The Scholar's Rock

College librarian David Pilachowski has a lot to be excited about as construction on the library nears completion. One of the goals of the new building is to highlight art, which dovetails perfectly with a recent gift to the college of a sculpture called Artificial Rock No. 77. Temporarily housed at the Williams College Museum of Art—but intended for placement in the historic, two-storey, Stetson reading room—the sculpture is based on an ancient tradition of collecting what have come to be known as “scholar’s rocks.”

Professor of art Scarlett Jang explains that Confucian scholars began as early as the 8th century to place the ugliest, strangest-looking rocks they could find in their gardens. Called Taihu rocks, because the first ones were quarried from Lake Tai, they became one component of a garden on which scholars could gaze in contemplation. The rocks symbolized a quality a Confucian scholar should posses: “an uncompromising character.”

The scholars who collected them were drawn to the most unique—and often ugliest—rocks they could find. “This love of the strange, the bizarre, the extraordinary, and the ugly came from the fact that these qualities denote individuality and originality,” Jang explains.

Artificial Rock No. 77 is original and extraordinary—even “craggy” according to Susan Adler, the Williams parent who donated the piece. But it was not quarried from Lake Tai. Artist Zhan Wang sculpted this rock for Williams when Adler commissioned it. Artificial Rock No. 77 is one of many such sculptures in which Wang transforms the notion of “rock” by hammering stainless steel onto the surface of a stone and making it shine as bright as chrome, thus shaping a new kind of scholar’s rock.

Jang explained that the ancient scholar’s rocks symbolized the most original creation of the metaphysical principle, zaohua, that underlies the physical world, or nature. She says Zang Wang’s sculpture “confirms the power of Zaohua, by imitating natural rocks, while simultaneously negating it by creating a glaringly artificial construction, which interests us because it is not natural.”

Within that contradiction sits a piece that the Williams community can contemplate for years to come. “I felt a scholar’s rock in the library would be just right,” Adler says. Pilachowski agrees: “There is a long history in China of scholars’ rocks serving as inspiration in the study spaces of intellectuals. Our scholar’s rock will daily inspire generations of Williams students, faculty, and staff.”