Object of Desire and Conception – On the art and aesthetic of Zhan Wang’s Scholarly Rocks

In September of 1993, Zhan Wang’s creative practice unfolded around Sun Yatsun Suit (also known as Mao Suit). He titled this exhibition and series of work Soul – Empty – Attraction Series, and held a solo exhibition on May 19, 1994. Wu Hung, a research scholar on classical Chinese art history, proposed the concept of Transfiguration in his interpretation of this series of works. Wu believed that Zhan Wang presented a type of transformation and the “suffering of rebirth” in his work, thus “revealing a longing with freedom to fantasize.”

In December 2002, Zhan Wang revisited this series of works as a participant in the Guangzhou Triennial with Burial – The Skin of Mao Suit. The artist adopted a ritualistic performance, dug out a burial ground outside of the Guangzhou Museum of Art, and buried 15 pieces of the Mao Suits series, there.

At this point, Zhan Wang showed great interest in cultural symbols with both historical and material significance. His Soul-Emptiness – Attraction series(1994) and the symbolic Burial – Mao Suit Skin performance project (2002) are, to a certain degree, morbid. The former expressed grief from distortion by the system, and the latter a death procession for a system that is about to be buried in history. They remind us of buried clothes, distorted by the system.

Zhan Wang’s Mao Suit series not only showed the burden of collectivism, but also manifested national and social suffering and sorrow. Zhan Wang’s vision is socialistic, or even sociological. In other words, Zhan Wang does not only respond to the social development of modern China in specific ways, but he also seeks an active dialogue in its historical context.

One can even claim, Zhan Wang’s social concerns are frank, and they distinctively reflect the circumstantial change in contemporary Chinese society. In October 1994, he proceeded with Cleansing the Ruins Project using the subject of East Wangfujing Street’s demolition. Zhan Wang wrote, “Even though this neighborhood is built in old and beautiful architecture in the Eastern and Western styles, it will not escape the fate of demolition due to Beijing’s need of a modern commercial district.” One can definitely sense the helplessness in these words. 

Zhan Wang’s Cleansing the Ruin Project (1994)was also another funeral procession. The cleansing and embellishment of this project and performance resembled ritual preparations of the funeral procession. Based on these acts, the artist seemed to have taken advantage of his own intervention. The melodramatic lights reveal the original structure and traces of the historical architecture, allowing it to unveil aesthetic glamour. Such performance rekindled a second-wind in the historical sense of decline. 

The two creative projects Zhan Wang published in 1994 established his basic artistic concern and creative grammar. After 1995, he began to systematically appropriate faux mountains, or Taihu rocks, from traditional Chinese gardens, treating them as the main subject matter in his sculptures. Compared to Mao Suit series, or Cleaning the Ruins Project, Zhan Wang proposed the idea of faux rocks and mountains, which are no longer a direct appropriation of ready-made objects, but stainless steel materials “replicated” to present artificiality. 

Zhan Wang clarified his initial intention for developing the stainless steel faux rocks and mountains in the artist statement, New Beijing Map: Today and Tomorrow’s Capital – Scholar Rock in the Remaking. According to his observation, “signs of industrialization can be found everywhere” in Beijing at that time, but people use faux rocks and mountains (traditional decoration for courtyards and gardens). He purposefully transformed non-Chinese and non-Western, or even awkward visual clash.

For Zhan Wang, the stainless steel surface brings about “the false ostentatious appearance,” and he wished to replace rocks in Chinese traditional gardens with faux rocks that offer a “new dream” of aesthetics coherent to the industrial era. 

Zhan Wang believes that faux rocks with a mirror surface reproduced in stainless steel, in comparison to the natural rocks in traditional Chinese courtyards, is more suited to modern Beijing. At the same time, the aesthetics of the material  (stainless steel in industrial urban architectures and space) render a comprehensive effect.

Thus, Zhan Wang used the “falsity” of stainless steel rocks to disprove the aesthetics of natural rocks of traditional gardens. Placing them in spaces of the industrial era seems inappropriate, or even out of touch. Zhan Wang witnessed various aesthetic gaps (old and the new, Chinese and Western, natural and industrial) in Beijing’s urban transition. From them he found the point of departure for his artistic practice. Moreover, the artist’s cultural symbols with historical significance expanded their historical significance and provoked debate on aesthetic gaps.

The aesthetic in Chinese landscape emphasizes seeing nature through man’s action. Garden Management from the late Ming period (stamped in 1634), claimed to be China’s (or even the world’s) earliest documentation of landscaping. The author, Ji Cheng (1582 – 1642), pointed out in chapter three, “Decorating the Mountain”, “The literati’s concept of the faux mountain must be desired as a hobby to gain the praise of others, and the mountains and rocks must seem to have the quality of those in the wild …”In other words, the “greatness” of the “faux mountain” is a result of man, and is only great if the designer had preconceptions of “mountains and rocks” to demonstrate the “wild quality” of nature.

