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The Art Experimentation of Zhan Wang

An art critic must be patient and follow an artist for some time before he is able to identify the changing tendencies in an artist’s work. Likewise, an artist who wishes to have his body of work examined as a “case study” must also have patience, which is to say the changes in his work must have their own development that can be traced to the investigations of the artist, and not merely changing to meet the latest trend. My observation of Zhan Wang began in 1994 with his solo exhibition Emptiness. Empty (Kong Ling Kong), at the Art Gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. An audience accustomed to labeling artworks as sculptures or installations would have difficulties because Zhan’s method is based precisely on expanding the notion of that which cannot be labeled. Whether it be his personal works such as Cleaning Ruinsand the series of Artificial Rocks, or collaborative works as part of the “Three Person Art Studio” with Sui Jianguo and Yu Fan titled Woman. Site and Realty Development Plan, each form their own system. The major changes of artistic method suggest the possibility of independent development and expansion in each artistic genre, while they also complicate the dialogue between genres. Two major characteristics that stand out in Zhan’s artworks attracted my attention. First there is what he intends to say: sometimes these works are a dialogue between himself and the violently changing Chinese society. Second is his pursuit of an artistic language: the constantly changing materials and exhibition methods reflect his pursuit of communication.

In the book Experimental Artists in late 90’s of China, I discussed these two aspects. This article is a record of my ongoing observations of Zhan and it also reflects his continual experimentation with regards to the content of artistic discourse and the form this might take.

[translated by Li Yuan]

The Temptation of Ruins

In describing his work Kong Ling Kong—Temptation (1994)—a set of clothes molded in the shapes of dramatic body movements frozen in time—Zhan uses the metaphor of a molting cicada. The larva has slowly burrowed its way out of its underground abode and painfully frees itself from its former body, flying away while leaving behind an empty carapace – this is one the most cherished Chinese metaphors regarding “transformation.” Excavations of ancient burial sites have uncovered numerous cicadas made of stone or jade, representing the highest state of transformation that can be achieved, a type of immortality: the body has gone beyond its previous existence and achieved eternity. What inspired Zhan in Temptation, however, is not the idea of eternity signified by the emerging winged cicada, but rather the translucent carapace that is left behind. The carapace is proof of the transformation of the cicada, but it does not necessarily prove that the cicada that emerged has reached a higher state of freedom. In a conversation with the artist in 1998, he spoke about this metaphor: “Temptation was the realization of a concept I’ve had since childhood. The empty carapace that falls from the tree branches once the cicada emerges is the record of a dramatic struggle. In this struggle, a new existence emerges from its old body. But where exactly is this new body? We do not know what it has become, is it dead or alive, in heaven or in hell.” What the carapace records is the pain of rebirth and transformation, and it proves the yearning for an imagined freedom, but not that this freedom has been attained. For Zhan, this intersection between yearning and pain makes it the perfect expression of desire: “There is no trace of unhappiness [with its current state], but at the same time it gives the impression of a wish for a better life – and from this, temptation is produced.” At the same time, Zhan is intrigued by the immateriality of the carapace: “It is hard to imagine that something that contains so many meanings for the Chinese, can be lighter than an eyelash.” Temptation, in actuality, is a series of “human carapaces” composed of cloth and adhesive. He has also contorted Mao Suits, what were once the symbolic apparel of all Chinese people, into these distorted arrangements, but the human body has been excavated leaving behind a cloth shell. The extremely distorted positions of each sculptural form give people the impression of passion, pain, torture, and the fight between life and death, survival and extinction. However, Zhan is not engaging with these themes. When this work was first exhibited in the exhibition Kong Ling Kong, Karen Smith described them as “contorted clothing writhing in empty agony. Kong meaning emptiness, referring not only to the surrounding space of the gallery but the space within the hollow sets of clothing.”

Emptiness, struggle, suspense, these unique human forms are not made as an expression of an individual form, rather they have become one of Zhan’s “symbols.” Containing desire and pain, this symbol has the potential to be inserted in different combinations and different environments. In a particular environment at a particular time gives desire and pain a special meaning. Suspended on scaffolding, it emphasizes unsettledness and anxiety; displayed above a pile of yellow dirt, the elements immediately develop a particular kinship, leading you to think about the return of the body to dirt and ashes upon death. The most dramatic installation of this work, however, featured these human forms placed in the ruins of a half demolished building. Suddenly, within this architectural ruin, these “human carapaces” became united with one another, emphasizing the loss of the human subject. What they demonstrate is the temptation of ruins and damaged objects and the attraction of destruction and pain.

