Return to Craftsmanship, Return to Material

Among contemporary Chinese artists, Zhan Wang is probably one of the first to begin an in-depth investigation on the relationship between sculpture and contemporary art. I believe such investigation is not to discover a certain contemporary legitimacy for sculpture as an art form in its broader sense. Instead, it is a search for direction and position in his own creative practice. From the sculptural perspective, Zhan Wang’s point of departure is representing his conception through technique, in which the artwork goes against the current of contemporary conceptual art, because he emphasizes the importance of technicality with extremity. Therefore, we can call his strategy “returning to craftsmanship.” In today’s popularity of “concept” (pseudo-concept), proposing focus on craftsmanship and material is unquestionably countercurrent to the mainstream. It does not imply that Zhan Wang returns to the traditional craftsman’s studio, but that he demonstrates thought on how to return art to reality through such emphasis. At the same time, it is also the methodology he designates for his creative practice. The question of methodology is the key to success for contemporary artists. As Minimalist artist Kusos stated, “After Duchamp, all artists are conceptual.” As a contemporary artist, whether you are conceptual or not, one must first establish a point of criticality in one’s work. This point of departure counteracts conception while being a type of concept. Zhan Wang knows that he (or any Chinese conceptual artist wanting to find his own path) must find a breakthrough “conceptually.” However, he’s interested in how to prevent concepts from dwelling on empty abstract thought, and how they can be naturally presented through the process of producing “new material.” Therefore, it is important to discover the unique material form and methods of production for artworks. “Where will the fur grow out of if there were no skin?” The concept of the “handicraft” is obviously different from the popular concept of the “ready-made.” However, the “craftsmanship” in Zhan Wang’s work is not an extension of its traditional form; his goal is not to make a decorative object that can be appreciated individually. These sculptures are neither of realism nor of abstract art, because the artist does not attempt to entrust any function of representation or presentation to each artwork. For instance, his stainless steel Taihu rocks do not carry any meaning. The “meaning” of these works is manifested in the relationship with their environment, as well as with the material and the “craft” in and by which they are made. Zhan Wang treats the overall behavior, process, and outcome of his “craft” as an emulation and representation of “fetishism” between men and objects in reality. Therefore, his “faux rocks and mountains” transcend the traditional meaning of independent sculptures, and the so-called environmental sculpture (decorative sculpture). They are “social sculptures,” but not in Beuys’ style, since Zhan Wang maintains the essence of “craftsmanship” in his work. Beuy’s “social sculptures” are more accurately, “social forms.”

Therefore, Zhan Wang entitles his sculptures, “conceptual sculptures” (Image 1). He emphasizes, “Without techniques, there will be no concept” (Image 2). Such theory shows a sense of the “middle way” that seems to be the literati ideal coupled with skill. If we position it in the context of the development of contemporary art, we can discover its focus. For the “genius” of contemporary art, “craftsman skills” are fundamentally vanished. “Craftsmanship” can only exist in the teaching of traditional studios, and does not display traces of “talent.” “Talent” cannot be repeated and taught, whereas the goal for training the “skills” of a certain craft is to reproduce. It has neither thought nor individuality. In the Renaissance period, in promoting scientific progress and talented craftsman, the concept of “skills” were abandoned. This is clearly demonstrated in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the first modern art history of the West. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are historical geniuses of invention. In China, at least since the Han dynasty, painters and architects have been considered as lowly craftsman by the literati. And in the Wei and Jin periods, literati art began to be clearly distinguished from craftsmanship. For this reason, either in the West or in China, contemporary fine art is the process of mystifying and personalizing material. Heidegger distinguished the object into three categories: natural objects, functional objects, and objects of truth (artworks). Duchamp’s “ready-made” made the boundaries of these three types of objects more ambiguous. It can be all three, or none at all. Art can be a work that only requires thought, without hands-on experience. One can transform the natural object into an object of truth through conceptualization. The key is the artist’s concept and the receiver’s interpretation.

Zhan Wang seems to correct this “bias” in his emphasis of skill and craftsmanship. Xu Bing has also has had similar ideas in recent years, and believes retrieving the popularity of crafts is to return art to the public. Last year, I wrote an essay for Xu Bing entitled, “Enlightenment Comes from Repetition, Conception Comes from Craftsmanship.” (Image 3) Zhan Wang emphasizes craftsmanship and replication. Zhan Wang’s idea of “sweatshop” replication is manifested in his work, Art Crash Course Production Line. In this work, he asked the audience to cover yellow earth onto the plaster of classical sculpture, and through the process of his absurd ‘teaching,” he made people into “masters” quickly, subverting the concept of the “master” (Image 4). Everyone can make craft and art, and they can disregard the issues of being a “master.” As I mentioned, Zhan Wang’s “return to craftsmanship” emphasizes “both concept and skill.” Can this be considered the “middle way” of the traditional literati? A certain compromised “conceptual art”? How has Zhan Wang operated such methodology and made it effective?

