Quiet, cool, and dimly lit, Long March Gallery is an ethereal sanctuary for the five sculptures of Zhan Wang’s Morph. A tall, abstract sculptural form perches on a marble pedestal in the first gallery; next to it is a large, shiny work from Zhan’s ongoing Artificial Rock series. Together they create an intriguing juxtaposition. Immediately it seems odd to view such a work inside a gallery, versus outside in a sculpture garden or in a public space (where many pieces from this series are indeed placed). Walking around the silvery polished-steel rock, my own figure morphed along with my environment, my body blurred together with the swirling grayish walls on the rock’s surface, creating a warped-looking figure whose form drew similarities to the abstract white sculpture next to me, and forming a bridge between Zhan’s two present bodies of work.
The environment also affected my experience of the works in the next gallery, a very spacious room so dim that the wall labels are barely legible. Track lights focus solely on three additional Morph sculptures and cast shadows on the glazed concrete floor and walls. The forms are remarkable: Their size commands veneration, the way an altar might, and each piece is an aqueous pile of abstract shapes that evokes human and animal forms, like drooping flesh blanketing bones. The smooth marble plinths beneath the sculptures evince opulence as the seductive milky material of the forms draws the viewer into their fecund folds and gatherings. Like the work of the renowned ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos, Zhan executes marvelous, meticulous statues for Morph, the ideal beauty of which one has never seen before.
Artificial Rock captures an interpretation of nature on its surface by reflecting viewers and their surroundings in an image that is constantly moving and evolving, even as these “rocks” remain still. Their capacity to distort simultaneously reflects reality and forces it out of context, almost critically; it can be extrapolated as a comment on the social and political conditions that affect our environment and thus our selves. Several years ago, Zhan worked with these rock reflections to create two-dimensional images for his Flowers in the Mirror series (2004–2005). Morph can be seen as the three-dimensional extension of his ongoing practice with the metaphor of Artificial Rock. Whereas the works from Flowers in the Mirror were almost like screen captures, in which viewers could make out colors and identify the shining bulges of the sculpture’s surface, the works in morph are less literal reproductions, creating more refined and monumental testaments to their existence. Ultimately, this makes them more successful than their photographic cousins.
To imagine viewing Morph in alternate surroundings is a challenge. Placing the sculptures among other artworks—or in the atrium of a sleek building—might diminish their authority. But perhaps they are more resilient and not as precious; they are, after all, representations of distorted images of space and time, a collective monument to the intangible characteristics that constitute our presence: the political, religious, and societal systems that affect how we dress, speak, and act; and the other rarely perceptible features that are the result of our being: our allegiances, emotional baggage, and digital detritus. The corporeal is only one manifestation of the self, thus to accurately reflect the whole being, it might be necessary to blur it with everything else around us, minimizing our distinctness. I can’t help feeling that the undeniable, majestic presence of Zhan’s work evokes a concerning fragility. Are these amorphous forms occasioning more awareness of the annexing of the self to environment (especially technology), or are they portraits recalibrated to take into account external forces blighting individuality and expression? Contextualizing their existence mimics the way they came into existence in the first place: through Zhan’s interest in taking us out of context.
Zhan Wang: Morph is on view at Long March Space through February 2, 2015.