The artist Zhan Wang works in photography, installation, performance events, and occasionally video, but he is best-known for his elegant, conceptually rigorous and physically laborious stainless steel sculptures. With these works, Zhan hearkens back to long-standing Chinese philosophical and aesthetic approaches to nature, the environment, the "real" and the artificial, while also revitalizaing them for his distinct contemporary reality. In the two works featured here, Artificial Rock No. 94 (Lot 1454) and Artificial Rock No. 40 (Lot 1455), we can see the range of Zhan's artistic inquisition, from the elaborate and infinite variations of No. 94 to the slippery and voluptuous surfaces of No. 40, each suggestive of different strains of the cultural and commercial shift taking place in Zhan's contemporary Beijing.
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, inaccessibly peaks of fanciful paradises for the immortals, and in tandem with water form a microcosmic representation of nature on a grand scale.
Zhan's artificial Jiashanshi are made by hammering sheets of stainless steel onto the surface of a meticulously sourced genuine Jiashanshi or Scholar rock. Small pieces are pounded, removed, and then welded together, in an extremely laborious process polishing the steel to an illusory metamorphosis of material. Hollow inside, tolling like a bell, the viewer is left to ponder what might have been within. Forcing the imagination to play upon the texture of the original material; the mercurial shell after polished to a high sheen reflects the colours of its surroundings with consequently no colour of its own, the exterior adapting and altering in its environment. Zhan induces a most direct and pure response from the viewer where such mirrored visions "produced through experience of the material, the life of the human spirit."
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." As such, these "fake" stones are perfect monuments to China's contemporary engagement with the "real." They are shells, and it matters not their source and their authenticity is a matter of perception; rather, it matters only that they delight and seduce. Between these two examples then, we see an infinitely variegated surface which is literally hollow, as with Artificial Rock No. 94, and in Artificial Rock No. 40, a celebratory monument to China's past, present, and future, one contains and mirrors for us all the glittering surfaces of this new world.