From scholars’ rocks to the fossils of the future: Five contemporary artists who appropriate the mineral element

Jonathan Bréchignac, "Alien Rocks", 2018-today. Courtesy of the artist.

Presented at ICICLE’s cultural space in Paris in 2021, the exhibition “ROCKS! The Mineral Seen by Five Contemporary Artists” takes its starting point in the Chinese tradition of stone collecting. Chinese scholars used to choose stones or rocks eroded by time from nature to decorate their gardens and studios. In combination with water, these forms symbolizing the mountain constitute reductions of nature and act as sources of escape from everyday life, conducive to aesthetic pleasure and spiritual enrichment. 

“Inside a closed fist, one can gather the beauty of a thousand cliffs.”

Du Wan, Catalogue of the Stones of the Cloud Forest (12th century)

“Before being a conscious spectacle, any landscape is a dreamlike experience. One looks at landscapes with aesthetic passion only after having it seen in a dream.”

Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter (1942)
Scholar’s Rock, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Limestone and wooden base. 61.9cm x 41.3cm x 28.6cm. Donation from the Richard Rosenblum family, 2008. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)

In this article, curators Bérénice Angremy, Victoria Jonathan and Gabrielle Petiau, look back at the exhibition “ROCKS!” and the way five French and Chinese artists look at minerals: Zhan Wang (1962), Jonathan Bréchignac (1985), Charlotte Charbonnel (1980), Noémie Goudal (1984) and Shao Wenhuan (1971). 

Stone collecting, a Chinese passion

The veneration of rough stones, found in nature, has been part of Chinese culture for two thousand years.
As early as the 3rd century BC, classical texts mention “curious stones” (guai shi) offered to the legendary emperor Yu. In the Chinese tradition, mountains are sacred and manifest the fundamental energy of the earth, the most condensed form of qi (vital breath that animates the world). As “bones of the earth”, stones constitute reductions of mountains, and one can reproduce these forces in a garden or an interior, on a desk or a shelf, using rocks and stones of varying sizes.

Initially a privilege bestowed to emperors and princes, scholars would soon get acquitted with this passion for stones that is still widespread in China today. Like a concentrate of telluric forces, the stone testifies of the world’s movements into a fixed and static form. It is the form of the formless. A scholar’s stone puts within our reach the mysterious powers of nature. Far from being a sacred object or a talisman, it bears witness to the interconnection between the spiritual and everyday life, which is the very core of Chinese culture.

From fake mountains to artificial rocks

In his series of Artificial Rocks, initiated in the mid-1990s, Zhan Wang (born in 1962) is inspired by these scholars’ stones. To the natural erosion of stones, he opposes the artificial process of sculpturing a time- resistant material, stainless steel. The artist shapes stainless steel sheets around natural stones, before removing and reassembling them to create a hollow form. The sculpture has the shape of a rock but also the reflective qualities of water, combining in one object the two Chinese symbols of nature. But these “false” stainless steel scholars’ stones also emphasize their void and artifice. The artist thus questions the relationship between seemingly opposing forces (nature and artifice, past and present, China and the West, full and empty) but also the causality between the work and its context. When moved from their natural environment to a domestic one, the scholars’ stones see a change in their status: the natural object becomes an aesthetic object. This change reveals something about traditional Chinese culture and aesthetics. Indeed, a piece of art does not have to be man-made, it can simply be identified and appreciated as such.

By creating replicas of the scholar’s stones and moving them from the garden or studio to an exhibition gallery or the art market, Zhan Wang gives them a new status and underlines modern society’s craving for fetishism. Zhan Wang thus reinterprets the tradition of the scholar’s stones and their environmental consciousness, juxtaposed with the evolutions of an industrialised and westernised China that began its great transformation the very same moment the artist began his artistic practice.

Zhan Wang, “Artificial Rock”, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Loft Gallery.
Nature metamorphosis: making the invisible visible

Through intervention devices and installations, Charlotte Charbonnel (born in 1980) probes the origin of matter and makes forms emerge from environmental and natural phenomena. Between fascination and manipulation, the artist impregnates herself with natural elements while constraining them into forms that she imagines. During her residency at La Halle, she created the Meteaura series (2020), as she had access to an extraordinary site in Vercors (France) called the Garden of Petrifying Fountains, where waterfalls enriched in limestone transform any object into stone. She left slates under the fountains for several months, removed
a plate every two days and let the water draw the trace of its passage. On some stones, the limestone just grazed the surface, on others, it sedimented. The work is thus a relic that captured material variations under the action of water erosion where the petrifying water seconds the artist in her sculptural gesture. Nature and artist together randomly traced these patterns that are reminiscent of radar images of electromagnetic waves, similar to the skylights of a meteorite fall – as the title suggests. Allowing movement and indeterminacy, the different processes Charlotte Charbonnel puts in place, constitute a lever for magical thinking. By showing the transformative power of nature, the artist awakens our capacity to wonder. Loving neologisms created from technical or scholarly terms, Charlotte Charbonnel resumes to the beginnings of photography with her Ambrolitotypes (2017-2019). She uses forgotten 1850s formulas, experimenting with alchemy – wet collodion and ambrotype – to draw portraits of stones. These old techniques, which involve the manipulation of minerals (potassium, sodium, silver crystals…) and the use of glass plates, allow her to play with both material and surfaces to create an impression of depth and perspective. The artist wants us to confuse the perceived object with the real one. She explores the sculptural potential of photography through the superimposition of images and the construction of a geometrical structure that will archive the stone’s imprint.

