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Rethinking Beijing

September 2006

Zhan Wang (Chinese, b. 1962) Urban Landscape, 2003; stainless steel, garden rocks, pots, pans, eating utensils, mirror, dry ice machine; Installation view Universal Experience: Art, Life and the Tourist’s Eye Hayward Gallery; © the artist 2006. Photo by Stephen White. Pékin Fine Arts. (via artdaily.org)

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Zhan Wang’s Urban Landscape (2003) makes a powerful and insightful statement about the fabricated nature of Beijing, the economic implications of Communism in China, and the definition of a city. Through his sculpture, Wang implores us to rethink our perceptions of Beijing in a new and interesting way.

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Urban Landscape is a sprawling installation constructed on the gallery floor of the Williams College Museum of Art and measures roughly 30 feet by 40 feet—stainless steel pots, pans, silverware, serving dishes, and other sundry kitchen items stacked upon one another and organized in such a way as to represent the city of Beijing on a small-scale. It is a formidable installation and dominates one end of the long gallery, its presence accentuated by the fact that the rest of the room is starkly devoid of any decoration whatsoever. This isolation from the rest of the museum’s collection allows the viewer to analyze the work without any visual distractions. The piece is well-lit from above, but is primarily illuminated by a bright spotlight in front and to the right of the viewer. Incidentally, the location of this spotlight also creates the effect of a winter morning, with the sun low in the southeastern sky. The entire installation shines and even seems to glow under this brilliant light, creating a sensory overload that is quite disorienting, forcing the viewer to squint uncomfortably until his eyes adjust to the light.


Wang uses his stainless steel components to achieve a highly dramatic effect, stacking serving dishes end on end as high as three or four feet in some instances, creating a remarkably accurate representation of the pagoda-style terracing characteristic of Oriental architecture. Wang even uses steel chopsticks to signify streets and further the realism of his Lego-like metropolis. To create a sense of the ambient landscape of Beijing, Wang places large, realistic mountains at the rear of the installation, evoking this city’s distinct feeling as a “city in the mountains.” In fact, Wang creates these “mountains” by forming sheets of steel around large rocks and polishing them until they reach a sheen even more brilliant than the rest of his city. These mountains dwarf the city they surround and remind the viewer of a Zen rock garden of sorts, shiny and complex as it may be.

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The first essential element of this installation is the emphasis it places on fabrication. Unlike most representational art (painting, sculpture, and especially photography), there is no pretense that this is the real Beijing, and Wang makes it exceedingly clear that this is an interpretation of the city and nothing more. In fact, Wang’s Beijing is a fabrication in perhaps the truest sense of the word—it is manufactured simply by assembling smaller parts (albeit thousands of them) to create a finished product. Its parts are mass-produced and impersonal and ultimately, Urban Landscape is just like every other manufactured product that is “Made in China.” This makes the mountains seem oxymoronic; they are highly naturalistic and one-of-a-kind, clearly made specifically for this installation. However, they are made from the most unnatural of materials and serve to assimilate nature into the fabricated steel of the city.

Wang’s installation also sparks commentary on the economic development of a city like Beijing. Here, the city appears to be a shiny and sparkling metropolis—an Emerald City of stainless steel. Wang’s piece evokes thoughts of money and wealth, themes that conflict at a very basic level with the economic tenets of the Communist regime that controls China’s government. This dichotomy is enhanced by the consumerism presented by the artist’s choice of materials—thousands of pots and pans and other commercial products purchased not for practical use, but for the sole purpose of an art installation, showing exactly “what money can buy” in a capitalist culture. This provocative contrast is one of the things that transforms a visually-pleasing sculpture into an interesting and meaningful mode of socioeconomic commentary.

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Finally, Wang implicitly makes a critical commentary on the nature of his subject by neglecting to incorporate people into his sculpture. This artistic choice leads to a puzzling internal debate, for what is a city without its citizens? Questioning of this sort is perhaps the greatest and most important aim of this piece, for in our modern society it seems as if we take for granted that essential component of our greatest cities. Without people, the most vibrant and exciting of cities loses its character, and despite Beijing’s beautiful and dynamic architecture, it is cold and dead as long as its streets are devoid of its citizens. A city is more than just buildings, not matter how beautiful, and Wang’s piece asks us to remember this fact and cherish what is arguably the most important part of any city.

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Zhan Wang’s interpretation of Beijing is highly provocative, and plants several seeds of imagination in its viewers’ minds. The nature of the city seems to be Wang’s primary concern, as Urban Landscape forces us to contemplate its fabricated nature. A city cannot be the sum of its parts, lest it lose its unique and essential personality. Furthermore, without its people, a city loses its life and vibrancy, no matter how shiny its buildings may be. Lastly, despite Communism’s presence in Beijing, capitalist undercurrents persist and create an interesting dichotomy worthy of a sculpture like this.


Rethinking Beijing (September 2006)