Not Homeless, but A Homecoming

It seems in the mid ’90s, prior to his Scholar Rocks series, his concept of “concept originates from skill” was implemented in his works. The works prior to “scholar rocks” showed that the artist was still contemplating and exploring an exit for sculpture. Zhan Wang steadily held the essence of sculpture – artificial objects in three-dimensional space as the initial definition. Under the current popularity of multi-media art, he wants to “revive it from killing it first.” 
When the artist began to work on the sideway series in 1990, he confronted the background of Chinese sculptural development. China’s modern sculptures, including those from the Mao era, were basically extensions of traditional Western monumental sculptures. The 1980s was a period of absence during the Scar Art and Folk Art Movements in the post-Cultural Revolution era and later, the ’85 New Wave Movement. There were not any influential artworks or artists working in this medium, except experimental works by Wang Qiang from Zhejiang, and Huang Jiali from Hubei Province.

Zhan Wang’s “Sidewalk” series was the scrutiny he proposed as the guiding concept and form to the field of sculpture over the years - how to exit the traditional monumental style of sculpture, and how to return an “independent sculpture” to reality. He appropriated the Western surrealist approach and tried to eliminate the “heroic quality” of the figure. He installed the figures on the sidewalk, at the front gates and other common public spaces in attempt to eliminate the meaning of commemoration and narration. The platform for such scrutiny and criticism seemed to return to the early 20th century in the West, when modern artists abandoned basic functions and forms of sculpture according to traditional definition. Western traditional sculpture was uprooted, and the figures stood on engraved bases. There was a certain relationship among the base, the location of the architecture, and the urban setting. However, modern sculptors (Brancusi, Moore) integrated the base with the body of the sculpture, transforming the linear and literary commemorative form into abstract expression of the self. Furthermore, the self-efficiency of materials became a type of utopia. A sculpture no longer needed a base, but self-reference. It did not need historical reference, or linear description with words, but only to return to its material. It was no longer didactic, it was material and the process of making (compared to traditional sculpture, using Rosalind Krauss’ statement that modern sculptures are “homeless” and “nomads” (Image 5). However, in the early ’90s, due to Chinese artists’ blank abstract formalistic concepts based on Western modernism’s “aesthetic independence” and passion, they could not repeat Western modernist sculptural development. Chinese sculptors discovered sculptural platforms of their studios, and allowed sculpture to descend to earth from “heaven,” instead of considering it “homeless.” They went through a homecoming, which implies a return to reality, or a return to the masses. The appearance of Zhan Wang’s Sidewalktargeted China’s conservative “monumental sculpture” and the conceptualization of the avant-garde in the ’85 New Wave Movement. He took the position in academy but confronted reality.

During this phase, Zhan Wang portrayed various classes of people in his surroundings without an expressionist’s “naïve” perspective – an old man in Beijng’s hutongs, a young girl having her period (Girl Sitting), a young man facing choices (Man in Hesitation), etc. He depicted the figures’ psychological state through their momentary poses. There was even a slight effect of drama.

However, after June 4, 1989, China transformed rapidly - first politically, then socially and economically, and urban environments underwent drastic changes. Zhan Wang bade farewell to this phase, quickly; it vividly represents reality with the artist’s approach, and doesn’t encompass the impact of change on the Chinese psyche, or present Zhan Wang’s urge to interpret the world around him. Symbolic abstract forms were more powerful, and Zhan Wang created Attraction – Mao Suit Series. In this series, Zhan Wang explored the material and making of sculpture. Abstracting representation and enhancing symbolism, he added signifiers of the “Mao Suit.” He made the Mao suit as the shell of the body, distorted in surrealist style. The impression is not clothing worn by people, but that the clothing wears people, similar to the ancient saying, “Without the skin, where will the hair grow?” A sense of absurdity does not originate in the distorted “body” and the ruined background, but by the set of Mao suits that are complex and strange structures. They become abstract sculptures. Unlike Henri Moore’s modern sculpture that displays the material, the process of production without linear literary description or historical reference, the Mao suits have historical and political significance as Zhan Wang transforms historical reference to the material itself and dissolves original meaning in the process of “abstraction.” His Faux Rocks and Mountains extends this “abstraction” approach. The plated stainless steel Taihu shell is intriguing, because of its “cultural relic characteristics” (Mao suit, Taihu rocks) have been blurred with the boundary of natural objects.

