Zhan Wang: The Rock’s Versatility in Chinese Contemporary Art

Jonathan Goodman

Zhan Wang, a gifted student and practitioner of sculpture, began his professional studies at the well-known Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He did do some teaching at the Central Academy after his schooling, but at present, he simply lives and works in Beijing. It is fair to say that he is now in his prime.The early work he was devoted to tended to use the figure in a social and political manner. There is one sculpture, called Mao Suits, on four legs as he negotiates a ledge–both ledge and figure are presented in a nondescript gray–perhaps the color is a thematic reading of the physical constraints of Chinese communism. Other early work included stainless-steel facsimiles of scholar’s rocks–rocks coming from a broad variety of sources, including riverbeds or mountains.

Shell of Mao Suits Mao in the ruins,1994,Beijing Wangfujing

The remarkable stones are then appreciated for their form and tonal value, Zhan Wang updated the concept by casting the rocks in stainless steel; more than a few of these works were used outdoors, fronting buildings as their  embellishments. The project was a very successful contemporary revision of a genre of art that had strong classical implications.

Zhan Wang’s fascination with stone has lasted the length of his career. As time has passed, he has become progressively experimental in his work, varying the size of the stone, the kind of rock used, and the concept behind the rock as art. It is not so easy to invest conceptually in a material as dense and true to itself as rock with a conceptual bias. Rock is merely a material; it resists any unusual conceptual bias because, by itself, stone is alive first and foremost as a substance, not at all as a vehicle for an idea.  It takes an inspired awareness of history to transform stone, composed merely of minerals and hardened earth, into a means for the illustration of concepts, which have included even abstract ideas such as extended duration, the symbolic portrayal of nature, or the use of rock as a material for man-made, cultural forms such as sculptures.

Usually, In Zhan Wang’s case, a bias for rock as a vehicle of thought, in regard to a social or even a political context, makes the rock’s material existence stand out. Because of its ties with the huge milieu of nature, including even meteorites in space, rock becomes larger than something determined alone by human cultural activity. Because of the duress of time, the stone sculptures that occurred along paths leading to the temples in China, as well as three-dimensional works found within the temples, are mostly gone, being the victims of natural or human damage or theft. But Zhan Wang’s use of stone is often, somehow, symbolically and ethereally inclined, in keeping with the spiritual works made more than hundreds of years ago.

As a result, it makes sense to see Zhan Wang’s art as internalizing the  influence of classical precedents and, at the same time, incorporating new ideas placing rock as a useful art material within a modern context. Rocks, as old as time, thus become the bridge between the beginnings of historical culture and the later, more idea-oriented culture of postmodern life. Interestingly, though, the classical position in China has a very long reach; some of the best work we see today–in the art of Xu Bing, Cai Guo Qiang, and Hu Xiaoyuan–alludes to ancient art practices, used many hundreds of years later in contemporary cultures, in which the old combines with the new.

Such a mixture not only joins ideas difficult to closely align because of distances in time, as a material rock is also capable of spanning the very old and the very new. Interestingly, rock older than ancient history becomes a platform or component for very new work. Zhan Wang has mastered the tactic realigning a primeval material into a world in which that material is used in a contemporary fashion, illuminating abstractions we had not thought of before.

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94 Ruin Cleaning Project, 1994,clean the pillar that have red joint, the joint with red paint again

When this writer first met Zhan Wang in 1994, he had taken on an unusual but telling project: Ruin Cleaning Project. The artist himself renovated and cleaned a Republic of China-era house that was slated to be demolished. It was a time of astonishing change in Beijing. Streets would literally disappear overnight. How would a sculptural body of work, or the careful clearing of the ruins of buildings throughout the city, speak to the massive rearrangement of the urban landscape? Built into this activity of tireless but hard to define effort is  a critical comment on the constant architectural change that transformed the urban landscape overnight. Ruin Cleaning Project, an absurd and useless effort, derives its esthetic power as an idea brought to the public as a performance–a far cry from an emphasis on materials. Zhan Wang’s notion–illustrating the vulnerability of a changing urban landscape using materials employed in the construction of buildings –does not emphasize stone as the substance of a building but as evidence of a  melancholic idea: the constant, and permanent, physical transformation of city life.In new terms.