In fact, the aesthetic views and attitude of making things according to natural principle has appeared more than once in Garden Management. In the first chapter on the theory of constructing a garden, Ji Cheng emphasized the basic principle: “Although done by man, but as if originated from heaven.” Even though “done by man” and “originated from heaven” are oppositional concepts, Ji Cheng emphasized combined theories of artificiality and nature. In other words, the garden should be an artificial construct aiming to be as natural as god-made. 

Ji Cheng further extended the ideas of “artificial” and “heavenly” in contrast with “real” and “faux.” In discussing “Decorating the Mountain,” he wrote, “Treating the real as faux, making the faux seem real, relying on heavenly principles, using the wisdom of men.” The faux mountains should be rendered as if they were real; the design should rely on natural concepts, and the completion should rely on men.

As for aesthetic discussion of “real” and “faux” related to traditional Chinese gardens, the “real” is associated with natural phenomena, and the “faux” implies artificial construct. The “faux” in “faux mountains” does not imply superficiality, pretentiousness, or falsity, but the antonym of “real mountains.” Making the “faux mountain” consists of selecting “mountains” and “rivers” of nature. Therefore, as an important element of the garden, “faux mountains” are comparable to the replacement of the real, and their parts come from nature.

In Ji Cheng’s view, let it be “made by man,” or “efforts of man” follows the essential aesthetic guiding principles of “found in heaven” and the “wisdom of heaven.” “Faux rocks” are obtained from nature, and the garden displaying “as if the heaven opened” depends on if “one who knows” has “the knowledge of it.” In other words, the goal is to achieve the harmonious unity of art and nature.

In terms of aesthetic context, the differentiation of real and faux relies on man’s achievement of a natural reality as an evidence for frugality. Wen Zhenheng (1585 – 1645) wrote The Anthology of Growing Objects (published ~1615), which documented the history of material culture closely related to the lives of the literati and their aesthetic attitudes in the late Ming period. The second chapter of this book, Water and Rocks focused especially on elements related to various “rocks” and “waters” in making a garden. Wen Zhenheng wrote at the beginning of the chapter, “The rocks make one reminisce, and water makes one travel; the waters and rocks in a garden are the most indispensable.” And if they are installed appropriately, “One peak would attain the grandeur of the thousands of mountains at Taihua, and one stream would be comparable to thousands of miles of river.” If human intervention is appropriate, even faux mountains and artificial water can evoke our imagination of nature.

Under the title of “Taihu Rocks,” Wen Zhenheng’s tone of emphasis was, “The most valuable stones are those in water.” In comparison, the “dried rocks” found on the mountain appear rather crude. Some fake “dried rocks” with holes to emulate the erosion on Taihu rocks. Nevertheless, Wen Zhenheng pointed out, “If it has weathered the years, traces of ax have waned and it can be seen as a site of elegance.” Evidently, using dried rocks to imitate Taihu rocks is apparent in history. In the long term, rocks weather natural erosion, and rocks axed off lose its traces and return to their original state.

The aesthetic view Wen Zhenheng proposed on Taihu rocks further consolidated the “faux” in “faux mountain” is vis-à-vis the “real” of nature, and has never been a true or absolute opposition. Wen’s friend, Shen Chunze wrote a preface for Notes on Growing Objects that pointed out, “The order of the house prides on its relaxing and simple impression, rustic and clean. Plants, water, rocks, birds and fish are lively prides on their elegance at a distance, proper and interesting. The spirit in calligraphy and painting is valued in their rarity and excellence, talented and eternal. The cots are moderate, objects have form, their positions are assigned, is valuable because they are refined and utilitarian, simple and trim, delicate and natural.” A description reflecting on the system of cultural aesthetics of gardens in the literati’s quotidian atmosphere, moreover, the various elements consisted in a garden, including vegetations, water, rocks, fish and birds are related to each other spatially. 

With regards to this, faux mountain is not only an indispensable technical element for the literati-style garden, but also a rich cultural emblem implying specific genius lociand spatial order in Chinese literati culture. However, as time progressed with differentiation in modern urban spaces, the original implied genius loci and spatial order have been lost.

Using the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s (1929-2007) theory in The System of Objects, the “faux rocks”in Chinese traditional gardens refers to “installation structure” in the “traditional environment.” As urban space transforms and becomes Western, the faux rocks lose intrinsic spatial relationships; gardens corresponding comprehensively and uniformly to traditional culture will not be found. Faux rocks stand out in Westernized cities, because they are non-contextualized and consolidate falsity, highlighting the cultural gap.

In 2001, Zhan Wang chose a section of the ruined Great Wall (20 m) west of Badaling and more or less in tact except two ruined offence walls. There, Crowning the Great Wall was performed and named for “crowning gold teeth.” 

