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If you accept anytime been alert by age-old Maya glyphs, or by graffiti artisan Rammellzee’s scrawl-like script, you apperceive how it feels to acknowledge the academic adorableness of writings whose absolute lexical acceptation charcoal ambiguous or impenetrable. For best observers, clumsy to analyze Maya picture-words or Gothic Futurist graffiti, the semantic point of the texts may be ungraspable, but the efforts of these scribes—evident in the arduous beheld acuteness of their works—are acutely never pointless. The anfractuous shapes of the signs and the adroit alteration of the arrangement can back to admirers a characteristic ambit of emotions, as able-bodied as, perhaps, a adumbration of the animating abandon that added forms of autograph could action if absolved from what ability be termed the shackles of meaning.
In his affecting 1953 book Autograph Degree Zero, Roland Barthes, analytical the nuances and innovations of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry, animadversion that “the word, dissociated from the bark of accepted clichés, and from the abstruse reflexes of the writer, is again freed from albatross in affiliation to all accessible context; it appears in one abrupt act, which, actuality bare of reflections, declares its confinement and accordingly its innocence.” Barthes’s thoughts about writing, as able-bodied as the logogram-like assets that he created throughout his career, are axial to Asemic: The Art of Writing, Peter Schwenger’s agreeable and groundbreaking book focused on the asemic as a cultural abnormality and a dainty brand of avant-garde and abreast art.
Schwenger attributes the aboriginal uses of the appellation to Barthes and to Jacques Derrida, who, in his 1969 book Dissemination, refers to the blanks amid words as “asemic spacing,” which makes account accessible afterwards in itself signifying. As Schwenger explains, the linguistic appellation “seme” (derived from the Greek appellation sema, or sign) is negated or abortive by the abrogating prefix “a-.” Thus acceptation itself—or, rather, the sign’s accommodation to back meaning—is eliminated.
In assorted online exchanges in 1997, beheld poets Jim Leftwich and Tim Gaze (the closing now administrator of the agenda Asemic Magazine) activated the appellation to their quasi-calligraphic writings, drawings, and collages. Schwenger considers this act of allotment to be the barrage of “the asemic” as an all-embracing movement, which now encompasses a ample ambit of publications, exhibitions, and online activity.
For art historians and critics, the asemic had already been in comedy for abounding years, but afterwards a characterization as such. In ablaze of the currrent asemic surge, Schwenger explores afresh the assignment of beat artists like Mirtha Dermisache (1940–2012), from Argentina, and Mira Schendel (1919–1988), from Brazil. Schendel produced layered palimpsests of burst letters, chat fragments, and evidently awkward cursive calligraphy activated to ample cellophane acrylic bedding afraid from the ceiling. Anniversary of these works initially appears to be a absolutely absurd text. But as the eyewitness focuses on abandoned portions of the composition, apparent from assertive angles, capacity arise and adhere to advance the achievability of a apparent statement, a potentially burning message. Invariably, however, the bulletin charcoal obscure.
Schwenger, an emeritus Assistant who is now a citizen adolescent at University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, defines the analytic astriction that arises from abutting analysis of works like Schendel’s as “the asemic effect.” He sees this astriction as a absolute force rather than any array of anarchic or abrogating gesture. Early on in the book, acknowledging a point fabricated by UWO assistant Laurence De Looze, he characterizes asemic art and autograph as a anatomy of attrition to all-around technology’s “linguistic apparatus that offers templates not alone for words but additionally for thought; that ethics advice over affect; and that reinforces the continued history of the alphabet’s ascendancy over Western thinking.” Schwenger extols the asemic as a affront to thought—without paraphrasable meaning, perhaps, but not afterwards significance. He proposes, indeed, that “an acquaintance of what lies above our accustomed structures of acceptation may accumulate us from accepting our activity scripts accounting according to an already exact arrangement of signs.”
A affiliate blue-blooded “Three Asemic Ancestors” underscores the accent of the art and autograph of Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly, and Barthes as key to affectionate consecutive asemic works in all their assorted forms. Michaux, aggressive by assertive works by Paul Klee and Max Ernst, explored the banned of words by agency of cacographic forms, presented in lines, that arise to be a anatomy of writing. Yet while these apparatus advance alone signs, they are absolutely neither alone nor signlike. Michaux’s seminal assignment Narration (1927, India ink on paper), admired as one of the aboriginal examples of asemic writing, consists of eighteen accumbent rows of assertive scribbles, anniversary afar by wide, aberrant white intervals. The scrawls abound added agitated and aeroembolism from the top of the folio to the bottom, catastrophe assuredly at the lower centermost bend with the work’s appellation absolutely legibly—and jarringly—handwritten in all-a-quiver block letters.
Eschewing an expressionist cant of abstruse forms and gestures, Michaux concentrated on the pulse, rhythm, and movement of the line. The arrangement referred to the anatomy in motion, as he aimed for a affectionate of autograph ball characters rather than calligraphic import. These abstracts culminated in his 1951 book Mouvements, abounding with rows of adventuresomeness brushstrokes, active gestures that anamnesis activated stick figures. Afterwards Michaux catholic through Asia, he generally fabricated assets that resemble Chinese characters or pictograms; but to back the awareness of movement remained his axial concern.
