In A State of Flux

Fumio Nanjo

Zhan Wang’s journey has been a long one. A look at his work overall sheds light on what has changed and remained consistent in Zhan Wang’s art over the years.  I first encountered his art on the new campus of China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2005. Two artificial rocks were placed next to a recently planted tree. Large and metallic, they reflected the blue sky and left me with a strange feeling. Was this a new artwork or something traditional, and who had “planted” it? How long would it be here?

In 2008, I saw Zhan Wang’s solo exhibition “Garden Utopia” at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. His wide-ranging and supple expertise with the vocabulary of artificial rocks was readily apparent. Shown in the museum as individual rocks or layered or grouped together, these large artificial rocks had a powerful presence.  In some installations, the rocks were placed in dialogue with traditional Chinese furniture and mirrors.  In one grand installation, metal tableware formed a cityscape. Using technology, Zhan also suspended the artificial rocks in midair.  The most stunning was the gigantic rock installed near the entrance to the museum.  Its stupendous height and width made me wonder just how it had been transported.

After this visit, I asked Zhan to show the suspended artificial rocks Stone to Fill the Sky in the second edition of the Singapore Biennale in 2008 where I served as director.  The work was perfectly suited to the theme “Wonder”. More recently, I had the pleasure of working with Zhan when he showed his work in Kenpoku Art 2016 in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan and the 2017 Honolulu Biennial, two other exhibitions in which I served as General Director and Curatorial Director, respectively.

In the process, I have come to know and appreciate Zhan’s work.  Nevertheless, it is not easy to grasp his work in its entirety.  That is because in pursuing a very original theme, he has developed it in various directions. At the very basis of this inquiry lies the fundamental question:  What is sculpture? Zhan is basically a sculptor, but we could also say that he is a creator of three-dimensional plastic forms.

Although renowned mainly for his artificial rocks, Zhan’s exploration of sculptural and plastic expression goes beyond this. This exhibition is one that follows the history of this quest.

Zhan’s artificial rocks, which are made with stainless steel, have adopted and developed the motif of ornamental rocks or scholars’ rocks, the fantastically eroded rock formations that decorate traditional Chinese gardens. It is a simple, but powerfully expressive concept, one that has earned him a firm place in the art world. His work is grounded in a lucid, conceptual approach to stone that stimulates further discourse and interpretation. Discussions of tradition and contemporary practice, sculpture and image, universality and change are too complex to be summed up one way or the other.  And as he has taken the multiple facets of these artificial rocks into different directions, he has developed new and different series.  In this sense, artificial rocks can be positioned as primary and fundamental to his philosophy.

This exhibition also includes My Personal Universe, a video work that features the action of destroying rocks with clips of an exploding boulder.  But there are also works that focus on creation. In Suyuan Stone Generator, we see rain falling in glass boxes, the wind blowing, and nature’s weathering as a harsh, ongoing process that creates rocks from the    earth as forms.Together, the works explore creation and destruction as antithetical directions. 

In another work, Open, what appears to be a artificial rock is split in half, exposing a thin, weak interior, much like a rock on the verge of crumbling. It seems to destroy the fixed view of stone as something eternally solid and unassailable. The interior shows traces of welding and intensive labor. The opening is covered with a layer of stainless steel that gives it a painfully sharp and dangerous look. Fractal Structure,  a beautiful work composed of sections that have been divided with a certain tough resolve, seems to resemble a rock in the process of breaking apart.  The series ”Fragmented Rock”, made up of four broken boulders, displays a similar tendency.

The penchant for destruction can also be seen in Universe. Fragments of shattered stone or boulders are fixed on a flat surface of metal mirrors. The shattered rocks are caught and fixed in the split-second of their destruction. There is something beautiful about instantaneously capturing the power of destruction. In Japan, there is an aesthetic that prizes evanescence, symbolized by the short-lived beauty of cherry blossoms that bloom and then fall so quickly.  Destruction and transience are fundamentally intertwined. This work incorporates a sense of time that seeks to seize the fleeting moment, but capturing an ephemeral moment is difficult.

Destruction is the inverse of creation. Creation implies destruction. Destruction can give birth to the new. This indicates that the meaning we derive from this relation depends on our view of what comes before or after. In India, Shiva is the Hindu god of creation and destruction, and we see the wisdom of Indian culture in this god that embodies opposites.

