When we understand the void in art, we begin to understand ourselves

Are you interested in visiting art galleries and museums? Are you a big fan of contemporary art? If the answer is ‘yes’ one assumes you must have had some embarrassing experiences regarding understanding artwork. However, you are not the only one.

Revolutionary movements of the art world in the 20th century shaped the art we see today. The diversity of contemporary art can be traced back to the early 20th century when artists began to break conventional approaches. Duchamp’s fountain was one of the most iconoclastic pieces at that time. Since then the presentation of art has been detached from the meaning of this style of expression.

This is why we are baffled by artwork when we visit galleries and museums. To tell the truth, most of the time contemporary artwork carries hidden meaning, separate to the ideas presented in the art itself. As conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth said: ‘to understand art is to understand meanings.’ Several approaches can help us with the interpretation. One of ways is inspired by Chinese landscape paintings.

Traditional Chinese landscape paintings are based on the Taoist ideology which sees the Tao spirit, driving the essence of the world. Tsung Ping, one of the most famous Chinese traditional painting artists, once commented: ‘The artist who executes the portrait and the viewer who beholds it need do only one thing: give free rein to their spirit. Once that is done, everything else will take care of itself’. He suggests that bringing our spirit into artwork is the key to decipher the meaning of art, no matter if you are artists or viewers. Chinese traditional paintings do not portray objects as the way they are. Rather, they are depicted as fractions of the originals.


Since it is the spirit is what paintings aim to reveal. The spirit of Chinese painting therefore lies in the blankness that artists leave intentionally on the painting—it is better to leave it blank than to waste too much effort on portraying the object.

This is called ‘Liu bai’, meaning ‘left blank’.

This blankness is what makes Chinese paintings poetic and spiritual. It is where the meaning of Chinese paintings conceals the meaning, whilst inviting unity. Like Chinese paintings, contemporary artwork also contain a blankness which is left to the interpretation of the onlookers.

Many artistic representations contain elements of Chinese tradition

To understand the meaning of art is to find the spirit of the art concealed in this void. What we perceive from artwork is merely a visual representation of this spirit. As Tsung Ping said: ‘When this spiritual contact is established, the true forms are realised and the spirit of art is recaptured’. Therefore, instead of trying to analyse the form of artwork, we can step back to think about what the specific work means to us as individuals, and how it affects us emotionally or spiritually.

Meet Rosalind on the Team Page or Visit the Arts Department

Continue the Conversation…

How important are these Cultural ideas to you? Let us know or share the article on your social media. To contact The Mackayan, email us at