Mouvements had a absolute access on Barthes’s paintings and drawings, which carefully resemble Michaux’s. According to Schwenger, Barthes had abstruse from Michaux how to “bypass acceptation in adjustment to alleviate the ability of the illegible.” Barthes alleged his asemic assets contre-écritures (counter-writings), and in 1976 arise a cardinal of them in the account Luna-Park, alongside works by agreeing artists Dermisache and Brion Gysin.
Barthes wrote absolutely abundantly on Twombly’s work, and, alternative from these texts, Schwenger presents a fascinating—and convincing—case for Twombly as the above asemic artist. Focusing on a 1973 painting, Virgil, he addendum how Twombly, by agency of the abjectly cacographic name of the artist in partly abandoned letters, manages to evoke—without in any way cognitively depicting or describing—Mediterranean ability and the burghal of Rome, area Twombly was active at the time. Referring to Barthes’s angle of “atmosphere” in Twombly’s work, Schwenger credibility out that what Swedish academic and biographer Aris Fioretos calls the work’s “vapor wrought by erasers” takes on the actualization of an ambience, from which Virgil’s name emerges and to which it returns.
While Virgil actualization a clear word, and serves to authenticate the use of accent in the artist’s practice, the acceptation of Twombly’s art for today’s asemic movement centers on his absolutely cacographic compositions abounding with marks that formally resemble writing. Works from his 1967 “Letter of Resignation” alternation of blaster drawings, for instance, affection aberrant rows of aimlessly scribbled pencil arrangement on cardboard that alter in body and acuteness from folio to page, carrying a faculty of alternate rage. Schwenger suggests that “Letters” may accept been a acknowledgment to the adverse accession accorded Twombly’s 1964 exhibition at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. The actualization was agonizingly panned by best critics, including Donald Judd, who alleged it a “fiasco.” These reactions prompted Twombly to stop painting about absolutely for a year.
Subsequently, of course, Twombly recovered from the blow, and regained his acceptability with absolutely asemic works, such as his well-regarded “blackboard” alternation of ample paintings, produced in the backward 1960s. Here, egg-shaped white arrangement in adroit rows set adjoin slate gray grounds, generally resemble cursive letters, yet consistently baffle legibility. In these works, Schwenger contends, “we are adverse the inscriptive sublime, added able for the ample calibration of the paintings.”
Addressing the barbed affair of asemic autograph and the accustomed world, Schwenger considers artists such as Rosaire Appel and angela rawlings, whose photographs of things like timberline branches, leaves, and tracings in beach advance busy scripts. Meanwhile, Cui Fei, in her advancing alternation “Manuscript of Nature” and “Tracing the Origin,” arranges altar begin in nature, such as broiled backcountry tendrils and twigs, in a address that conjures the wild-cursive actualization of Chinese calligraphy. The “characters” that arise in the series, however, abide unreadable.
The busy and sometimes awe-inspiring installations of Chinese artists Wenda Gu and Xu Bing, produced back the 1980s, accept taken the asemic abstraction to a new level. For his room-size Book from the Sky (1987–91), Xu Bing invented some four thousand awkward characters, anniversary adhering carefully to the conventions of Chinese chat accumulation and calligraphic practice. Wenda Gu, in his abounding all-inclusive installations, incorporates calligraphy in pseudo-languages (both Eastern and Western in appearance), fabricated of animal beard calm from barbershops about the world. The belletrist of hair, Schwenger credibility out, accurate a “tension amid the accustomed and the cultural.”
The book concludes with an all-embracing analysis of abreast asemic novels, films, videos, and music scores, including books by clear artist Christopher Skinner. His aggressive four-part novel, Four Fools (2011), actualization folio afterwards folio abounding with affected calligraphy in a book of the artist’s invention, ambrosial of Islamic manuscripts. Like the age-old Maya glyphs that never abort to beckon, Skinner’s pages assume to be a artefact of some absent civilization, and to buck an ambiguous message. Conceivably anytime it will be deciphered with the advice of a affected Rosetta Stone. For now, though, the novel’s adumbrated anecdotal unfolds alone in the viewer’s imagination.
Asemic: The Art of Autograph is advantageous on a cardinal of levels. It is surprising, though, that the apple of Art Brut and alien artists is allegedly not allotment of Schwenger’s purview. Predating Michaux’s experiments, self-taught artists like Adolf Wölfli created elaborate, idiosyncratic, and abundantly indecipherable, accounting “languages,” and the affiliation actuality would assume to be appropriate, if not obvious. Schwenger’s endeavor allegedly aims for the asemic to be accustomed and accepted by the abreast art apple and cultural mainstream, which is commendable. It could be alike added exciting, though, to added analyze and accentuate its revolutionary, counterculture potential.
1 Roland Barthes, Autograph Degree Zero, New York, Hill and Wang, 1953/1967, p. 75.
This commodity appears beneath the title “The Asemic Effect” in the May 2020 issue, pp. 25–27.
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