Zhan Wang: Universe

Zhan Wang, My Personal Universe, Video still, 2012. Image courtesy of UCCA, Beijing.

In The Savage Mind (1962), Claude Lévi-Strauss made a case for “the intrinsic value of a small-scale model” of art, legitimising the art of the miniature because it “compensates for the renunciation of sensible dimensions by the acquisition of intelligible dimensions”. The miniature or the microcosmic representation is, as Lévi-Strauss rationalised, a schematic reduction permitting immediate intelligibility, because it essentially constitutes a bona fide experience between viewer and work on a metaphorical level.

Zhan Wang, 2012, My Personal Universe, Installation and Video View. Photo: Courtesy of UCCA, Beijing.

My Personal Universe (2011-12) at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was Chinese conceptual sculptor Zhan Wang’s endeavour to do just that, in a re-imagination of the first millisecond of the universe’s genesis to its present evolved state, articulating this momentous event in an exhibition through an artistic process whose scale seemed to mirror its colossal significance. As the dominant scientific explanation for the origin of the universe, the Big Bang theory hypothesises that all matter and energy existed in an infinitely small point of infinite density, and in an inexplicable moment, began to expand outward continuously, forming the vast cosmos as we know today. Drawn to the concept of initial states of being, Zhan sought to evoke the earliest moments of our universe through a carefully planned explosion of a boulder in China’s mountainous Shandong province, recording the blast and its aftermath in a two-minute film capturing the event in extreme slow motion. Collecting all 7000 fragments of pulverised rock, Zhan made stainless steel replicas of each one, suspending them in the exact formation in which they landed after exploding.

Zhan Wang, Singapore Tyler Print Institute, image courtesy of STPI.

Zhan’s Universe (2012) at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute is materially and thematically fashioned after My Personal Universe, employing – in a vastly scaled-down version – similar artistic processes and reiterations of the physical dimensions of shattered rocks. Lacking the flashy pizzazz of its predecessor and constrained by certain spatial parameters, the mode of production and the materials differ in this show; rocks were shattered with a sledgehammer instead of a dynamite, and later re-assembled as aluminium-coated replicas on paper slabs and on highly polished mirrors. The original rock fragments were pounded by hand into fine sediment and mixed with cotton pulp to produce a solid paper base; the resulting effect is one which reveals the natural mineral pigments of clay, slate and granite.

Zhan Wang, 小宇宙 My Universe 27, 2012 © Courtesy of Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

In both iterations, Zhan’s works encapsulate energy in its basest, most raw form at the moment it is discharged, serving as the genesis metaphor for the conceptualisation of art: the primordial, choatic sea of colliding ideas on which artistic process and practice are established. Universe is not a crystalline model of time or one that demands a fixed vision of scientific history; it is rather, focused on an infinitesimal moment that has no witnesses but about which countless speculations have abounded. Zhan’s works are also built on a premise that is inherently contradictory: he destroys only to (re)create; the resulting assembly of rock fragments are near-negligible visual cues demonstrating an outcome of a significant event – the cosmos that we understand today – to the audience. However, it is the scientifically unrecorded events – the existing theoretical conjecture surrounding the details of the universe’s formation – that force us to delve deep into the universe of our own imagination.

To some extent, the resulting effect of the Universe series is one that seems to casually pitch the presumptuous confidence of scientific authority against the deep uncertainty and unknown variables yet existing in the vastness of space – that yet lies beyond humanity’s comprehension. If Universe then, strives to unhinge the rote dependence on scientific observations and hypotheses for explaining natural phenomena, its subtle emphasis on creating a framework which allows ambiguity is a seductive idea because it leaves the mysterious where it needs to remain: in an inscrutable realm of wonder and reverence.


Conceptual Sculptor Zhan Wang (b.1962, Beijing,China), graduated with a Master of Fine Arts (Sculpture) from The Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. He has exhibited extensively in major museums and galleries across the world including the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; Saatchi Gallery, London; Kunst Museum, Bern; MoriArt Museum, Tokyo and the Asia Society Museum, New York.

Universe will be on show at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute until 28 April 2012.