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VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

Using kitchen supplies, he whips up a compelling mini-Beijing

Through his model, artist Zhan Wang tackles expansion in his native city

Zhan Wang: Urban Landscape
At: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, through Sept. 10.
413-597-2429.
www.wcma.org

WILLIAMSTOWN -- The city of Beijing sprawls, in miniature, over the floor of a gallery at the Williams College Museum of Art, looking like the most abundant dim sum banquet ever served -- if only there were food.

Chinese artist Zhan Wang built this model of his native city from stainless steel cookware. He purchased almost all the heating trays, kettles, coffee urns, forks , and chopsticks in Beijing and shipped them here. He spent four days scrutinizing a satellite map of the Chinese capital, and, with six assistants, arrayed his kitchen supplies into a gleaming representation of the metropolis.

It's a feast for the eyes, fascinating and comical in its detail. Knives and chopsticks mark the avenues. Stacked bowls take on the shape of a pagoda. The train station is a warming tray. Canteens and TV dinner trays wall off the ancient Forbidden Palace at the heart of the city. Skyscrapers, made out of increasingly large tureens, loom along one border. It's a fantastical, stainless steel Emerald City.

The stainless steel, boldly lit from above, gives Zhan's Beijing a futuristic sheen, but he's more concerned with the collision of past and present, tradition and modernity, than he is with science fiction. That's what makes Zhan's piece, called ``Urban Landscape," so compelling; beneath the visual razzmatazz, he tackles pressing issues about the city's expansion, and about Chinese identity.

In China, Beijing's rapid industrialization and sprawl is referred to as ``westernization." The artist has manufactured his own city out of materials he sees as commodities, which for all their shine also have the echo of throwaway containers for takeout Chinese. Easy come, easy go.

Zhan cringes at urban renewal. ``By trying to reach a level of Western-oriented modernization," he says in his artist statement, ``we are destroying the continuity of our own tradition."

He represents tradition with Beijing's ancient architecture, and with his own version of scholars' rocks, irregular stones used as objects of contemplation. Zhan has molded mountainous ones out of stainless steel, and they provide the backdrop to his city. With their reflective glimmer, they're also rugged mirrors, and so hint more at egotistical navel gazing than meditation on the larger meaning of life. With them, Zhan brings together past and present, twitting Western obsession with the self while honoring the original intention of the scholars' rocks.

Even as he critiques the West's influence on his hometown, Zhan's work embodies an uneasy marriage between East and West. Each defines itself against the other, and now, with China's increasing economic might and decreasing isolationism, the boundaries are becoming more transparent and easier to cross. Chinese language is the fastest growing major at Williams College; that's one of the reasons the WCMA has exhibited Zhan and other Chinese artists.

Chinese food (and the tools used to prepare and eat it) is an easy and accessible common ground, a staple in cities East and West. The kitchenware that is Zhan's bricks and mortar, though mundane, is a universal language. ``Urban Landscape" brims with the clash of old and new, East and West, but its great success is in embracing them all.

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