The Message in the Meaningless



Late last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” the institution’s first survey of contemporary art from the country. Situated within the museum’s Chinese art galleries, the exhibition interspersed the old with the new, adding context—or, perhaps, simply conserving space. In the permanent Ming Scholar’s retreat, an aubergine rubber scholar rock by Zhang Jianun cast a long shadow over its limestone brethren, while unusable furnishings by the artist-activist Ai Weiwei—a wobbly stool constructed like craniopagus twins, and a table folded at the middle so its four legs have become two legs and two arms—seemed poised to animate and wander away from their sixteenth-century predecessors. Resistance to tradition is a prominent theme in Ink Art, as is the importance of writing in—subtext, of course—a country with an active policy of censorship.

The exhibition looked at the evolution of China’s calligraphic traditions, but its most powerful statement came with works that play on an idea of language, rather than on actual words. Song Dong’s 1996 performance Printing on Water (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet), in which the artist futilely stamped the water’s surface with a large wooden seal, alludes to the hopelessness the act of writing can evoke, particularly if it leaves no trace. The final two works in “Ink Art” are also concerned with meaningless writing—but they combined to create a more comforting message. Xu Bing’s installation Book from the Sky filled the last room with scrolls covered in block-printed Chinese characters. The text cascaded in soft arcs across the ceiling, wallpapering the room and coming to rest in neat piles on the floor. The careful organization evokes a calm—which is abruptly displaced when one learns that the text comprises four thousand nonsense characters. Most Western viewers wouldn’t be able to read the text anyway, but the realization that no one can is transformative. An expanse of gibberish becomes an inhabitable space of words: the viewer is absolved from the act of reading.

For anyone who has engaged in the struggle of communicating through writing—namely, every literate person—the idea of writing for its own sake, rather than for meaning, is incredibly alluring. This isn’t an anti-intellectual position; the creation of a nonsensical non-language consisting of thousands of characters is surely a Herculean task of perseverance and ingenuity. Consider Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky as a counterexample to Borges’s Library, where an endless expanse of rooms containing infinite numbers of incomprehensible books led to chaos. For Borges, the search for a message in the mess leads to insanity; for Xu, the lack of message allows for a focus on, and celebration of, writing as a visually aesthetic art form.

The final work in the exhibition, Cai Guo-Qiang’s Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, took meaningless writing to incendiary levels. In 1993, Cai and a team of volunteers laid a ten-kilometer fuse leading from the edge of the Great Wall to the Gobi Desert and lit it from one end, videotaping the process and the results. The explosion was visible from outer space. As the charge traveled, sparks and smoke lit up the night sky, painting a line like brushwork across the terrain. The sound—like the hiss of cymbal vibrations punctuated by tympanic explosions—echoed on the plains, bouncing off the crevices of the earth. Though Project to Extend’s ambitions are predominantly architectural, when paired with Book from the Sky it becomes a monumental act of writing. Like Book, there is no literal message, yet if Book is a celebration of writing’s visual form, Project exults in its action. The traveling charge, moving with the swiftness of a pen or brush, creates the eloquent impression of writing: full of drama, force, destruction, and creation.

Lilly Lampe is a writer and art critic based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Art in America, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Papers,, and Modern Painters, among others.