"Zhan Wang" by Britta Erickson

      Whether he is forming sculptures from steel and stone, or orchestrating a happening in a demolition zone, Zhan Wang is concerned with the relationship between the opposing forces of old and new, natural and man-made form. These forces have always formed a yin-yang dichotomy within which we negotiate our lives. However, living between these forces is becoming increasingly difficult for China's urbanites as cities in China grow into modern steel and glass metropolises almost overnight.
      In 1994, Zhan Wang drew attention to the speed of change overtaking old Beijing in a performance called "Ruin Cleaning Project, 94". One morning he went to a construction site on which stood a half-destroyed traditional house. He began cleaning and then painting the surviving structure in an effort to resuscitate it, but before he had finished, a team of construction workers appeared to flatten the site.

      In Beijing, the new is rapidly eradicating the old. Zhan Wang believes that tradition need not disappear despite the ascendancy of the modern. His series of stainless steel rocks which he began several years ago, recreates a traditional form in a modern material. For many centuries, Chinese culture has placed a high value on strangely and beautifully shaped rocks. Rocks in a Chinese garden symbolize mountains. In tandem with water, they form a microcosmic representation of nature on a grand scale.

      Zhan Wang molds sheets of highly malleable stainless steel around garden rocks, removes them, and then fits them back together to form a hollow stainless steel rock. The sculpture has the form of a rock but also the reflective qualities of water, thus combining in a single piece the two elements that represent nature. The traditional reason for building a garden with rocks and water is to provide an escape from everyday life. While the garden owner may not be able to travel to far-off mountains to refresh his or her spirit, a microcosmic representation of nature can have the same effect. Now that an individual's access to space has become more limited than ever, a stainless steel stone combining the qualities of rocks and water seems the perfect solution.

      Some of Zhan Wang's sculptures explore the philosophical values of materials in a purer, more straightforward manner. His paired sets of granite and stainless steel blocks, for example, draw a comparison between natural and manufactured, old and new. They highlight the material differences, and display the complexity of the natural. Granite is a visually complex stone and contrasts the shining simplicity of the manmade. The shininess of steel is yang, and granite's non reflective surface is dark, or yin. The old has weight, the new does not. The old is sufficient unto itself whereas the new is illusion, its surface decoration mere reflection of what is outside it. Old and new, natural and manufactured can coexist as a harmonious whole, just as the essential opposites yin and yang do.

      Zhan Wang is not concerned merely with the impact of the changing physical environment upon the quality of life. He also considers the effects of social engineering upon humanity. An installation that combines his concern for quality of life with his penchant for illusionistic uses of materials is "Free and Natural Space" (1994). For this piece, Zhan Wang used a stiffening agent to permanently mold Mao suits into the shapes they would take were there a contorted body within each one. He arranged the writhing forms upon a pile of dirt and suspended them from a scaffold. The material of the sculptural forms is inert, but has the appearance of life.

      In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s-the decades during which the Mao jacket was ubiquitous throughout China, life went on. But widespread forced dress conformity, symbolized by the Mao suit, sapped life from both the culture and the individuals. This is likely to be the message underlying "Free and Natural Space". In both sculptural and conceptual work, Zhan Wang combines his interest in the philosophical properties of physical materials with his concern for the changing quality of life. This is what makes his work compelling, important, and unique.