepts in elucidating and reading works of contemporary Chinese art, and concepts such as “installation” and “conceptual art” have had a function in Chinese critical texts since 1985. However, the most important concepts are “vanguard” and “avant-garde,” which set up a completely new scale for young artists, an updated order. It seemed that the effective adoption of these new concepts would bring an end to a history of art so closely correlated with Realism; however, the actual circumstances are not so simple.

Zhan Wang took his first artistic steps with Realist sculpture, how has he gone about transcending or exploiting Realism? This is the issue that I am concerned with. In the early the 1990s, I included him among the group of “New Generation artists” from Mainland China (artists who were born in the 1960s), and in July of 1991 Zhan Wang participated in the New Generation Artists Exhibition that was held in the China History Museum (now called the National Museum). This exhibition is usually classified as a “Realist art” exhibition. Although in the eyes of conventional Realist artists and critics it was unorthodox Realism; in my opinion, it was “New Generation Realism”, and at the same time it implied the historical mark that Realism has left on the training of artists of this new generation. New Generation Realism was a visual form of realism that used an individualist core to take advantage of and transcend Socialist Realism. Styles of this kind of Realism can be broken down into various formulas, such as: “the reality of personal life,” “shallow realism,” “auto-biographical realism,” “close-up realism,” “self-mocking realism,” “ridiculing realism,” “fragmented-world realism,” it is in no way confined to mere “Cynical Realism.” “Cynical Realism” departs from a religious or political standpoint and is an interpretation by people who take classical Realism as their standard.

Zhan Wang’s sculpture, Sitting Girl, was exhibited in the New Generation Artists Exhibition. His work was not at all “cynical” and neither was it “mocking”. He was quietly dispelling the political morality previously found in Chinese modern sculpture (since the New China), as well as the literary appeal of art (since a new China). He took a commonplace girl (nothing like today’s commercialized beauty, and of course bearing no resemblance to political leaders or the cultural elite) and placed her in a position of particular scrutiny (the National History Museum). Again, he did not endow this work with any suggestion of particular significance, you encountered a work of “art” that did not demand any exceptional attention. This was the Summer of 1991, it was an absolute departure from representative Realism, but the techniques used in creating the work were nevertheless Realist. In fact, at this time the subject matter in realistic Chinese contemporary art underwent a process where political leaders were being replaced with common folk. The New Generation artists accomplished the full completion of this process. Interestingly, in China, this pervasive shift in art and its adoption of the concepts happened at essentially the same time. The religious, political, literary, and dramatic elements that once elevated art above the ordinary were one by one gradually dispelled or exploited. In the end, the New Generation artists were dissolving the philosophical nature of the works of the ‘85 New Wave, severing an accepted relationship between the personal and a deeply profound philosophy of creation.

Zhan Wang’s artistic method was to first eliminate the human body or “corporeal body” that had the most intimate relationship to Realism, and to adopt worldly clothing and articles of daily use as his “principal subjects” (which in Marxist philosophy are the more significant concepts when compared to the Spiritual). This approach was condensed and reflected in the series that he completed and exhibited in 1993, Kong Ling Kong—Temptation. Its method of exhibition caused these independent sculptures to feel like an installation, explicitly blurring previous concepts of art classification. His approach to the exhibition and the tactics he used to eradicate the subjectivity of human form were coordinated. This development became the critical foundation that his later series, Artificial Rocks, was based upon.

