A metallic rock sculpture in the wall courtyard
Artificial Rock #119 sculpted by Zhan Wang. Photo by Sydney Schertz ‘24.

Anika Banerjee ’24 (She/Her), Staff Writer

The scholar’s rocks are collected by educated scholars in traditional Chinese culture and thus has been a sign of privilege,” said Yunyue Zhang ‘23. The sculpture “transcends time and culture and allows the viewers to reflect on the present,” she continued.

On October 22, 2021, there will be a dedication ceremony for Artificial Rock #119. In 2007, Davidson began their Campus Sculpture Project, which showcases sculptures by numerous artists with diverse styles and cultures. This piece by artist Zhan Wang, which will soon join the collection, will be the first sculpture created by an Asian artist in the Campus Sculpture Program. 

 Zhan Wang is a Chinese contemporary artist specializing in multimedia installations, photography, and most notably, sculpture. In 1995, Wang began his series of Artificial Rocks which are a symbol of China’s past and are modeled after scholar’s rocks. These natural rocks have varying shapes and sizes that make them unique. Wang takes these rocks and covers them in stainless steel which puts a modern spin on an ancient concept. His technique showcases China’s reposition from a land that relied on nature to an urban state.

There is historical gravitas to an art piece like this one as well. “The appreciation and collection of special rocks to embellish gardens has been well-established since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China,” said Dr. Rosaline Kyo, a professor of art and Chinese studies. “During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), smaller versions, called scholar’s rocks, were collected, displayed, and appreciated within scholars’ studios. Paintings, facsimiles, commentaries, poems, and novels have been created about garden rocks and scholar’s rocks.”

Lia Newman, director and curator of the Van Every Smith gallery, addressed this addition to the outdoor sculpture collection. “The outdoor collection is challenging to grow, because there are many considerations when a work of art will be installed ‘permanently’ on campus,” she said. 

 When acquiring an art piece that is essentially permanent to Davidson, there are many considerations to keep in mind. Newman believes that it is long overdue to have work by a Chinese artist on campus, as well as artists from. “It’s a goal of ours to grow the collection in such a way that the identities of the artists represented are reflective of our campus community,” she said. 

This sculpture, which was modeled after the Chinese Scholar Rocks, was acquired to commemorate Gill Holland, an emeritus professor of English. “When Dr. Holland’s family expressed interest in helping us acquire a work of art to honor him and his wife Siri, a work by Zhan Wang seemed like a perfect fit given Dr. Holland’s interest in Chinese art and poetry,” said Newman. Newman spoke of how Holland studied Mandarin and classical Chinese at Stanford University as well as in Taiwan and Beijing. On his three sabbatical leaves, he chose to return to China and spend his time there. While Holland taught and studied English and American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, he also published a book of translated classical Chinese poetry along with two books of his own poems.

Kyo broke down the history and artistic significance behind this sculpture. She said that Zhan Wang uses stainless steel sheets to cover large garden rocks, and his goal is to spark reflection on the contemporary world. Kyo referenced a statement from Zhan Wang, in which he said, “The material’s glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance make it an ideal medium to convey new dreams.” 

Kyo contends that this addition to our sculpture collection will serve to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. She claims that there is a certain level of comfort that comes from having a piece of your culture, race, or ethnicity displayed on campus—there is a feeling of belonging that can be created by this art’s presence on campus. 

“When students, staff, and faculty see a part of their culture or know that a public sculptural work on campus was created by someone of the same race or ethnicity as themselves, it can foster a feeling of belonging that they had not felt before” Kyo said.

 Zhang emphasizes the importance of this sculpture on campus. She believes that this sculpture conveys a culture that is very different from that of the United States. She also speaks to how the reflective quality of the rock sparks thought and contemplation of one’s own experiences. Additionally, she addressed how the sculpture is a critique of how mankind has digressed from our symbiotic relationship with nature to the wholesale abuse of natural resources. Zhang says that our transition from nature to mechanized manufacturing has become the status quo, but distancing ourselves from nature is not a good idea. 

Although she stresses that she cannot speak for all Asian and Asian American students on campus, Zhang felt as though this sculpture will be like a piece of her home on campus. “I feel like this sculpture is a statement for the school, a plentiful press statement that we are standing together—‘we support Asians and Asian Americans, and also international students,’” said Zhang.

 “I just saw this morning that the Chinese Embassy published another article warning all the Chinese students, or rather all the Chinese citizens in the US, to be cautious because there were two attacks in the past week on Chinese students,” stated Zhang. 

 After briefly searching on Google for more information about the attacks, Zhang was unable to find anything. She argues how the lack of media coverage has displayed how the US has become rather scrutinizing of Chinese culture. 

 “The lack of media coverage shows the lack of attention and interest in general to international students, and Chinese students in particular. This relates to the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, and more recently, how Chinese student’s US visa blockage under the Trump-era,” said Zhang. “We are not welcomed in US because we were the carriers of ‘kungflu,’ we face rejections at home because we were not there when the pandemic was the worst in China and now we are coming back with the potential of bringing virus with us,” she explained. 

 Zhang highlights how this sculpture will serve to remind people of the importance of Chinese culture and how they are not simply political tools. Additionally, the sculpture serves to prompt discussion and thought around some of the struggles and dangers that other cultures face. 

Zhang believes that art provides other cultures with the ability to express themselves, and take control over their own narrative. She argues that the US has a tendency to take other countries’ narratives and deliver it under their own message which distorts the truth. Davidson, however, cherishes an attitude that values celebration and inclusivity, with more of an emphasis on the former, said Zhang. This sculpture is a celebration of culture and, according to Zhang, “this sculpture begins to put some cultures on equal ground and celebrates the differences.”