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Artificial Rock No .175, 2016,  stainless steel , 252 × 160 × 97 cm

A remarkable example of a public sculpture is the Artificial Rock #175 (2016), which has been placed our of doors in a small plaza, part of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archeology at Beijing University. There are two larger than lifesize sculptures–one is the original version of the Scholar’s Stone. and the other, Zhan Wang’s copy. The works, existing in a dialogic relationship, were close enough in form to attract interest as copies of each other–thus, the facsimile becomes as important as the original it mimics. Their similarity brilliantly brings up questions of the actual and the copy, the historically determined and the version that approximates the real and yet remains its own actuality, establishing a truth and a non-truth at the same time You can see this take place in Zhan Wang’s remarkable piece showing a real rock and an artificial one. Artificial Rock ont the right is an artificial (stainless steel) copy of the natural rock on the leeft. Created by artificial rubbings, the ersatz rock has been politshed to become a ”real” rock–of the same size, shape, and detail as the true one.

No .133 Rock & Artificial Rock, 2007, rock,stainless steel,184cm × 180cm × 140cm × 2

The Chinese milieu also is vastly different from the American, which sees duplication as an industrial, commercial process, rather than an attempt to recreate, in contemporary form, objects and items of refinement dating back many, many years. Zhan Wang’s gift is to see his copy as a version transforming the past, not merely imitating  ir. As a result, both objects maintain a realism that keeps original and copy alive.

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Open, 2012, stainless steel, 500 × 250 × 160 cm

Open (2012) broke apart the external glory of a stainless steel rock to expose the inner roughness that makes the work complex. It is intricate to the p[oint of being mysterious, also appearing as the merger of a tough version of nature with a modernist abstraction.

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Match Openings: Particle No.2, 2022, stainless steel ,80×51×42cm

Particle No. 2 (2022), made of stainless steel, is a small tabletop sculpture consisting roughly of two halves, which are built up with shards, mostly stone-like in appearance. They have differently textured exteriors, which look like they are attached to each other by the edges, Massive in feeling, in actuality the piece is quite small, but the sharply edged individual elements, more or less sculptures by themselves, assert Zhan Wang’s unusual capacity for work that can seem large and small at once. The complexity that results is a nod to modern and contemporary sculpture’s innate ability to create complex shapes even though the parts are simple. At the same time, often the artist’s work maintains a minimalist simplicity, leading us to groups of shapes that show a deliberately limited sense of form and texture–this despite the fact that the outlines of the elements making up  Particle No. 2323, simple in the extreme. Zhan Wang thus creates very modern sculpture from very limited means. As he often does, material is used to emphasize abstraction, but material also becomes a theme in its own right.

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Urban Landscape: New Beijing, 2008, stainless steel kitchenware,  National Art Museum of China

In the indoors stainless-steel cookware installation titled Urban Landscape: New Beijing (2008), row after row of pans surround the periphery of an oval space, highlighted by four pillars rising to the ceiling. Inside the periphery of the stacked utensils is an arrangement  of stainless steel pans, spoons, plates, and other assorted stainless steel kitchenware. The stainless steel material can reflect its surroundings; the inside stands in contrast with the surroundings in the light. Guards, apparently armed, watched over the installation, which is both monumental and utterly materialist in effect. The Chinese, even today imperial in their motives, would not be surprised by this installation, whose epic dimensions create a world larger than life, even though the material–cooking pans–are so utilitarian as to make no sense as a component of art.

Detail of Urban Landscape: New Beijing

What can we say about new art that borrows from the grandeur of the past but makes use of cheap materials? The materialism of the installation is disconcerting, especially coming from so historically accomplished a world culture as China’s Zhan Wang uses rocks as a counterbalance to the cheapness of Chinese utensils, which in the case of the large work just mentioned, eschews rock for more commercial objects. So we have a mixture of the historical and its dignity, and the swift but cheap culture of contemporary life.

We have to remember that rock can serve in art as a mere material, free of intellectual meaning or symbolic implication. But if rock does take on something esoterically meaningful, the implications of the idea grow larger than the stone it is associated with. In a way, the large installation just described is an entirely vacuous monument–something seemingly meaningful, through size alone, but actually lacking in concepts. It is merely a collection of proletarian items, whose commercial value and also manufacture are so slight as to undermine rather than advance the formal structure of the work. Yet this is a time of populism, when the cheapness of the materials, and indeed the conceptual intelligence behind the work, are embraced rather than avoided.

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Match Openings: Scrawls of Visions,2022,ink on rice paper,34×34cm

At the same time, Zhan Wang is a highly gifted draftsman. In Match Openings: Scrawls of Visions (2022), an ink on paper work, artist Wang has created a beautiful drawing, with an exposed linear white background, Ir is based on the pre-established, enforced rul that the brushstroke, or “clear  strokes,” do not overlap. The consequences are striking both as an abstraction and as a group of images seemingly related by their closeness to nature. The piece maintains the lyricism that is so central to much of the Chinese classical imagination. Indeed, it should be said that Wang is at pains to transform the classical impulse into imagery more available to a contemporary public. Old things subtly influence a new spirit, but in Wang’s case, the lyric outlook is literally transformed into a poetry of this moment in time, which is moving toward commercialism and ease of understanding.