Compared to the original bricks for the Great Wall, the gold stainless steel bricks are imitations, replacements, as well as alternative constructs - like crowns on teeth. Conceptually, Zhan Wang exaggerated dental “faux” with imitations in stainless steel bricks plated with gold.

Hypothetically, if we consider the existing structure of the Great Wall as reality, then Zhan Wang’s crowning of the wall is unquestionably an alternative “faux.” Because the “false teeth” are conspicuously ostentatious, there is contrast with the missing reality of the Great Wall.

The Great Wall, as China’s historical and cultural symbol, has long been adopted as a model emblem. Zhan Wang strategized a “faux-ness” as conceptually problematized “reality” and “truth.” As the cultural symbol of China, the Great Wall is a replacement, or “faux” alternative.

Furthermore, the conceptual performance of crowning the Great Wall is an attempt to mend crevasses. Since the Great Wall is treated as historical and cultural symbol representing China, it implies continuity and comprehensiveness. Zhan Wang’s performance of symbolic repairs is not to underline the disjunction, but to demonstrate his awareness of cultural the crevasse.

Using nature (original truth) as a dialectical object, Zhan Wang transformed the aforementioned non-contextual faux mountain and enforced its “falsity.” His “replication” strategy abstracted the intrinsic aura of the faux mountains in its garden atmosphere, forcing the faux rocks to become the faux mountainss and rocksreplicated in stainless steel of his own industrial approach. Thus, Zhan Wang’s faux rocks became an independent cultural symbol, with no systematic support of the garden atmosphere, or organic relationships from its surrounding environment.

The non-contextual and cultural crevasses founded basic characteristics of Zhan Wang’s faux mountains and rocks. The stainless steel mirror surface offers an industrial frigidity deepening the solemn, distant, solitary characters of the faux mountains and rocks. Zhan Wang’s sculptural installation Faux Rocks on a stand(1995) used a tripod to suspend stainless steel faux rocks like fragments of original rocks. Distinctive comparison suggests severe disjunction between tradition and nature replaced by the timeless, non-contextual, empty, mechanical, artificial imitations.

In 1997, Zhan Wang completed his first Faux Mountains and Rocks series. Interestingly, Zhan Wang’s Faux Mountains and Rocks and its replicated identity replaced the original faux rocks and emancipated their identity due to its non-historicism and disjunction of original cultural spatial relations.

Moreover, since faux mountains and rocks are imitations of nature, they are representational objects (faux) obtaining legitimacy of “artworks.” The stainless steel faux rocks are liberated from the original garden in becoming sculptural objects, and enter the field of aesthetics.

The “faux mountains and rocks” are Chinese cultural symbols in the context of contemporary Chinese cultural development. It is easy for people to perceive its possible implications. As cultural objects, the heritage of “faux mountains and rocks” is the Chinese garden, and its spirit is associated with landscape painters based on literati tradition. Although the artist adopted the approach of replication, “faux rocks” have been liberated from their original garden function, and their forms carry a cultural context.

The faux rocks in traditional gardens (since the Yuan and Ming dynasties) have become the objects of “desire” in literati aesthetic pursuit. Zhan Wang’s approach of replication maintained the “false appearance characteristic” of the faux rocks, but separated its structural relationship with nature. The faux rocks maintained original cultural significance and transformed into “conceptual” objects appearing in the name of “art.”

From a different perspective, the faux rocks and mountains are spatially liberated from the faux rocks. Zhan Wang’s 12 Nautical Miles – floating rock in non-chartered sea project (2000), can also be interpreted as longing for freedom. Although the faux rocks are “fake” and lifeless, Zhan Wang adopted the act of “liberation” in Buddhism allowing it to float endlessly on the ocean.

After 2006, Zhan Wang’s “floating rock” developed into “floating mountain of the immortals.” His symbolism combined “faux mountain” and “floating rocks.” The “mountain of the immortals” naturally makes people associate it with the legendary story of “mountain of the immortals beyond the sea” (Qin and Han dynasties). Contextualizing it in Chinese cultural history, the Floating Island of the Immortal often implies reclusion, escape, isolation, self-exile, and the desire to transcend eternity both physically and spiritually. Passive or positive, Floating Island of the Immortal is an analogy of cultural desire for freedom and liberation.

Looking back on Zhan Wang’s creativity in the last 15 years, he entered from the “faux rocks” of the traditional gardens.” He appropriated cultural symbolism transforming it to the “real” and “faux” dichotomy based on his deliberation on natural and artificial aesthetics of gardens. Zhan Wang’s faux rocks are constructed on his observation and skepticism of the real world. His artwork demonstrates in-depth contemporary awareness. Through the faux rocks, Zhan Wang shows active intellectual prowess.

Zhan Wang’s faux rocks are reflexive projections of reality. He consciously highlights the “falsity” in the “faux rocks” in order to demonstrate the gap in contemporary Chinese culture. One can also claim that Zhan Wang’s faux mountains are born from these crevasses, nurtured by traditional aesthetics, and the object of art through refinement.

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