Material Illusion: Adrift with the Conceptual Sculptor Zhan Wang

Britta Erickson

Scenario 1: Rocks of mysterious origin plummet to earth. Late twentieth century scientists study them for clues to the origin of life, the earth's relationship to Mars, and the cataclysmic extinction of the dinosaurs. Manufactured rocks of even greater mystery hurtle from the earth into space, carrying hints of human existence to the far corners of the universe. The rocks of terrestrial origin are of stainless steel, fashioned in the exact form of the meteorites that landed here over myriad millennia: what fell to earth returns in surrogate form to space (fig. 1).

Scenario 2: A large stainless steel boulder bobs about on the ocean, its highly reflective surface bearing silent witness to the passing seasons, the sunrises and sunsets, the infinite blues presented by endless sea and sky. It follows no set course, and is untraceable. Perhaps fish find it curious; a whale may bounce songs off the curved steel; spy satellites may record its existence. It is passive but free, with an uncertain future (fig. 2).

Both scenarios are the creations of the conceptual sculptor, Zhan Wang. While the second has been realized, the first faces the practical obstacle of the monolithic expense involved in launching large objects into space. The first stainless steel meteorite of the series has been made, a copy of the largest meteorite ever recovered, a 1.7 ton megalith that fell in northeastern China in 1976.1 Zhan Wang fashioned a reproduction of the meteorite, cast it in iron, then copied the iron version by pounding stainless steel sheets onto its surface. Although the artist has located the second rock he wishes to reproduce for the "New Meteorite Sky-Patching Project," the manager of the Beijing clock tower where it resides remains suspicious of his motives. He fears Zhan Wang plans to copy the meteorite for the collection of another clock tower.

The "New Meteorite Sky-Patching Project" thus has encountered practical difficulties of two extremes, ranging from an insecure individual's petty jealousies to the impersonal bureaucratic decisions and economic realities governing access to space exploration/exploitation resources. The heart of the project reaches beyond mundane human machinations, however, to metaphysical musings on the situation of human beings amidst the vastness of time and space. Characteristically, Zhan Wang's projects plumb these extremes: he wrestles with the prosaic particulars of day-to-day life and considers the grand eternal questions of human existence. Typically, his concern for the mundane focuses on the city of Beijing, where he has resided since birth. When he addresses major issues he views them from a universalist perspective, pushing them beyond postcolonialist issues haunting the reception of contemporary Chinese art in the West, and to a lesser extent in China.

From early in his career at the Sculpture Research Institute associated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Zhan Wang has been engaged both with sculptural projects and with installation and performance art. His work with the latter media has gradually freed his sculpture from the restrictions inherent in the Chinese twentieth century sculptural tradition. The concept of sculpture as a fine art was introduced to China about a century ago, when art students returned from studying academic realist sculpture in Paris and other European art centers. Prior to this, elitists considered sculpture a craft because it required manual labor. Socialist realism displaced academic realism mid-century, and that approach dominated art education into the 1980s. Zhan Wang is among the iconoclasts who introduced bold changes to free sculpture from its ossified state.

In 1997 Zhan Wang orchestrated an event, the "New Art Training Workshop," commenting sardonically on the state of art education in China (fig. 3). Participants were to select a plaster copy of a famous Western sculpture, of the type used as models in Chinese art academies, and create a new work of art by covering their chosen piece with clay. If the original was not greatly changed, the resulting work would retain the feel of the masterpiece and be worthy of widespread approbation. A flyer announcing the workshop described it aims, followed by a list of instructions. The flyer stated:

*Offered here is the fastest and easiest method of becoming a great artist, the only way to instantly create works on the level of a master *Only requires five minutes *Enables you to experience the glorious acclaim of the master, and create the works of a master

Included in the list of eight "Instructions and important points" are:

3. [Apply clay] to the existing sculpture, making certain to cover all contours with at least a very thin layer. The thickness of this layer is up to you, but if the original work is completely obscured then no-one will recognize your talent. 4. Although you no longer need ponder questions of modeling, composition, or form, you still can give free reign to your own style and technique; and although your work is inseparable from the original, you can create anew on the surface. 5. You need not assiduously guard the secret of the original within the clay sculpture, but if no-one asks then you can pretend not to know and say nothing. 6. . . . it is best to do the work with your own hands. Only this way will you leave a mark, proving that the work is yours. 7. Do not forget to photograph.

