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Nothing For the Time Being2015-11-04

Among the many artists who have influenced our time, Zhan Wang is known for formulating complex questions through simple material forms. His artistic experiments are like an intellectual game that constantly seeks balance between the perceived world and the material world, constantly bringing surprises, but never any clear answers. He is one of the few artists working independently within artistic questions of his own devising.

The true starting point of Zhan Wang’s art was his thinking on the “Taihu stone,” but over the span of twenty years, this symbolic motif came to seem like an intellectual labyrinth with no discernable end. It would take Ariadne’s thread to navigate this labyrinth. Artificial Rocks is the era of industrial reproduction saluting and imitating the classical era, but the process of imprinting these rocks is not just a question of the transformation of taste and form. The act of imprinting the shape also encapsulates consideration of more fundamental issues of sculpture art, namely how sculpture “pieces together” the world. Such metaphysical questions form the solid core of Zhan Wang’s art, leading him to continually strip away the logical assumptions connected to his individual experience: how far can sculpture really proceed on the questions of form and essence in contemporary art? Through his practice, he unearths all manner of possibilities within these questions, yet carefully retains them within the boundaries that can be touched by sculpture.

Artificial Rocks, begun in 1995, brought a paradoxical question: when we face these Taihu stones recreated with industrial materials, we face a double visual challenge, as both positive and negative responses to it will leave us unsettled. Through the familiar approach of imitating antiquity, it probes our cultural complexity, and casts it before the masses. When Artificial Rocks (fig. 1) truly became the object of collection, as well as of meaningful interpretation, its great success brought it back to a more fundamental question, that of how we understand the material essence of a stone. The 2010 work Suyuan Stone Machine shifted from the imprinting of rocks to the making of rocks. This artwork was not so much a “technological” experiment in the formation of Taihu stones as it was a playful re-creation of myth, compressing time into space, and turning hundreds of millions of years of geological history into a momentary spectacle of happening. In 2010, My Personal Universe linked the formation of rocks with the story of the explosion that formed the primordial universe. These artworks are like a visual archaeological excavation of stone, but we do not reap any knowledge from this excavation. All it provides us is the sensation of traversing history (fig. 3).

If the making of stones unearthed a constructed internal event from the material history of Artificial Rocks, then the 2004 Mirror Garden (fig. 4) discovered a new world of appearances from the reflections of Artificial Rocks, an unreal real world formed from the reflections of stainless steel in the undulating folds of Taihu stones. This world possesses the dual essences of reality and imagination, or, as art historian Wu Hung puts it, this refection forms a certain “transformative intermediary.” It is precisely this transformative intermediary that sparked another form of creative desire in the artist. Ten years after discovering this reflection, this desire was conveyed through the 2014 series Morph. Now, the metaphysical question of whether this world is real or illusory has found a formal explanation. The Chinese title for this series stems from one of the six principles of ancient Chinese painting, the “resemblance of the object in form.” This concept combines the Zhuangzi passage that states, “Exercising the mind without fatigue, responding to all things with no consideration for place,” and the Treatises of Zhao passage that states, “The dharmakaya has no form, but assumes different forms according to the needs of beings.” It indicates that when using the heart to observe the myriad things of the world, the heart should be adaptive in forming appearances. This visual method for observing nature produced a unique form of expressionism in Chinese art that is not the imitation or portrayal of natural appearances but the imaginative creation of images from both the tangible and intangible worlds. Morph uses solid sculptures to reproduce the distorted reflections of the artist’s body seen in stainless steel renderings of marble, turning the sculpting process into a dual image creation of nature and the human body. Here, the mirror image of the body and the sculpted body stand within a paradoxical visual relationship, transcending the traditional relationship of principal and subordinate between symbol and artist. The inclusion of the artist’s body heightens the ambiguity between reality and illusion in the process. The artist describes it as a process with no conceptual suppositions:

Here there are no references to social issues, nor is there any art historical context. I knew that I could not apply a set of assumptions of culture or shape into which I could then insert what I saw with my eyes. That would amount to closing the eyes I have discovered and using plaster to solidify conceptual ideas. I had to humbly conceal myself behind the shape, follow the form and adapt to its emergence, rather than demand that it follow my will. I had to face, with my shapeless self, the “god” that took on every shade of form and that I did not necessarily understand, and then mindlessly capture, with the help of photographic equipment, the form that emerged. As it was potentially outside of my experiential awareness, I had to accept the idea that it was “nothing for the time being,” though it certainly did exist. Once, I discovered a very peculiar shape coiled up in a pit in a corner, as if my soul was hiding in there. I immediately captured it in a photograph (which was later transformed into a three-dimensional marble sculpture). Strangely, when I tried to find this shape again, I could not find it for the life of me, as if my body was incapable of reproducing that pose. These constantly shifting shapes of the body and its parts never end. They are merely temporary apparitions that are gone as soon as they appear, and they show me that I truly exist.

(Zhan Wang, Morph Artist Statement)

“Nothing for the time being” presents a conceptual attitude of uncertainty. Such thinking produces an asynchronous dialogue with the graphic concept of “resemblance of the object in form,” and once again highlights the clear traits of visual experiment in Zhan Wang’s art. In the work that followed, Zhan Wang’s thinking grew embroiled in a cyclical typological relationship that again changed the artist’s conceptual leanings regarding the issue of the construction of form. The two sets of artworks featured in the 2015 Shanghai Pujiang Ten Year Public Art Project follow two different directions in once again challenging the boundaries of the questions devised by the artist. Terrain (fig. 6) uses the same industrial materials as Artificial Rocks, but has removed the carrier of the “Taihu stone,” instead deriving its contours from a public space, giving this experiment the properties of a public exchange. Metamorph (fig. 7) is an extension of the questions addressed in Morph. This artwork sets out to recapture those spirits coiled up in the recesses of the stones, rediscovering the artist’s form in Morph through the lens of plasticism. These disintegrated bodies and body parts come together to form a new world of shapes, the formative principles of which are not determined by naturalist objective imitation, nor by Expressionist subjective reconstruction, much less the simulated reproduction of Pop. Its formative process is a certain form of relational visual projection, the reformulation of mirror image forms, which Zhan Wang calls a “re-dismantlement” of the shapes in Morph. The result is a world that exists in a primordial state between abstraction and concreteness.

From the imprinting of shapes, to the “morphing” of shapes and on to “metamorphing,” Zhan Wang’s creations are like a contemporary topographic study of the ancient question of how art “imitates” the world. This topographic research in the medium of sculpture explores how tangible forms, under the conditions of continued change, maintain unchanging formative character. He persistently works within this formative logic of his own devising, giving his works an uncertain form of self- sufficiency. His art avoids the dimensions of political and social criticism so commonly seen in contemporary art, and strives to distance itself from the overly spectaclistic and anti-history forms of postmodern art. Of course, he is not a formalist artist in the general sense, either. He embeds his art firmly within the boundaries of visual and psychological experience, with the result being that his sculptural investigations of the issue of formative composition are organically linked to material, form, body, mind and concept. In terms of visual imagery, his work often calls to mind an interesting description of the “shape” of the “Dao”:

The greatest forms have the Dao as their only source The Dao exists, yet is indistinct and elusive
Indistinct and elusive, and yet within it exist forms Elusive and indistinct, and yet within it exist things Shadowy and obscure, and yet within it exist essences

(Daodejing, Chapter 21)


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