The Artificial Rocks series are the superlative examples and the paradigm of Zhan Wang’s personal technique. In these works, a materiality that shares a non-intimate relationship with Realism is revealed. Realism’s core concepts are disintegrated with the disappearance of “people.” The selective process of the material’s self-sufficiency and its “self-association” are active in these works. In reality, an artist who has been oppressed by academicism and weaned by Realism can only discover their personal, unrestrained method after discarding these two cloaks. Of course, the principals driving revisionist academic methods and Realism share the same train of thought, and later on the New Generation artists presented various methods that echoed such attempts. Evidently, Zhan Wang’s Realism has been focused into a specific creative technique that effectively represents the morphology and qualities of decorative Taihu rocks and ordinary stones, but it is far removed from the excessively immediate correspondence between the original jiashanshi and the culture of the traditional Chinese literati. The traditional shapes and classic qualities of the finished stainless steel forms borrow from notions of real jiashanshi or Taihu rocks that we harbor in our imagination. The space for misreading is thus enlarged. Jiashanshi are the artificial rocks of the traditional literati world, artificial jiashanshi are then the authentic stainless steel creations of a contemporary artist – art works. The jiashanshi of the literati inherit their shape from real stones, but their weight and scale are “artificial”; they metaphorically invoke a “real” mountain, but are not made from “artificial” materials. In Zhan Wang’s jiashanshi, not only is the weight and scale artificial, his materials are likewise artificial. In every sense of the word, these are genuinely “artificial” rocks. Relative to stones found in nature, his are a kind of updated jiashanshi: relative to those of the literati, they become “artificial jiashanshi.” Through simulation and imitation, they deviate from or negate the “real stones” found in nature and the “jiashanshi” of the literati.

real stones (natural world):simulation
simulation:artificial jiashanshi (Zhan Wang)
jiashanshi (literati world):imitation

The jiashanshi of the literati can also be interpreted as “stones for people” or “humanized stones.” Such a stone possesses rich literary flavor and philosophical overtones. This is a prerequisite to producing “humanized ‘stones for people.’” Zhan Wang’s “artificial jiashanshi” have precisely this nature of “humanized ‘stones for people.’” The ancient literati’s process of humanization endowed natural stones with literary and philosophical meanings and reveled in them. The “humanization” process that Zhan Wang’s “humanized ‘stones for people” demonstrate is precisely the reverse process of eradicating the intrinsic literary flavor and philosophical implications that the traditional literati “humanized” them with. It is one process of “humanization” overwriting another. However, this process has not allowed these jiashanshi to return to their original state as “genuine rocks,” on the other hand they become an even more artificial form of jiashanshi – an updated version of the  “artificial rock,” and they continue to be endowed with the admiration bequeathed to traditional jiashanshi. Corresponding to both the artificial rocks of the literati, and to real rocks found in nature, Zhan Wang’s jiashanshi subvert both the size of real mountains and the qualities of artificial mountains; they inspire the imagery of traditional culture, yet they eliminate tradition. This dualistic approach is realized through twofold means: on one hand by exploiting the precision of Realism, and on the other exploiting the classicism that is venerated in the academy. Zhan Wang exchanges the same techniques that were habitually used for realistically rendering personages and applies them to “humanized” materials.

It is impossible to simply apply Western theory when passing judgment on contemporary art from China; we must also consult China’s unique history of art. As a matter of fact, academic modes and the principals of Realism have long been integrated into art education in China, so many Chinese contemporary artists came of age amidst this background. More importantly, art works that were created in accordance with academic or Realist principals are by no means of life itself or history per se. One aspect is the parallel nature of academic and Realist principals to life and history itself, another aspect is the parallel nature of the artificial mountains and culture of the literati to the natural world that the real mountains represent; people find both surprisingly similar. For Zhan Wang, the process of developing the “artificialization” procedure for jiashanshi is likewise the process of unraveling the spiritual relationship entangling principals of academicism and realism, life or history itself, and the artist’s personal methods and concepts.

Actually, this is a process of magnifying the “actual self” over and over. Jiashanshi are not real mountains, and neither does Realism show reality itself. Perhaps Realism is Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock, and perhaps Artificial Rocks represent Zhan Wang’s Realism. As he dispels the culture surrounding jiashanshi, he also dispels the Realism that is latent within him; the former eliminates concepts and the latter eliminates history. Only by eradicating history can we come to possess the traits that comprise a narrative on the history of Chinese contemporary art.

8 February, 2005
Fangzhou Garden Apartments

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