In China, for decades the safest way to survive as an artist and the surest means of winning approval had been to adhere to established norms, modifying them slightly to fit changing circumstances. Mirroring this, a participant in the New Art Training Workshop added clay to a reproduction of a Western classical style portrait bust, transforming it into the semblance of an iconic Cultural Revolution hero, the peasant Chen Yonggui. Works of art produced during China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) may have depicted revolutionary subjects such as model workers, peasants, and soldiers, but their style was conservatively rooted in nineteenth century Europe. While the creation of a Chen Yonggui bust in the New Art Training Workshop is a tongue-in-cheek retro look at Cultural Revolution artistic practice, it comments too on the subsequent glacial rate of change in art education. "Important point" number one of the workshop is "Do not look upon this merely as making a sculpture or becoming a master sculptor: you can draw broader conclusions from the experience." With this, Zhan Wang steps back to situate artistic practice within a broader context: as in art, so in life, it is safer and simpler to stick with the tried and true.

Zhan Wang's career as an iconoclast began with "In a Twinkling" (1993), an installation of superrealist figure sculptures. The figures' style was not new but the method of installation was: after creating a group of figures in poses of arrested movement, Zhan Wang propped them in unlikely positions outside a building, creating a surrealistic vision of a world gone awry. Subsequently honing in on the qualities of surrealism and unease, Zhan Wang arrived at his first major work, the "Temptation" series (1994; fig. 4). "Temptation" has as its core the "Mao suit," a nationalistic symbol of China's twentieth-century political society. The artist employed a stiffening agent to form Mao suits into contorted shapes which he then arranged singly or in groups in desolated settings-an empty frozen field, a half-demolished building, a garbage dump. The suits are empty, like a cicada's cast abandoned by a creature that has metamorphosed into a more complex life form. In this, "Temptation" suggests hope for China as it emerges from a long period of politically-dominated society. But the contorted forms of the empty suits insist on the agony of the creatures that dwelt in those vacated housings-agony experienced at the very least during the change. The imagery of this work profoundly shocked many viewers. Most "Temptation" installations were short-lived, existing for little longer than the time required to be photographed. The exception was "Free and Natural Space," a gallery installation in which hollow Mao suits hung suspended in their fall from scaffolding or rested writhing on a mound of dirt. Theatrical lighting heightened the drama of the moment, the contorted suits decontextualized in a perpetual macabre dance.

With "Temptation," Zhan Wang emphatically shifted his mode of sculptural production into the realms of installation and conceptual art. He calls what he does "conceptual sculpture," a neologism he coined with the art critic Yin Shuangxi. In essays on the theoretical underpinnings of this new sculptural mode, Zhan Wang describes it as unique in its emphasis on the inevitability of the concept-material combination. The chosen medium arises naturally from the concept: they are a seamless indivisible pair. He believes that conceptual sculpture is something related to Western conceptual art but different, in that it does not attempt to approach a pure conceptuality. Perhaps it would not have arisen without the impetus of Western conceptual art, but it is deeply rooted in Chinese traditional philosophy, where idea and material are not as strictly divided as they are in Western philosophy.2

"Temptation" was the product of a society undergoing drastic evolution. In 1994 the seat of that society, Beijing, was itself undergoing wrenching change. For two decades Beijing has been the site of endless demolition and construction, with very little deemed precious enough to escape the tidal wave of rebuilding. Towering skyscrapers of glass and steel replace entire neighborhoods of tile-roofed courtyard homes, eradicating a comfortable and familiar way of life. Saddened by this irreversible process and powerless to halt it, Zhan Wang staged his "Ruin Cleaning Project" (1994; fig. 5). During a break in the demolition of a large city center site, the artist renovated what remained of a partially destroyed house: he cleaned the walls and floors, washed the windows, added fresh paint. That was stage one of the project. Stage two took place when bulldozers ploughed through the building, razing the artist's work indiscriminately along with the home. The project's final stage arrived when that plot of land had been completely redeveloped, testimony to the individual's utter insignificance in the face of "modernization's" ineluctability. (And yet we must note that ironically, Zhan Wang's artistic intervention also highlights the way in which this very situation can provide a platform for a strong-willed and inventive individual.)

Beijing's changing face, with its awkward and jarring juxtapositions of old and new, catalyzed Zhan Wang's next major series of works, the "Artificial Jiashanshi" (1995- ; fig. 6). That series introduced stainless steel into his oeuvre, a medium seemingly inevitably suited to the project at hand, in the manner posited by his theory of conceptual sculpture. Often in cities throughout China, large strangely shaped rocks are grouped outside entrances to new skyscrapers in an attempt to associate those shining towers with respected traditional aesthetics. The rocks are called "jiashanshi," literally fake mountain rocks. (In the West, they are commonly termed scholars' rocks.) Traditionally, when a person lived in a city and was therefore unable to form a direct connection with nature by traversing the mountains, she could enjoy the same spiritual experience by mentally wandering through the substitute mountainscape of a "jiashanshi." For this reason such rocks historically formed a crucial element in city gardens, and small "jiashanshi" found their way to indoor settings.