What is being destroyed and ruined is not a real human, it is like an abandoned building or empty shell. In Temptation, this idea of a “lost subject” was perhaps not clearly expressed, but became clearer the following year as Zhan Wang, Sui Jianguo and Yu Fan collaborated as part of the “Three Person Art Studio,” picking through the pile of forgotten roof tiles on the demolition site of the former Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) to organize a performance/installation project titled Realty Development Plan. In 1995 “Three Person Art Studio” created a series of art proposals, the emphasis being for the “artist to directly engage with society, communicating with the people through different artistic languages.” Zhan and Sui Jianguo, as part of this project, established a fake ruin, with themselves the “missing subjects.”

Much has been said elsewhere regarding the relocation of CAFA. It is sufficient to note that the highest institution for fine arts training in the country was formerly located near Beijing’s renowned commercial district, Wangfujing. In 1994, the school received notice that it would be relocated to a new site in a matter of months, as the Wangfujing site had been leased (or sold) to a real estate developer, and would be torn down. Several hundreds of millions of dollars, supposedly under the direction of Hong Kong tycoon Li Kai-shing, was being pumped in to build a new mega-mall on the site. Although this plan was opposed by students and teachers, as well as artists and intellectuals in Beijing (who felt the relocation of the Academy was symbolic of the violence and intrusion of the market economy), the Northern-most buildings of the Academy (housing the sculpture department) had already been reduced to ruins before the debate was settled.

Two days after leaving the old CAFA site, Zhan, Sui Jianguo and Yu Fan returned to the ruins of their former classrooms to carry out their project. All three had attended CAFA as students and taught at the academy. Zhan’s work was to place small clay practice sculptures that the students had left behind onto the bricks of former windowsills in the classroom, through the window the new shopping mall could be seen rising in the background. The combination of abandoned clay human figures and the cold structural frame of the new building reminds one of the work Temptationdisplayed in a ruin, however, here the “missing subject” is clearly the students from the Sculpture Department. Sui Jianguo’s contribution makes this even more apparent: after cleaning an abandoned studio, he placed an empty teacher’s desk at the head of the room, added rows of desks for the students and lined the room with bookshelves loaded with broken bricks.

The relocation of the Central Academy of Fine Arts was only one example of millions in Beijing and throughout China from the 90’s on. Demolition and relocation became a part of everyday urban life in the 90’s. The Chinese economic “miracle” brought with it waves of investment from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and from further afield. The dark and grey old buildings were demolished and replaced with shimmering new hotels and commercial shopping malls. Within the city, there was certainly no lack of complaints about this forced relocation and destruction, but on the whole, there was no organized resistance movement. The main reason for this was a lack of unified purpose: for some residents, relocation meant having to leave their community, but for others (including the teachers at CAFA), it meant the promise of better and larger houses.

From a theoretical perspective, relocation and demolition is a precondition for the modernization of the Capitol, but this precondition brings with it the scattering of historical neighborhoods, and Beijing slowly began to develop into another kind of city. This type of urban condition is the context and material for Temptation and Realty Development Plan. The result was to collectively reflect a particular expression and feeling about modern ruins: “relocation and demolition.” Unlike ruins from war, “demolition” does not focus on the tragedy of the human condition, but rather on the linked process of destruction and re-construction and the stress these immense and violent changes place on people’s lives and their psychologies. In the process of demolition the human subject has not been destroyed, rather it has been transplanted. This experience is not a collective tragedy, but one of individual chaos and disorientation. Although the process of demolition is something that all large metropolises must face, the scale and ongoing process of demolition in China these past few years and the impact that this has had the development of modern art, cannot be underestimated. Beijing in the 90’s was a scene of ongoing chaos and destruction – although demolition also meant regeneration, several areas that had been demolished lay in a state of ruin for many years. These spaces existed outside of everyday space and time: time disappeared in these “black holes”, neither going forward nor backwards. The history of these ruins had already been destroyed, but nobody knew their future. Inspired by this situation, the artistic style of “demolition” created by Zhan and other artists at that time captured a particular “contemporary,” a “floating present” that was formed from the deconstruction of the process of the continuity of time.

Internalizing this type of temporariness and un-stableness into his own personal participation, Zhan designed a performance he called Cleaning Ruins. Here, his work became the object of demolition: he selected a half demolished building to “reconstruct,” cleaning it out, giving door frames another coat of paint, and mending cracks in the wall. However, before the fixing up could be completed, the building was bulldozed. This is the proposal for the work:

94 Cleaning Ruins Project – Notes and Summary

Date: 12 November 1994
Location: A building in the process of demolition on the East side of Wangfujing Dajie.

