Re-interpretation of Chinese Literati and Scholars' Rock Culture
From at least the Song Dynasty onward, Chinese scholar's rocks were an important object of Chinese material culture and aesthetic connoisseurship. Appreciated for their dramatic forms, intricate spaces, movements, contrasting colors, or resemblance to sacred mountains. Their size could range from just a few inches tall to several meters in height for display in homes or gardens. The great conceit of scholar's rocks, however, was that they were naturally occurring formations, forged over thousands of years of exposure to nature's elements. In fact, many were partially if not fully man-made, extensions of a kind of aestheticization and miniaturization of nature that has long been popular in Chinese domestic spaces and gardens. These "natural" stones were meant to provide an occasion for contemplation that nature itself did not necessarily always provide.
Beijing-based sculptor Zhan Wang first began his Artificial Rock series in the mid-1990s. Sometimes also called "Scholar's Rocks", these sculptures are the artist's reinterpretation of the classic form, now rendered in stainless steel as the artist's post-modern improvement appropriate to the times. Similar to the traditional rocks, these works are constructed to hide the hand of their author, hand-hammered out of sheets of steel into exquisitely modulated surfaces. Zhan's updating of the genre is a deceptively simple, elegant gesture, but these extraordinary sculptures also propose a sophisticated and complex renegotiation of traditional Chinese aesthetics and culture for the contemporary moment.
Artificial Rock No. 115 (Lot 1037), featured here in the Evening sale, and Artificial Rock No. 92 (Lot 1645) in the Day Sale, display the range of possibilities in the series, highlighting its power at its most grand and at its most intimate. Artificial Rock No. 115 is a magnificent example, with a wingspan extending over 3 meters. Its enormous steel masses grow organically from its small footprint into an asymmetric but dynamic form. These enormous volumes are balanced by piercings and hollow spaces, both large and discreet, while its surface undulates with subtle shifts in the planar surface, flowing as smooth as running water, resulting in an infinite play of contrasts, of light against dark, mass versus void, of the nearly liquid surface contrasted with the cool industrial material.
Traditional scholar's rocks were objects of contemplation, of introspection. Zhan Wang subverts this function with new possibilities. Instead of plumbing the mysteries of nature in miniature form, the viewer finds the world reflected in the fluid surfaces of Zhan's rocks. Zhan has stated, "Placed in a traditional courtyard, rockery satisfied people's desire to return to nature by offering them stone fragments from nature. But huge changes in the world have made this traditional ideal increasingly out of date. I have thus used stainless steel to duplicate and transform natural rockery into manufactured forms. The material's glittering surface, ostentatious glamour and illusory appearance make it an ideal medium to convey new dreams."
Zhan Wang reiterates this aesthetic philosophy in both the grand and intimate forms of his artificial rocks. Artificial Rock No. 92 mimics the scale of the taihu stones found in scholars studios. Chinese interest in collecting rocks for spiritual or aesthetic purposes has been traced to the Han dynasty. Aptly labeled "Scholar Rocks", the smaller size were carried around affectionately by Chinese literati who took these portable mountains into their sanctuaries, admiring the rocks for "surfaces that suggest great age, forceful profiles that evoke the grandeur of nature, overlapping layers or plans that import depth, and hollows or perforations that create rhythmic, harmonious patterns." Rocks in a Chinese garden symbolize the craggy, inaccessible peaks of fanciful paradises for the immortals, and in tandem with water form a microcosmic representation of nature on a grand scale. They were a kind of portable piece of nature, but a kind of nature that was unattainable for mortals. Zhan brings these aspirations down to earth and updates them. Rather than providing a kind of meditative escapism, his surfaces reflect a contemporary material reality, a hard industrial surface that suggests a world more fluid, fantastic and shimmering than it actually is.
As Wu Hong has written, "We must realize that to Zhan Wang, glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance are not necessarily bad qualities, and that his stainless-steel rocks are definitely not designed as satire or mockery of contemporary material culture. Rather, both the original rockeries and his copies are material forms selected or created for people's spiritual needs; their different materiality suits different needs at different times. The problem he addresses is thus one of authenticity: Which rock- the original or his copy- more genuinely reflects contemporary Chinese culture? Interestingly, the Chinese call natural rockeries jia shan shi, or "fake mountain rocks." According to Zhan Wang, such rocks, even if made of real stones, have truly become "fakes" when used to decorate a contemporary environment. But his stainless-steel rocks, though artificial, signify the "genuine" of our own time".
Vision of Fantasia and Illusion
Indeed, Zhan's first inspiration for his series came from Beijing's changing urban environment. During a period of rapid growth and development, Beijing's skyline was increasingly dotted with hastily constructed high-rises, often capped with "traditional" Chinese architectural elements, such as tiled roofs; the courtyards of such buildings might also gratuitously include a traditional scholars rock. For the artist, these monuments represented a mockery of Chinese culture, reducing it to a fixed set of appropriations and symbols, but no longer a site of contemplation or aesthetic engagement.
As such, the pleasure Zhan Wang takes in this "ostentatious glamour" is somewhat distinct from the sugar sweet pop satire of Jeff Koons' contemporaneous series, "Celebration", but perhaps more akin to the experience of viewing one of Anish Kapoor's concave mirrored wall sculptures. Zhan's works are not necessarily a cynical take on Chinese culture, but an embrace of core Chinese aesthetic values that the artist attempts to revive with contemporary materials. At a distance the rocks appear as mystical and enigmatic - almost alien - forms that seem to shimmer with life. As one approaches Artificial Rock No. 115, the experience becomes seductive, vertiginous, almost unsettling, the surrounding environment revealed in distorted, darting reflections, and the viewer becomes lost in the visual fantasia around him.
In this way, Zhan Wang revives the contemplative appreciation of scholar's rocks as a visual but also sensory experience, not just one enjoyed through the projection into an imagined nature. Moreover, Zhan has turned a fantasy of "nature" into an aestheticization of contemporary experience, one of fleeting images, sensations, and desires. As such, the conventional opposition between tradition and modernity has been reconsidered, and Zhan Wang has offered an approach to age's old Chinese aesthetics while bringing them fully into the present in a new and sophisticated way.