Fiddling with some discarded foil wrappers one evening, Zhan Wang noticed that the chance arrangement of wadded foil resembled nothing more than a group of "jiashanshi." This revelation catalyzed an ongoing chain of musings. "Jiashanshi" of a shiny modern material could stand as a metaphor for many aspects of contemporary life, with a modern external guise but essentially rooted in traditional life. Furthermore, they would complement the new style of building much better than genuine "jiashanshi": those drably earth-toned rocks all but disappear next to the new buildings' brash exteriors.

In 1995 the most hotly debated of the new buildings was the new West Train Station. Characterized by an awkward blending of old and new architectural styles, it appealed to the general population, but sophisticates found it vulgar and ugly. Zhan Wang felt that a group of "jiashanshi" fabricated from stainless steel would stand as an example of old and new seamlessly combined: arranged in front of the train station they would bring to the location a conceptual unity not inherent in the original architectural program. From here, Zhan Wang embarked on two linked projects, one a plan to remake Beijing by replacing genuine "jiahshanshi" with his new creations, "Artificial Jiashanshi" (fake "fake mountain rocks"!). The second project was the creation of actual "Artificial Jiashanshi," in contrast to planning their theoretical deployment around the capital.

The plan to give Beijing a face-lift culminated in the 1997 "New Picture of Beijing: Today and Tomorrow's Capital-Rockery Remolding Plan." Two parts comprise this work: a manifesto and an annotated map of Beijing, the latter including "before" and "after" illustrations of the buildings targeted for improvement through the addition of stainless steel "Artificial Jiashanshi" (fig. 7). The manifesto declares the advantages of this plan:

1. After stainless steel has been polished it has the unique quality of never rusting; thus, it will fulfill the people's most idealistic expectations of a material. 2. After polishing, stainless steel reflects the colors of its surroundings so that it has essentially no color of its own, changing according to alterations in its environment. 3. Following polishing the stainless steel combines a mirror surface with the texture and contours of natural stone. Everything reflected on its irregular surface appears twisted and broken. The merit of this lies in its ability to inspire in people all kinds of fantasies and new hopes. 4. In comparison to gold and silver, stainless steel is a relatively cheap material . . . yet so glittering as to appear exorbitantly costly: you get twice the result with half the outlay.  *Finally, and most important, because stainless steel is able to change with its surroundings, it will never again encounter the problem of not keeping up with the changing times.

In 1995 Zhan Wang created the first "Artificial Jiashanshi," made as all subsequent pieces have been, by pounding sheets of stainless steel onto the surface of a genuine "jiashanshi." Many small pieces of steel must be pounded onto the rock's surface, removed and welded together, then finally polished to a high sheen in which all seams vanish (fig. 8). It is an extremely laborious process, but then the artist had previous experience with labor intensive sculpture, having worked for two years as a jade carver in the early 1980s. As Zhan Wang perfected the techniques involved in creating "Artificial Jianshanshi," he produced ever larger and more complex pieces, traveling to different provinces to locate rare and compelling originals. Stainless steel pounded onto rocks-rocks of many kinds, not just "jiashanshi"-and then polished has become Zhan Wang's preferred medium, confirming his focus on surfaces and on illusory metamorphoses of material: "Temptation" involved changing the material qualities of cloth from soft to hard, allowing the formation of a hollow space within the Mao suits; the "New Art Training Workshop" created surface-only new works of art; and "Artificial Jiashanshi" similarly construct works of art around an original object, in this case almost exactly mimicking the form but altering the appearance. We are left to ponder what is, was, or might have been within.

After Zhan Wang had been working with stainless steel for several years, he described his feelings about it thus: "In my series of works copying 'jiashanshi,' I force the imagination to play upon the texture of the original material. By way of the mirror surface of the copy, I can induce a most direct and pure response from the viewer. Such visions produced through experience of the material nurture the life of the human spirit."3 Instead of being a vehicle for practical transformations of society, as in the "New Picture of Beijing: Today and Tomorrow's Capital-Rockery Remolding Plan," the steel replicas of rocks became a means of expressing complex feelings about life. The two major projects described earlier, the "New Meteorite Sky-Patching Project" (2000- ) and "Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles-Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea" (2000), are Zhan Wang's most metaphysical productions to date. Fittingly, the technical requirements of these works, the extent to which the artist must become physically and mentally engaged with his chosen medium, are extreme. It is an all-consuming process. In both cases the ideal denouement is to send the work of art away from the artist, so that he will most likely never see or hear of it again. This differs from the typical way in which an artist launches a work into the world, seeking a new appreciative home for it in a public or private collection: here, the works of art seek their own homes away from humankind (fig. 9).