A Hong Kong businessman is investing in the development of Wangfujing commercial district. The small and simple old houses will be demolished despite being wonderful examples of the fusion between Western and Chinese styles. They are unable to escape their fate for the Capital needs to modernize. It needs a commercial district. On the 12 November, I spent one day renovating and cleaning a half destroyed old residence.

Process:

  1. Cleaning and repairing a pillar that showed a streak of red brick, and repainting this with red paint.
  2. Cleaning and repainting with white paint any remaining doors, or window frames.
  3. Using a cloth to clean any decorative tiles.Using paint to paint the walls.

Tools: Brush, cleaner, broom, cloth, dustbin, assorted colors of paint.

Collaborators: One assistant

Result: At sunset that evening, a bulldozer set to work and continued to demolish the building. After a few days this site was completely flattened.

Surface

Zhan’s Temptation (pl. 13) is a group of bodiless figures frozen in dramatic poses; they signify the emptiness left by the missing subject (see the essay “Demolition Project” in this catalogue). The idea of emptiness also underlies Artificial Rock (1996) (pl. 16). But this stainless-steel sculpture only copies the “façade” of a traditional rock: it is open at the back. In this case “empty” is the space around the object reduced to pure surface.

Temptation is about the state of transience: the hollowed human shells register the torture and pain at the moment of the subject’s disappearance. Transience is again the theme of Artificial Rock, but it has become an intrinsic quality of the object. The glittering surface of the rock reflects ever-changing images and further distorts them. Like a magic mirror, it does not confirm what is already there, but has the power of generating new illusions. In this way the rock acquires materiality and subjectivity. Zhan can thus conceive his stainless-steel rock as a Postmodern “monument” whose surface accounts for everything.

Temptation is one of a series of works by Zhan concerned with urban ruins in contemporary China. The series has evolved without an master plan, while earlier works often led to later works, this evolving project also reframes the context to which the Artificial Rocks should be read. Over the past three years, this large project gradually unfolded from a small piece first shown in the 1995 Beijing-Berlin exhibition: a stainless-steel rock sat on a tripod; underneath it lay scattered fragments of the original rock, which had served as the mold. As Karen Smith observed: “Here the emphasis was on contrast, one that could be seen and made by the audience, for once the molding of the replica had been completed, the original stone used to form the steel skin was smashed and laid in pieces at the foot of the man-made imitation.”

The relationship between the stainless-steel rock and its stone model preoccupied Zhan in 1995 and 1996. By applying a pliable sheet of steel over an ornamental rock and hammering it thoroughly, he could achieve a form that reproduced every minute undulation on the surface of the stone. A large group of such imitations were made, their models ranging from geometric granite blocks to intricate ornamental rocks; the piece in this exhibition is one of the ornamental rock types. Meanwhile, Zhan also began to produce a growing body of documents—statements, project proposals and summaries, interviews, and short essays—to accompany the actual works. One of his earliest pieces of writing about these rocks contains this statement:

Placed in a traditional courtyard, rockery satisfied people’s desire to return to Nature, by offering them stone fragments from Nature. But huge changes in the world have made this traditional ideal increasingly out of date. I have thus used stainless steel to duplicate and transform natural rockery into manufactured forms. The material’s glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance make it an ideal medium to convey new dreams [in contemporary China].

We must realize that for Zhan, “glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance” are not necessarily bad qualities, and that his stainless-steel rocks are definitely not designed as a satire or mockery of contemporary visual culture. Rather, both the original rockeries and his copies are material forms selected or created for people’s spiritual needs; their different materiality suits different needs to different times. The problem he addresses is thus one of authenticity: which rock—the original or his copy—more genuinely reflects contemporary Chinese culture? Interestingly, the Chinese call natural rockeries jiashanshi, or “fake mountain rocks.” According to Zhan, such rocks, even if made of real stones, have truly become “fakes” when used to decorate a contemporary environment. But his stainless-steel rocks, though artificial, signify the “genuine” of our own time.

Gradually the focus of the artist’s experiments shifted from the relationship between the stainless-steel rocks and their models, to the relationship between these stainless-steel rocks and their environment. From the beginning making these rocks was connected to a critique of Beijing’s urban planning and construction. Beginning in the eighties and at its height during the nineties, the many high-rises built in Beijing rapidly transformed the appearance of this ancient city. Mostly adapting Western Modern or Postmodern styles, these structures have also incorporated certain native elements to look “Chinese.” Such “incorporation,” however, is often superficial and stereotypical: the two most frequently used formulas are topping a building with a Chinese tile roof or adding some traditional ornamental rocks to the courtyard. Zhan disagrees with the opinion that Beijing should be kept in its old form, but he is also dissatisfied with the random and undigested borrowing of Western or traditional forms. He hopes to create art forms that can genuinely reflect changes in a traditional Chinese city – works for “today’s fast-paced and competitive society,” in which an “insatiable lust for material wealth has taken the place of the detached leisure and comforts favored by intellectuals who adhere to their traditional heritage.”

