Signs from Asemia: Yasmin Heisler Reviews asemic 15

By | 13 September 2017

Curious about the technique used to make this work, I found myself turning the book around and around to decipher how the brush strokes indicate the weight distribution from Molotiu’s hand. What is clear is that the majority of the lines are worked from left to right or, on one page, from top to bottom. Using lines vertically reminds us of the historical ways in which the calligraphy brush has been deployed.

Roland Barthes, who has one small work featured in asemic 15, had an obsession with writing implements. He also was a great fan of artists such as Cy Twombly, whose paintings explore an energised spectrum of mark-making. During the 1970s, Barthes took up artistic endeavours of his own. He produced hundreds of works on paper during these late years. A selection were exhibited in 2016 at the John Hansard Gallery in the UK. The exhibition catalogue states: ‘to varying degrees, you can see the mark-making is more that of a writer than an artist’:

He does not relate to the canvas (or paper) as a support for a work in the way an exhibiting artist does: his mark-making does not portray the confidence of a painter, but instead betrays the gesture of a writer, bound by the paper and its margins, albeit free in the case to scribble, to “write” in free form, without form.

These qualifications would be more appropriate for the work of Barthes that is illustrated in asemic 15, where the medium is clearly not paint, not multi-coloured and seemingly without any spatial frame. Barthes’ works in the UK exhibition are painterly and multi-hued. I would suggest they are framed rather than margined by the space left between his brush strokes and the edge of the page. Barthes was exploring a convergence of writing and painting. In his own notebooks he had wondered: ‘Where does the writing begin? Where does the painting begin?’

Art that investigates language and writing specifically, as well as experimental poetry that utilises aesthetics, have a long history. The exhibition, ‘Ecstatic Alphabets / Heaps of Language’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2012, looked at works from the last century that predominantly related to the page, as well as more contemporary examples which incorporated elements of daily life. Asemic sites, such as The New Post-literate (run by Michael Jacobson) exist as a primary reality for asemic work (with no references to an original medium/context). This ‘housing’ of works gives a particular temporal place that connects the maker to the asemic community.

For Michael Jacobson, this is understood as non-verbal undercover communication. He describes asemic writing as a way to take control of technology ‘from the oppressive nature of government surveillance and censorship.’ Is Jacobson referring to semasiography? If so, this seems a paradox, as it is at odds with claims of asemic writing not intended to be a language. For Gaze, the underlying foundation of asemic writing is that ‘words don’t illustrate our true thoughts.’ There have been long-term debates about the degree to which language shapes the construction of thought and therefore our understanding of the world. Professor Peter Godfrey-Smith describes ‘The internalization of language as a tool for thinking’ that ‘gives humans unique psychological capacities.’ As a visual artist however, I can understand the sense of freedom asemic writers may feel, unencumbered by direct semantic structures within their work. This freedom, for Gaze, is understood as ‘a way to ‘surpass individual languages.’ Does this mean that ‘particular styles of asemic writing are global and transcend language or ethnic cultures,’ as Gaze states? Or that ‘an asemic text will still be “read” in a similar fashion regardless of the reader’s natural language’?

When the criteria of asemic writing necessitates, among other things, intended illegibility, should works be described as such retrospectively? For example, Gaze and others cite Tang Dynasty calligraphers Zhang Xu and Huai Su as origins of the asemic movement; but it is my understanding, though they were described as colourful characters, that both these calligraphers were famous not for their inarticulate work, but for their absolute devotion to the art of Chinese calligraphy. They became two of the most influential artisans in the development of graphic fluidity of cursive script. Are artists from non-Anglophone backgrounds particularly at risk of being misinterpreted and misrepresented? Recently, Travis Jeppesen writes about the misrepresentation of Chinese calligrapher Wang Dongling, who is both the current leading expert in traditional Chinese calligraphy as well as excelling at re-contextualizing his practice in a contemporary environment. Jepperson states in a recent Art Forum review:

[Wang’s] art is often characterized as illegible, or “asemic.” The term asemic is problematic, in that it implies a writing that is empty of meaning. Rather, it is Wang’s task – and the task of advanced calligraphy, arguably – to explore and posit new forms of writing that thus necessitate new ways of reading and interpreting.

The Asemic Manifesto 111 suggests ‘the idea of universality’ exists by way of the expression of ‘immediate emotion’. Others, such as Satu Kaikkonen, whose work is illustrated on the cover of asemic 15, believe asemic writing is universal due to an apparent inherent access we all have to ‘pre-language’ knowledge. The promoters of asemic writing give us anthropological insight into how textual production is always subject to layered and complex histories and political agendas.

Asemic 15 attracts a community which is committed to its particular format and style. Within the pages of the magazine, the broad range of work challenges the definition of asemic writing. Some of these works are highly explorative and some could be interpreted as combative to the term. While many of us (who have access to the internet) are increasingly consumed by universally reductive means of communication via social networking sites, asemic writers can reacquaint us with the writerly mark and explore technological equivalents. Nevertheless, the term ‘asemic writing’ with its emphasis on ‘the emptying of meaning’ also resonates in a peculiar fashion with our current climate of anti-intellectualism, infotainment and fake news.

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