Form of the Formless

Chang Tsong-Zung

The sight of Zhan Wang absorbed in the meticulous work of piecing together specks of chrome, labouring to recreate the scene of devastation caused by his sledgehammer, took me back to another in a meticulous restoration job, touching up a wall and fixing the window. At the edge of the wall, exposed bare bricks showed it was incomplete; the remains of the wall propped up a roofless house. Like a ruin in war, the field was scattered with fallen buildings with demolition cranes visibly at work just yards away from the artist. In this plot, designated for redevelopment, the cranes destroyed all remnants of historical architecture. China reconstructs; and it destroys. The patient artist was giving the final touch-ups before it was sent to its grave.

The two performances are separated by almost two decades, yet the forces that treat history as an impediment to progress, continue to rage across the nation. The concept of economic development as an unquestioned good makes the new and glitzy seem preferable to heritage or culture.

The artist returns in this exhibition to ponder the mystery of the crude energy of destruction. Rising above the ruins of historical Beijing are towers that impede the imagination from viewing the past; their inhabitants assured that the district will be remembered as yet another urban centre that celebrates the new way of life they so keenly embrace at present. The shattered rock lying on the white sheet that maps the contours of Zhan Wang's violence will be resurrected in shiny chrome like the mirror walls of Beijing, but it will not be permitted to let go of its past. The violence will be documented, polished and preserved. The scene of crime will be reconstructed for the benefit of the haloed sanctum of art, where the right to bestow value promises to deliver the shattered rock into a cherished existence. The artwork then becomes suitable for display within the new towers that represent the modern day Beijing.

Here cracks start to show in the parallel comparison of the two projects. It is the sentimental, memory-bound ties to the history of one's city that makes the destruction of old quarters so painful and sad. In the case of the rock. there is no cultural sentiment; there would be regret, only if Zhan Wang had smashed a precious "scholar's rock" with recognised aesthetic value. He has not chosen to do so. Perhaps Zhan Wang has neither the heart nor the ruthlessness. or that over the years he has learnt to detach himself from such shocks. and put his mind to more abstract. generalised ideas. This intrigues me and brings another early work to mind.

At the time of the demolition of the Central Academy of Art in 1994. when the land it stood on was sold to a developer. Zhan Wang held a one-man exhibition which presented a series of resin-stiffened Mao suits that looked like cocoons without the bodies inside. Scattered over the rooms that had, by then, been turned into a decrepit warehouse, these stiff suits, set in natural body forms, were laid on the ground or floated, suspended in mid-air. This could be a reference to the old saying of a cicade shedding its shell, signifying escape to a new life, but to the viewer, they equally suggest the arrested movements of carcasses of Pompeii. Pompeii provides a snapshot of life caught in sculptural form, showing, as in Zhan Wang's hollow suits, time standing still. In this case, a new lease on life is not the escape to a better life, but lifeless-life after death that emerges only as enshrined and embalmed emblems. How this could be an aesthetic symbol for those who return after the demolition to inhabit the soul-less cement towers is a moot point. If museum artworks are a transcendent objects elevated by the context of display, then what escapes the devastation of demolition through the artistic remains of sculptural cocoons will at best be precious art treasures that serve as sanctified reminders of a forgotten era.

Zhan Wang's transition from his work at the Central Academy of Art to his highly popular stainless steel rocks exposes a formal connection. The stainless steel rocks are made from either natural boulders of the rocks before using them as moulds; stainless steel sheets are hammered on an iron "rock" in segments to capture the exact shape. Then they are welded together into a solid whole. What becomes apparent, in light of the early work, is that we have here a carcass of a scholar's rock. Although the association of death is less evident because of the sheen and glitter, they are nonetheless an incarnation into a lifeless life. The moving spirit of nature is pickled into a glamorous semblance that, in the context of the art space, testifies to the artist's ironic position on cultural lineage. In fact, the artist's first "artificial rock" made its appearance in the joint exhibition of the Central Academy of Art's sculpture department a year later in 1995, a show using the ruins of the old Academy as exhibition site. 

Without the modern art space, it would be difficult to identify the subtle intention of the artist. Moreover, it would be hard to distinguish whether the rocks are pieces of artwork or simply interior decoration; though, in the past, natural rocks were mainly used for the latter purpose. When taking Chinese traditional art sensibilities into consideration, the role of "natural" rocks is even more complex. 

When a natural piece of rock is designated as "art", it is removed from its own kind in nature to become another form of being. This artful removal is purely a shift in context, and the shift reveals cultural messages and aesthetic preference specific to the Chinese tradition. In comparing the role of the scholar's rock to the European tradition of art, a different attitude towards the idea of creation becomes evident. A valuable "fine art" does not need to be created by man, it just needs to be identified and appreciated. This implies that the mysteries of the world are to be found within the world, and are revealed in its various manifestations. The principle of geomancy(feng-shui) grants that "spirit line" of nature are not restricted to historical sacred sites, but to be found in all localities. Hence the scholar's rock, sometimes called "spirit rock", embodies the idea of the magic mountain as a work of art. Unlike an ethnological object worshiped for its powers, the scholar's rock is neither a talisman nor magic stone; it is solely an art object, purely aesthetic. As an aesthetic object the scholar's rock illustrates the Chinese literati's sense of sculptural form; it is symbolic of the forces of nature and a manifestation of the living dynamics of the world in a frozen form. It is a material presence of inner energy of the world and, a form of the formless, showing the process, or the shape, of time . 

In its natural form, the scholar's rock shows that the mysterious powers of nature are in our midst in mundane life. Apart from its respectable position on a scholar's table, the scholar's rock is used commonly for gardens and interior decoration. It is not an object for a shrine, unlike the religious ancestors of "modern art", and does not make sacred claims. Instead, it illustrates the Chinese cultural attitude towards the interconnectedness of the spiritual and everyday life. 

When Zhan Wang creates stainless steel shells of rocks, he reduces these material presences of the moving energy of nature into metallic simulacra. While the stainless steel structure now formally becomes a piece of "modern art " destined for the exhibition hall, it also announces the severance of nature's powers from the domestic living space.

Destruction resulting from modern development was the cause of Zhan Wang's two early art projects; and yet the artistic protest against the destructive drive of modernity legitimized his art for the modern exhibition space. There seems to be a link between the nature of modern art its disgruntlement against modernity. In Zhan Wang's case it shows that artistic protest is no remedy, but simply a noble cause that benefits art. 

The artist's absorbed restoration work against the march of demolition cranes in 1994 and his patient reconstruction of a shattered rock today can also be interpreted as commentaries on the power of destruction. The futile protest of the first carried the pathos of fate, while the shattered rock of the latter signifies a modern reflection on traditional Chinese aesthetics. What is common to both is the acceptance of the inevitable destruction of history. While the scholar's rock represents a static form that captures the dynamic forces of nature, its destruction releases the very same energy. Therefore, if "form" is the principle of the rock, Zhan Wang's Universe is a study of "anti-form" and the principle of creation through destruction.

Zhan Wang's painstaking art-making process strives to capture time in order to arrest the destructive power of change. The artwork is a testament to "anti-form" and the many possibilities it releases. However, if the carcasses of suits from the demolished Central Academy of Art are precedents, the present carcasses of creative explosion can make an equally powerful statement about the hollowness of destructive energy, and point to a glorified death in the limbo universe of a lost past. Such are the unresolved positions and enigmas that Zhan Wang's Universe presents us.

Written for the amusement of the artist and Emi EU on the occasion of the exhibition Universe at STPI, March of the 63rd year of the People's Republic.

Chinese translation by Zeng Yilin

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