Henri Moore emphasizes that modern sculpture is neither a cultural object (significance is not endowed by society), nor a natural object (outcome of individual talent). In Zhan Wang’s sculptures, one does not see such deduction of “neither… nor…”, but of “not only… but also…”. They are not only cultural (projections of garden of Taihu rocks and bonsai), but also materialistic (maintains the original form of Taihu rocks, emphasizing the texture of stainless steel). This is highlighted in Zhan Wang’s Extreme Nature (1996), for TEDA Economic Development zone in Tianjin. This work consists of two rocks: a piece of Huagang stone, and a scholar rock cast in stainless steel. I believe that Zhan Wang did not attempt to interpret one by representing the other, or that it is the issue of real vs. faux. Metal comes from rocks. Instead, he would like viewers to make their own judgment; the artwork tells you what you see. They are all free objects. It reminded me of the 1960s Japanese Mono-ha artist, who in 1968 used dirt to make a cylinder stuck in the hole from which the dirt was taken (Image 7). The yin and yang of the same shape and object display the freedom of the objects, and that the relationship of existence is non-existence (vice versa). This negates the oppositional concept of being and non-being.

Representing “Fetishism”

Zhan Wang’s “material is concept” idea did not entirely direct him into purely abstract philosophical thought about sculpture. On the contrary, his recent creativity shows increased interest in the relationship and dialogue between his sculptures and their external, social environment.

The tremendous change Beijing has undergone and the destruction of tradition and the past have horrendous effect on every Beijing resident in the 1990s. Past and present, traditional and modern, yesterday and today, relatives and strangers could all change momentarily. Speed and fragmentation makes modern history and the urban landscape lack depth. There is a non-linear progression of time with spatial replacement of new for old. In 1994, Zhan Wang painted the walls, pillars, doors, and windows of demolished ruins in Wangfujing, and photographed the moment of demolition, the flattened ground of the entire area two years later, and commercial buildings that were built, ie. The Oriental Plaza. This meaningless act shows helplessness and regret. In Zhan Wang’s view, painting an about-to-be lost wall shares the same meaning as uprooting a modern commercial building. They both strive to be “new” and are both “constructions.” This performance does reveal nostalgia, but displays the essence of contemporary Chinese urban landscape (flat and erasing history and depth).

In an urban space that lacks depth, a number of traditional garden Taihu rocks (faux rocks) are placed among the newly constructed high-rises. Since Taihu rocks signify people’s projections of the ancient, the faux mountains’ awkward existence in a modern metropolis reveal absence in the contemporary. Zhan Wang uses stainless steel – a modern material - to replicate the scholar rocks and highlight absence, or hollowness. It resembles a new version of the “Emperor’s outfit.” The glossy stainless steel surface shines, but is not stable or permanent. Its ever-changing reflections reveal its own void and emptiness. The “ostentation” in modern commercial goods also projects an absence of spirituality in culture. Zhan Wang has found a better approach to represent this reality. His Scholar Rocks are historical evidence, or new monuments of new venues in China’s “post-modernism.” He replicates scholar rocks with stainless steel in a Wangfujing garden. Later, Li Kaishing invested in the Oriental Plaza project, which flattened old courtyards and the former campus of the Central Academy of Fine Art. Interestingly, at the founding of the Oriental Plaza three years later, the project collected Zhan Wang’s “scholar rocks” and placed them in the lobby of the commercial building. The location is precisely where the demolished courtyard was. Such coincidence tells the story of the “cycle” of a faux mountain. He also designed a monumental scholar rock sculpture in front of the newly constructed Beijing West Station (some jokingly call such structure someone squatting to poop). Its righteous plan was not adopted. In 1998, he designed “New Beijing Map,” based on the replication of the faux mountains, focusing on the famous mountains of the country juxtaposing with the modernization of the capital, making the city garden-like to the effect of a bonsai (Image 6).

Essentially, Zhan Wang treats the city of Beijing as a new courtyard, or a “large bonsai.” It is a “strange site combining Eastern and Western cultures.” His scholar rocks are a “strange phenomenon” and a non-western and non-eastern “handicraft” that elaborates and reflects “both non-western and non-Chinese, anarchist cultural phenomena” (Image 7). The artist, in devoting himself to the production of faux mountains, represents the highest fashion of today’s society: “fetishism.” He casts stainless steel sheets over every detail of the Taihu rocks, carefully welds them together, and polishes the surface until it shines (like preparing an object to become a commercial good). Like ivory balls and jade sculptures that one can hold to appreciate or sell, they are also art. Zhan Wang experiences the three phases of transforming a natural object to a functional object to the object of truth. His performance reveals the modern society’s production of goods, from raw material to distribution. The difference is: Zhan Wang adopts a personal “handicraft studio” approach instead of one of modern mass production. In modern industrial production mode, an individual is in charge of one step in the process and does not monitor all of it.