Zhan also asks us to define the three-dimensionality of sculpture, but he is also interested in its relation to the two-dimensional image. His work in photography has included photographing scenery and faces reflected on the surface of his artificial rocks. What constitutes the surface of a three-dimensional object? What is the relation between the flat, distorted images afloat on its surface and reality?  Furthermore, what is its relation to the reality of its surroundings?

In 2015 for the exhibition "Zhan Wang: Nothing for the Time Being" at OCT Shanghai, the works from the "Metamorph" series were first revealed to the public. For these works, the artist himself underwent a 3D body scan, and sculpted at that form by imitating the natural processes of erosion on the surface, compressing and stretching this fantastical figure. In the dynamic environment, the particles interacted to produce infinite changing shapes, resulting in enigmatic fluid shapes that appear to be melting. We can see the results of this different pursuit in such works ranging from "morph" done in marble to the aforementioned "Metamorph". These works reveal a focus on flux, a shift to softer material, and an interest in the body.

In sculpture in the West, there presentation of the human body has been the road to success as an artist. Even today, how to depict and express the human body in sculpture is still a major question, but there are not many artists who grapple with it. Zhan, however, presents us with one response that proposes completely new techniques and ideas.

I might also add that there is another work that presents a breakthrough solution to this question. The work Heart is a visualization of his own heartbeat; it is a video work that could be considered another kind of self-portrait. Although created in a completely different medium with different semiotics, it records his existence for eternity.

The largest work in the exhibition is Forms in Flux, a gigantic black stainless steel work suspended from the ceiling. Forms in Flux made use of algorithms derived from the study of fluid dynamics to imitate the eroded forms naturally occurring in nature, even turning his own form through the same processes into a granular three-dimensional form. This dynamic piece represents a new stage in Zhan's sculpture: fluid shapes, flowing time, and the flow of consciousness, which are fundamentally linked to an uncertain reality. We could call this a certain worldview.

As a point of departure for “Forms in flux”, we can point to the stainless steel surfaces of the artificial rocks that reflect the surrounding environment and serve as a kind of boundary. In other words, the existence of a boundary is fundamental to the definition of things. Boundaries separate land from sea, home from society at large, and the self from the other. However, if we go back to the origin of the world or the primordial ocean, we see that there was no distinction between land and sea or the living and non-living; everything was one. It was a site of becoming and non-existence, a phenomenon of continual change. In reality, nothing is certain. Zhan Wang’s video work of rocks floating in space appears to be related to this vision. This view of a world in flux is contrary to the stable everyday life that we expect. We could compare it to an earthquake that suddenly destroys our everyday life.

Boundaries create difference between the self and other, and within this relation, identity is formed. This is true of the family, city, and nation. There are two ways of living: the Hestian and the Hermesian.  In Greek mythology, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, the symbol of the home and family life, while Hermes is the god of travel, exchange, transportation, trade and business. Together, they form a contrast between sedentary and nomadic life. Stability brings to mind tranquility and peace, but reality changes continuously, and in actuality, human beings live in a state of flux.

They say that the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes lived like a wild dog, eating only raw meat and vegetables and having no home. He was, however, a critic of slavery in Athens and the first in history to espouse the concept of cosmopolitanism. The absence of boundaries enables a vision of the whole. One sees the other, but without being limited by theories that define interiority by certain boundaries. Diogenes was able to grasp a universal relation. On the one hand, interiority emerges through contrast and a relation with the external world. It is not possible to both exclude and ignore the existence of the other. In the end, the deep insight that arises from ambivalence about boundaries seems to open up issues of the self-identity. This view is related to the phenomenological approach extending from Bergson to Deleuze. Zhan’s sculpture appears to be supported by such a philosophical stance as it has developed from artificial rocks to images of his own body in flux.

Existence is not eternal. Life is born, changes and fades away. This seems to be the message emanating from Concealed Rock, a rectangular cube made of transparent resin containing a long “invisible” artificial rock that can be barely seen under certain conditions. Can the image that emerges be considered a “rock”? It suggests a certain fleeting, fragile aesthetic of things that fade into a transparent state.  In a sense, in terms of presence, couldn’t this work be considered the antithesis of artificial rocks?  Is sculpture destined to be washed away, melt away, or disappear someday?

Looking at how his work has evolved over time, I am reminded of the concept seiseiruten, which in Japanese refers to the notion that all things are in flux, existing in an endless cycle of birth and change. It also describes the flux of our contemporary time. We live in an age that requires us to accept endless change. Thus, Zhan Wang’s art can be seen as reflecting a view of the world that is deeply meaningful in the present.                          

Chinese translation by Du Keke, revised by Chiara, August 30, 2017

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