As a live video records his performance, University of Chicago graduate student Conghao Tian writes Yan Zhenqing’s “An Ode to the Prosperous Great Tang Dynasty,” originally carved on a stone stele in 771. 

Conghao Tian stoops down and dips his calligraphy pen in the channel of water circumscribing the base of the dark grey vertical slab of metal standing in the Smart Museum gallery.

He rises, steps on a small step stool, and begins to write.

In a few minutes the calligraphy he writes, passages of Yan Zhenqing’s “An Ode to the Prosperous Great Tang Dynasty,” originally carved on a stone stele in 771, will evaporate and disappear.

Conghao, a graduate student in art history at the University of Chicago, writes from memory. He has been copying the Ode since he was seven years old.

Visitors to the Smart Museum watch quietly, whispering their thoughts.

The slab of metal on which Conghao writes is a sculpture, Traceless Stele by Song Dong. It is a meditation on permanence and impermanence. And, to paraphrase Song, it celebrates the allure of water, its formlessness.

On this day, Conghao demonstrates the traditional art of Chinese calligraphy through a 3-hour “durational performance.” On any other day, a visitor to the Museum can dip a calligraphy pen in the channel of water, write whatever he or she wishes on the stele, step back, and watch it evaporate.

Traceless Stele can be seen at the Smart Museum of Art as part of the exhibit, The Allure of Matter, Material Art from China, through May 3.

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