Zhan Wang gained insight on “social” and “cultural” aspects of the object through his experiment with handicrafts. People can be distinguished by the objects they own. And the reasons for differentiation are people’s regulation and shaping of the object, or value ratio. For instance, one designates gold to be the most precious metal. It is based on fetishism and is also a process of projecting people’s own values. Consequentially, it leads to the incessant production of commercial goods; their distribution in society is not imposed by its producer. They are free, but enslaved by commercial fetishism. Zhan Wang projected the metaphor of “festishism” onto the Great Wall. From the early 1990s, Zheng Lianjie and Wang Jin had used Coca Cola as construction material, making “bricks” for the Great Wall (an analogy for the impact of globalization and materialism on ancient China, the Great Wall is transformed from military protection and a symbol of nationalism to the forefront of economic globalization). Here, I reiterate Zhan Wang’s own words, “Crowning gold teeth for the Great Wall.”

“Strangely, the Great Wall had almost become the symbol of our spirit. People are no long concerned with the logic or coherency of its original meaning. I am crowning these two symbols together to pose a question that deals with the ideal of the masses.”

The process of crowning “gold teeth” is like renovating the city wall in the past. I first asked workers to carry their bricks from the city wall to the Great Wall. Then, I asked my assistants to “pile” the missing parts of the city wall, one by one, to restore its original form. The golden bricks from afar look like the “golden teeth of the Great Wall.”

After a few investigations, the location of repair was confirmed on the ruined Great Wall west of Badaling. Crossing two mountains, we found an almost entirely intact area - a ruined section missing two arrow windows (~20m). With detailed measurements, it required approximately 250 whole bricks to repair this location (plus fragmented bricks). Once I returned to my studio, we welded over 250 bricks with stainless steel sheets (2mm thick), polished them, and plated then with gold. The material is durable and glamorous, with a low production cost.

Homecoming Ritual

Zhan Wang expanded his “scholar rocks” series to the Himalayas, the ocean, and into space. As Western sculpture extended to natural spaces in the 1960s through landscape art. Western critics attempted to locate it between architecture and nature, defining it as “neither architecture, nor scenic.” Zhan Wang’s work is irrelevant to landscape art, because he does not create abstract sculptural (or architectural) forms. Using stainless steel “hollow rocks” (or bricks), the artist penetrates the material concept of the sculptures into nature at large, not through the direct physical relationship as construction projects, but imagination and association of “rocks” with nature. In Crossing Rivers – floating rock project (2000), they drifted to the ocean at large. Since this natural object was to “return purity to its original form”. Eternal drift is their fate. In order for them to be eternal, he engraved them with Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish, and other languages, hoping that fishermen would return them to the ocean. Based on his imagination, he used stainless steel to replicate meteorites, and planned to send them to space. The artist believed that a meteorite is “showered from the sky” or is a fragment of the “body” of heaven, associating the story of Nuwa repairing the sky. She used “five-color stones” to repair the sky. Zhan Wang planned to send “faux rocks” to the peak of the Himalayas. The Himalayas, the shared oceans, and outer space would become the “exhibition space” for these “faux rocks.” They have been the home for these stones, and natural stone and steel born out of stone will return to their home. We inevitably feel sad about what was the initial home for humanity. Perhaps, the contemporary will always be homeless.

Zhan Wang’s “compromised conceptual art” offers a nuanced, humorous, and sorrowful reality. His glamorous and kitsch metallic objects do not offer the same playfulness and provocationin comparison to the works by American artist Jeff Koons. Zhan Wang’s character is the Chinese “middle way,” or he can be considered the “middle man” with traditional Chinese literati characteristics of being “impartial and moderate.”

1. Zhan Wang, Conceptual Sculpture – Materializing Concept, Meishu Yanjiu, No. 3, Iss. 91, pp 72-73, 1998.
2. Interview with Zhan Wang, Enlightenment in Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art, 145-156.
3. See Gao Minglu, Enlightenment Born from Diligence, Concept Born from Craftsmanship – Methodology in Xu Bing’s Art, Taipei Chengbin Gallery Publication, June, 2000.
4. Zhan Wang, New Art Crash Course Production Line, 1997, Unpublished.
5. See Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, published in October, Massachucette Institute of Technology Publication, 1979, pp. 31-44.
6. Alexandra Munroe, “The Law of Situation: Mono-ha and beyond the Sculpture Paradigm” in Japanese Art After 1945, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1994.
7. Zhan Wang, New Beijing Map, (Project No. 2), 1998.
8. Zhan Wang, On Faux Mountains and Rocks, 1997, unpublished.
9. Zhan Wang, Crowning Gold Teeth for the Great Wall, 2001, unpublished.

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