Zhan Wang at the Williams College Museum of Art
Art in America, May 2007.

At first glance, Zhan Wang's Urban Landscape—a miniature Beijing made out of everyday stainless steel cooking utensils that the artist laid out on the museum floor—appeared easy and somewhat gimmicky. Shiny and whimsical, it appealed to even the youngest visitors, who ran around it pointing out teakettles and salt and peppershakers. Like those drawings in which you can alternately see a profile and a vase, your perception would switch back and forth: one second seeing it as a teeming metropolis, and the next nothing more than a heap of interestingly arranged catering equipment.

Wang's fabricated city was surrounded by remnants of some of the 46-year-old Chinese artist's previous work—large, stainless steel rocks that here served as mountains. The glow from a single overhead light threw reflections of "buildings" onto the gray museum walls and made for a clinical ambiance. Set on stainless steel panels, dense stacks of Chinese-made saucepans, colanders, buffet trays, and coffee urns became apartment buildings, skyscrapers, and even an "Imperial Palace, while flatware floated like boats on the central "river." The result was a surprisingly graceful cacophony of forms that caused the eye to jump from one set of objects to another, as if it were a 3-D Jackson Pollock painting.

The formal physicality of the piece elevated it from a superficial statement to an engrossing work that elicited the sinking feeling one has when coming upon old landmarks that have been replaced with office buildings, or a gash in the landscape that's to be the next Cumberland Farms gas station—a sense of claustrophobia engendered by a world increasingly overrun with manmade detritus. It's all very impersonal—a vast futuristic complex one can imagine is manned by unseen drones who are as expendable and replaceable as chopsticks. Wang's metal universe reflects the intertwined influences of East and West with a result that nullifies the humanity of each.

-Carol Diehl

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