Charlotte Charbonnel, “Météaura 8”, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Backslash Gallery.
Charlotte Charbonnel, “Ambrolitotype III”, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Backslash gallery.
Alien stones and strange phenomena

These considerations correspond with Jonathan Bréchignac’s (born in 1985) work on the mineral. In his series Alien Rocks and Stone Balancings (2018), the artist fashions rocks found in nature, in his native Provence or in the creeks of Marseille, into fake stones made in synthetic materials (epoxy resin, polyurethane foam, concrete, acrylic, effect paints…), which are adorned with fluorescent colours and iridescent effects. At the crossroads of popular myths, geology and science fiction, the artist proposes to elevate stones to the rank of living species and puts forward the hypothesis of a new evolutionary theory centered on minerals. He speaks of a “Darwinism of stones”. From rocks formation dating back to geological times, to their engraved inscriptions since Antiquity, stones are sacred or endowed with esoteric properties. Their static and unchanging nature has made them the privileged witnesses of History. The Anthropocene era, (which designates the period of contemporary geological history of men’s impact on the environment, so visible that it can be compared to a major geological force) inaugurates a new stage of species that rise from the formation of “plastiglomerates”: aggregates of natural and synthetic materials, particularly Those made from plastic pollution.

The Sailing Stones project, is a series of trompe-l’oeil painted polyurethane foam stones that come to life through sensors and a specially programmed software. It was named after a natural phenomenon that we are yet incapable of explaining: rocks that move and make long tracks in the Nevada desert and Death Valley. These moving stones generate the craziest hypotheses and open a new line of thought on life: what if rocks wanted to express themselves in a language that we cannot decipher yet?

Jonathan Bréchignac, “Stone Balancings”, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

“We are so small.”

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Le Massif du Mont Blanc (1876)
One (or ten thousand) stone(s)

Trained as a painter, Shao Wenhuan (born in 1971) turned to photography in order to observe “the objective world”. But his use of the medium is a simple recording of the outside world; he seeks to grasp the relationship between the objective and the subjective. And photography is the medium that summons alternative realities through the presence of the photographed object. Stones, lakes, stars, moons become hallucinatory landscapes, where the artist blurs our perceptions of reality and links these natural objects with their unknown origins. He seeks to create “landscapes with spiritual depth”. In the series Green Bloom of Decay (whose Chinese title literally translates as “green of mold”), Shao uses his lens to capture close-ups of stones and rocks found in the mountains and forests of the Yellow Mountains or in the Fuchun region, a stone throw from Hangzhou, where he teaches at the China Academy of Fine Arts. He then develops and prints them on silk and reworks them with acrylic paint. Shao combines mechanical and manual intervention, the so-called photographic “truth” with the expressiveness of painting. His work combines the multiple and the unique. With this series, Shao seeks to manipulate what happens in a darkroom by acting on photo-sensitivity, deliberately leaking light and accentuating corners. He also brushes the picture to give an embossed and eroded texture, alters the development, changing the image density and leaving water marks. But also sends his work through a painting studio in an attempt at deconstructing photography in an “anti-photographic logic”. The title of the series evokes both blossoming and decay: the cycle of nature. In China, the number ten thousand signifies a total, it is the symbol of so much greatness that it cannot be named. By manipulating the art of reproduction, Shao Wenhuan create unique images, embraces the infinite through the singular and portrays ten thousand stones from a single one.


Shao Wenhuan, “Green Bloom of Decay 12“, 2013.


Shao Wenhuan, “Green Bloom of Decay 10”, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.


Shao Wenhuan, “Green Bloom of Decay 9”, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.


Shao Wenhuan, "Green Bloom of Decay 4", 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

The impossible representation of the landscape?

The work of the artist Noémie Goudal (born in 1984) makes real and theoretical geographies co-exist, creating a space somewhere between physical reality and mental representation. Since the beginning, the artist has been interested in the links between optics and perception, observation and interpretation, science and art. After her three series that explored the theoretical systems of the sky (Observatories, Towers and Southern Light Stations), Noémie Goudal begins in 2017 a new body of work about the history of science and the theories of Earth’s formation (Telluris, Uprisings and Dismantlings). Originally inspired by ancient discoveries which revealed the presence of fossils on mountains tops, the series Soulèvements (Uprisings) (2018) is an interpretation of centuries-old observations of these fossils. Soulèvements underlines the absurdity of such an undertaking.

“A first glance at these photographs and we see mountainous rock formations. A second and it becomes clear, from the fine grids of light that shine through the formations like crevasses, and from their often wildly irregular edges, that the rocks were never in fact there at all. To create this illusion, Goudal fixed a stack of around twenty mirrors around each rock at different angles, then photographed this ‘edifice’ so that we see in the resulting image the many reflections of the rock’s surfaces as one. Her constructions symbolise the great uplifts that create mountain ranges, but they also suggest the intellectual revolutions that can shatter the status quo and change a field of knowledge beyond recognition. Slippery to behold, they are a reminder that everything we believe to be true can be turned on its head in a minute.” (Emma Lewis, preface to the book Soulèvements published in 2020 by RVB Books).

What better tool can illustrate this complex feat than a camera? From the beginning, its importance lies not only in what it reproduces, but in what it is capable of producing within the spectator’s mind. Did Arago not see in the daguerreotype both a means of mapping territories and a kind of artificial eye capable of making visible atmospheric matter and celestial bodies?

Noémie Goudal, “Soulèvement IV”, 2018. Courtesy of the artist
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