Another drawing with the same title as was first described, and a similar marking system oof clear brushstrokes (an exposed linear white system) is equally attractive. White lines. bunched together in small groups, connect to create abstract groups, or, possibly, figurative ones–the suggestion of animal forms is there. This drawing, too, has an understated lyricism in which implication plays a major role, encouraging the imagination as much as the gaze.

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Match Openings: Scrawls of Visions,2022,ink on rice paper

The final drawing is again an ink drawing on  paper, and like the others is done in 2022. This work does not have the black ground. Instead, the composition looks like an interior filled with beautifully arranged architectural forms. The shapes are themselves abstract, but suggest the building blocks of architectural elements. This trio of drawings shows how versatile Wang is. It is clear that the artist is thoroughly versed in the full spectrum of styles, making him a draftsman of considerable achievement.

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Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles—Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea,2000,stainless steel, 180×90×160cm,
Lingshan Island, Jiaonan,Shandong Province

One of Zhan Wang’s best pieces is his simplest: Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles–Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea (2000). Made of stainless steel, the boulder-sized and -shaped rock drifts on the open sea. In the photo, we see the work floating directly in the water in the midst of a quiet body of water. The horizon line cuts through the center of the image; the sculpture;s small knocks and holes bring out the sense of a complex three-dimensional surface, rather than the perfection of a perfectly smooth exterior. The piece is both metaphysical and even slightly humorous in its appearance, but maybe the idea that isolation is common to us all would serve as the moral of the work. One doesn’t think of Zhan Wang as working symbolically or as an artist who moralizes,but some of his work carries ethical weight–im the sense that art can always be extrapolated beyond its form into a social demonstration of meaning. This is different from an excessive emphasis on politics.It is likely Zhan Wang did not suggest this intentionally, but it is not hard to ascribe ideas affiliated with the suggestions of the shapitself.

Zhan Wang has had a narrow path to travel, given the vagaries of committing himself to a sculptural career. He has not left China during the length of his working period, and remains committed to a startlingly successful mixture of classical Chinese art history and the conceptual strengths of contemporary art. Bination opens up a bigger concern–namely, the extent to which a very great classical culture such as China’s can find a window into the present, where populism, aided by technology, has taken hold of life.

The current situation, then, only offers a stone wall hindering those who want to keep something of China’s past alive. Memory belongs to computers, not to those who would use study to make sure the past remains available for understanding. But sadly, in China, indeed increasingly all over the world, historical awareness is being overtaken by entertainment, a cultural shift that seems to be dooming memory itself. This must be seen as a loss, one that Zhan Wang to trying to push back and preserve.

Like many strong artists working now, Zhan Wang uses ideas to frame and clarify work directed toward metaphysical inquiry. But art does not use words to openly define its beliefs, which are indirect in their presentation. The image may speak volumes, but those volumes cannot be worked out if language cannot be actively used to expand the meaning of the image. Instead, what does persist is the metaphorical interest of the work’s visual value. Such value, in Zhan Wang’s hands, turns out to be conceptual and metaphysical, as indicated through the use of stone, the simplest of materials. The irony behind the artist’s efforts is that his work is usually idea-oriented, while rock is about as factual and realist as can be.

In the tacit drama of its chthonic weight, rock as a material combines well with ancient effects, often being the material of those effects. Wang is seeking an accurate description, if not a permanent answer, to cultural continuity, to personal isolation, and to the damage caused by physical modernization. Time cannot salvage the damage; indeed, the passage of time intensifies the difficulty. But rock is long enduring, creating its own worth as a means leading to an existence that took place far before the recognizable past. So the artist has established a historical continuity by using a material as old as materials come.

In the long run, Zhan Wang’s importance is based on the extent to which he can transform what has already taken place into what is happening in the current moment. I think he is bridging distant ends of time, which ordinarily are precluded from contact by technology. But what if technology did not enter the picture at all, which happens a lot in the artist’s work. Instead, the material is used to mimic the past. to be accepted as it is, on both physical and philosophical terms. Whatever the case may be, it is the imaginative worth of the material that counts. By continuing his quest for a contemplative appreciation of stone as a primary sculptural material, Zhan Wang brings a new appreciation of something old, achieving genuine

Innovation in a body of work in Zhan Wang’driven by sharp intelligence and an understanding of rock as its own material at least as much as a vehicle for conceptual concerns.

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a poet and art critic. He has written articles on the art world for publications such as Art in America, Sculpture and Art Asia Pacific among others. He teaches art criticism at Pratt Institute in New York.

Originally published on January 4, 2024 in the bilingual Spanish magazine Fronterad

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