Believing that his stainless-steel rockeries represent “authentic” Chinese culture in the Postmodern condition, Zhan developed New Map of Beijing: Today’s and Tomorrow’s Capital—Rockery Remolding Plan in 1997 (fig. 16.1–3). According to this plan, he will replace the natural rocks in front of a number of modern buildings with stainless-steel rocks made from those natural rocks. One of these buildings is the much-debated New Beijing Railroad Station, a giant monolithic building in the shape of a large arch topped with a traditional pavilion. The arch symbolizes the station’s role as Beijing’s main gate; the pavilion is modeled upon an old wood-framed structure on Coal Hill in the former Imperial complex. Many people have criticized the building’s hybrid style and wasteful design. But Zhan argues that one should not dismiss this and similar buildings, because hybridity and irony are necessary expressions of contemporary life. The important task is to make a genuine effort to refine such expressions in art. His solution is to replace the natural rockeries in front of the railroad station with stainless-steel copies (figs. 16.2 and 16.3). Half-genuine and half-mocking, his project proposal lists the following reasons for the copies’ superiority:

After buffing, the stainless steel will never rust. This will satisfy people’s desire for an ideal material.After buffing, the stainless steel will reflect the colors of the surroundings. Nearly colorless itself, the rock will change its colors according to the environment.After buffing, the mirror-like surface of the stainless-steel rock will show the minute details of the original model. Anything it reflects will be distorted and turned into fragmentary images. This will inspire people’s dreams and new hopes.Compared with gold and silver, stainless steel is vastly cheaper. But because it contains a tiny amount of gold, it appears brilliant, lustrous, and glamorous. Using this material one can “pay less for more.”

In sum, the most important thing about the stainless-steel rock is that it will be in harmony with the environment, and it will always keep up with the times [because it is only a self-reflecting surface]!

[original text from Wu Hung. Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, 1999, pp. 130–5]

The Breakthrough of Floatation

As Arjun Appadurai’s writes in the introduction to the well known work The Social Life of Things, in discussing the movement of an object and its variable definitions: once an object is created and enters circulation, its life loses its original meaning and becomes a target for re-creation and consultation. This theory can help us to understand contemporary artworks because these never have a practical use, and all of their cultural and social meaning depends upon circulation: from the exhibition to the auction, from China to overseas, from artists to collectors. From the global point of view, not only must works of art realize their value of existence through circulation or “floatation”, but also artists themselves become a target for “floatation”. On the one hand we have our “drifting (or nomadic) artist,” on the other, “artists with no nationality.” “Local artists” based in their own area are becoming fewer and fewer, or are becoming less real, and come to be marketed differently.

So when last year I saw Zhan throw a huge steel stone into water and let it float, I couldn’t help but think of a connection between this new method of exhibition with Appadurai’s theory. I do not mean that this Indian anthropologist’s works have directly influenced Zhan, I mean the artist could use the artwork itself to express this rethinking of art. Zhan’s first Floating Rock is in Shenzhen, Huaqiao City. 3 meters in length and 2 meters high, it is part of the collection and an exhibit of the 2nd Contemporary Sculpture Arts Annual Exhibition, 1999. Other proud landmarks in Huaqiao City include the well-known “Splendid China,” “China Folk Culture Villages,” “Windows of the World” etc, which occupy an entire mile-long street. Watching from the highway, Zhan’s shining Floating Rock seems to give the transplanted mini Eiffel Towers or Great Walls a wonderful footnote.

One day I visited Zhan Wang and he told me about his plan to attend a sculpture exhibition in Qingdao soon after. He had decided to throw a steel stone into the open sea, whose surface was carved with the languages of many countries. We started to talk about the territorial waters and open sea, wind directions and the ocean current, how to transport the stone and how to film it. Much of what was talked about was collected in Zhan’s final proposal:

Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles
—Floating Rock Drifts On The Open Sea

This artificial steel rock was copied from a natural rock outside of Beijing. The method begins with copying the surface of the rock with steel, then welding the steel pieces in order to seal them together, then polishing them at the end. We then arrive at an artificial rock, which follows the same shape as the natural one but is instead made of shining metal stone. It symbolizes the endless conflict, which is pervasive in human beings’ desires both in the world of nature and of man. Since it is made of metal, hollow and sealed, it can float or be hung [like a painting].

I decided to send my rock out into the open sea as an artistic test, because nationalities or individuals occupy all space on the earth except for the open sea, the South Pole and the North Pole. By “open sea” I mean the sea does not belong to any