"This is a piece of art created specifically to be exhibited on the open sea. If by any chance you pick it up, please put it back into the sea. The artist thanks you from afar." Zhan Wang inscribed this message on the floating rock in five languages, along with his address and telephone number, so that someone chancing upon the sculpture can notify him of its progress. Were he to wish to track the rock more reliably, it would be next to impossible. Very few satellites have the capacity to record the presence of such a small object. (When I suggested to the National Reconnaissance Office that they might try to locate the floating rock as a project to spice up their data analysts' days, they replied that their work was already fascinating enough, thank you!4) A global positioning system device could be attached to the rock, regularly relaying its coordinates to a receiver-but would require such a large battery that the rock would sink. The rock is truly on its own by both choice and necessity.

Studying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Zhan Wang ascertained that beyond twelve nautical miles from land, the ocean is considered international waters, belonging to no-one. Accordingly, he rented a boat and dropped his polished stainless steel boulder into the Yellow Sea between China and South Korea, beyond the twelve nautical mile limit, where different currents might carry it to the South China Sea or the Pacific, and thence to almost anywhere. As the artist has commented, out in the open sea there is no government, no rules, no society. To drift around in such a place, his spirit is very willing. But the reality is that the body cannot survive in such a space: its existence requires society's structure and support.5

Unlike "Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles," the "New Meteorite Sky-Patching Project" does not turn on a fantasy of unencumbered spiritual freedom: instead, it positions the individual in a relationship of responsibility to the universe. This work expressly recognizes that the universe is out of balance, and suggests humankind may attempt to restore order. As Zhan Wang's written statement of the project's aims relates, "Ancient Chinese folklore tells of the creator goddess Nuwa patching holes in the heavens with five-color stone blocks. . . . The Chinese people believe that when a stone falls from the sky, the universe will lose its balance. . . . Meteorites constantly fall to earth. I cannot devote my life to forging new meteorites and patching the sky, but I can make a gesture." We are given the sense that if every individual would make a small effort, the universe would be renewed.

The "New Meteorite Sky-Patching Project" and "Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles" fall into a very rare category of art, that which conveys a universal message, cast in a widely comprehensible form. No extensive knowledge of art history or art theory is required to understand the meaning of a stainless steel boulder forged at great personal cost, cast adrift in international waters. It is a grand symbolic gesture, glorious in its simplicity. Similarly, the difficulty of making a mark upon the universe, paired with the often inherent human drive to do so, are laid bare by Zhan Wang's stainless steel meteorite and his as yet unrealized plans for its celestial deployment. To address the big questions requires a giant leap of faith, beyond familiar artistic idioms. It is something best done by an artist supremely confident with his choice of medium and personal creative language.

In keeping with his artistic self-assurance, Zhan Wang has remained largely aloof from the often conflicting form of involvement with Western art experienced by many Chinese artists. While he is thoroughly cognizant of Western artistic trends, and is ready to learn from Western art when it suits him, his is not a reactive awareness. Furthermore, he is not concerned with strategies of adapting to what an international audience may expect of a Chinese artist. This is a problem besetting many contemporary Chinese artists, both young and middle-aged: local and international art circles have strong opinions regarding what Chinese art can or should be like in a globalized milieu. But the more such scrutiny determinedly seeks out homogenization, the more inevitably must we recognize the rich atomization of artistic practice in our time. One way of facilitating that is by examining art as the product of idiosynchratic individuals with personal, local, and universal concerns. The compelling works of Zhan Wang, a passionate soul engaged with his world on many levels, certainly deserve such close attention.

NOTE: Because of space limitations, this article omits an important sector of Zhan Wang's oeuvre, his cooperatively produced works of art.

1. China experts will recognize that this meteor shower fell shortly before Mao Zedong's death and was widely regarded as an ill omen presaging change of dynasty. This was not, however, the factor that led the artist to choose this meteorite: size was.

2. Zhan Wang, "'Guannianxing diaosu'-wuzhihua de guannian" ("Conceptual sculpture"-concepts made material), "Meishu yanjiu" (Art Research), no. 91 (1998, no. 3), pp. 72-73.

3. Zhan Wang, "Guanyu buxiugang jiashanshi" (Regarding stainless steel "jiashanshi") (Beijing, 1999), p. 3.

4. The work of analysing the Department of Defense's satellite data is actually done by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, but the National Reconnaisance Office representative seemed more interested in this problem.

5. Conversation between the artist and the author, Shanghai, 11/9/00.

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