The Meaning of the Universe

“The way my work works is
I’ve tried to build a model that
can incorporate as much as it possibly can.
It’s like this constantly expanding information structure
that can just keep theoretically soaking up
everything—but inside a way of seeing
so it doesn’t just become this barrage” [1]

Matthew Ritchie

Matthew Ritchie

Proposition Player (2003)
paper, prints, light-box drawings, floor-to-wall installations, freestanding sculpture[2]

     American based, English born artist Matthew Ritchie has a big ambition. He attempts in his practice “to represent the entire universe and the structures of knowledge and belief that we use to understand and visualize it” .[3]

     His encyclopedic project is cumulative, in the sense that it rises in time, in the same way human knowledge does. Old theories, old explanations and interpretations of the reality are never erased by new discoveries, theories and interpretations but they still remain, forming intellectual fundaments, infrastructures and frames as traditions, options, hypothesis, different possibilities, even exemplar errors or, as Michel Foucault suggests, “different statements depending on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse”.[4]

     His project easily rises in space too, since the knowledge, which is referred always to a context, that is to say the field that defines the validity of propositions, theories and axioms, is developed through new perspectives of investigation, new paradigms offered by culture, science and society. For example, contemporary theories that attempt to describe the universe through a computational paradigm inspired by digital technologies, are simply a different point of view alternative to physical or quantum mechanical theories, useful to more effectively describe and understand some particular phenomena, like fractal or complex structures[5] . Nevertheless these new points of view displace ontologically our beliefs, locates us in new positions. The computational paradigm contradicts for example the physical law of scarcity, since a file may be reproduced in an indefinite number of copies and be present on a multitude of different supports.

     Ritchie’s practice then, being related with meaning/language and structure/code, involves semiotic, i.e. the theory of signs. In his enormous installation “Proposition Player” (2003), Ritchie works with drawings to pursue his goal. The bidimensional characteristic of drawing calls immediately another surface practice, that of writing, together with the locus of its agency: the meaning. “’Proposition Player’ is all about gambling and quantum mechanics, the elements of chance and risk, and how those things build into an entire continuum of meaning”[6] Ritchie claims. Many allusions are drawn from Judaeo-Christian religion, occult practices, Gnostic traditions. Scientific elements and principles are evident as well.

     Ritchie’s work assumes value of rewriting, that is, researching new meanings. It appears related with the Judaic discipline of Kabbalah, especially its practice of scriptural exegesis, i.e. a way of re-interpreting the Torah, the God’s book, consisting in rewriting the whole text again and again in all possible permutations, until the true message God has intended to transmit to humans, which is occulted in words and scriptural signs (punctuation, accents, numbers, etc.), will show itself in its genuine and pure form. Kabbalah may be well considered as a forerunner of semiotic.

     Charles Sanders Peirce, in defining semiotics, was aware immediately that sign was a process and that the process of interpreting a sign always generates another sign, in a play of “infinite” reiterations. Italian semiotician and writer Umberto Eco, building on the work of Peirce, argues that this idea of infinite meanings produced by signs is actually only hypothetical since the possible meanings are limited by cultural and social context.

     In this sense ‘Proposition Player’ may be considered as a representation of the universe, not in a literal sense of course, since we as humans cannot comprehend in our limited mind its infinity, nor we can be aware of all phenomena happening in it, but as an effective allegory concerning meaning. The installation is a representation of the multiplicity of meaning, of its infinite generation through signs, infinite as the universe itself.

[1] PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. ART21: Season three (2005); Episode: Structures. Last access 1/25/2012 ;

[2] Pictures courtesy by ;

[3] PBS: Public Broadcasting Service;

[4] Michel Foucault. Archeologia del sapere (translated in English as “The Archaeology of Knowledge”). Torino: Einaudi, 2005;

[5] Katherine N. Hayles. My mother was a computer : digital subjects and literary texts. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2005;

[6] PBS: Public Broadcasting Service;

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