Artificial Rock

Artificial Rock, 2005
Zhan Wang (b. 1962)

In his Artificial Jiashanshi series, started in 1995, Zhan Wang seeks to recreate Chinese scholars’ rocks within modern architectural settings using a modern material, stainless steel. Each of Wang’s rocks, including his Artificial Rock (2005), recalls the traditional within a world of steel and glass cityscapes.

Scholars’ rocks or jiashanshi (jia = fake, shan = mountain, shi = rocks) were often incorporated into Chinese gardens to allow visitors the spiritual experience of moving through a mountainscape, representing the inaccessible realm of the immortals in Buddhist and Taoist tradition, without leaving the city. Although these scholars’ rocks represent a visual connection to Chinese tradition, Wang felt that incorporating jiashanshi amidst the skyscrapers of contemporary China reinforces viewers’ awareness of the extent to which China has moved away from traditional materials and design. In creating the Artificial Jiashanshi, Wang sought to create a new series of rocks that converse more easily with modern cityscapes and are thus authentic to our contemporary age. In creating these rocks his aim was not to criticize or mock the prevalence of Western design in China, but rather to allow architects the possibility of incorporating the traditional into the modern.

Wang created Artificial Rock by covering a limestone rock with sheets of stainless steel and hammering until the metal conformed to the exact shape of the rock. He then removed the sheets, welded them together, and polished away the seams to create a hollow version of the original rock. The stainless steel gives the rocks what Wang calls a “glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance” that correspond not only with the glass and metal structures that grace the skylines of contemporary cities but also with the copper exterior of the de Young.

The surface of the stainless steel also gives the piece a mountainous appearance, with contrasting tones of light and dark that imitate rocky ridges, which shift in shape and form as the viewer moves around the piece. Drawing on the original intent of the jiashanshi, the sculpture compels the viewer to step into a mountainscape that evokes the ethereal realm.

Born in Beijing and a lifelong resident of that city, conceptual artist Wang took a keen interest in the innovative art scene that took place in its East Village neighborhood during the 1990s. His work reflects the opening of China to the West and the ensuing impact of artistic ideas that had not been readily accessible in Wang’s country since the Communist Revolution of 1949. Wang has witnessed the transformation of Beijing as it clears the way for skyscrapers that are increasingly influenced by Western design, an architectural shift that renders awkward the incorporation of traditional Chinese aesthetics.

Zhan Wang (b. 1962)
Artificial Rock, 2005
Stainless steel
Foundation purchase, a gift from Dagmar Dolby in celebration of Ray Dolby’s 1965 founding of Dolby Laboratories

Listen to Emma Acker, Assistant Curator of American Art, provide her perspective on Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock.