If you have ever been enthralled by ancient Maya glyphs, or by graffiti artist Rammellzee’s scrawl-like script, you know how it feels to appreciate the formal beauty of writings whose precise lexical import remains elusive or impenetrable. For most observers, unable to decipher 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 sheer visual intensity of their works—are clearly never pointless. The sinuous shapes of the signs and the rhythmic fluidity of the markings can convey to viewers a distinctive range of emotions, as well as, perhaps, a hint of the exhilarating freedom that other forms of writing could offer if liberated from what might be termed the shackles of meaning.
In his influential 1953 book Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes, examining the nuances and innovations of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry, remarks that “the word, dissociated from the husk of habitual clichés, and from the technical reflexes of the writer, is then freed from responsibility in relation to all possible context; it appears in one brief act, which, being devoid of reflections, declares its solitude and therefore its innocence.” Barthes’s thoughts about writing, as well as the logogram-like drawings that he created throughout his career, are central to Asemic: The Art of Writing, Peter Schwenger’s engaging and groundbreaking book focused on the asemic as a cultural phenomenon and a rarefied genre of modern and contemporary art.
Schwenger attributes the first uses of the term to Barthes and to Jacques Derrida, who, in his 1969 book Dissemination, refers to the blanks between words as “asemic spacing,” which makes signification possible without in itself signifying. As Schwenger explains, the linguistic term “seme” (derived from the Greek term sema, or sign) is negated or neutralized by the privative prefix “a-.” Thus meaning itself—or, rather, the sign’s capacity to convey meaning—is eliminated.
In various online exchanges in 1997, visual poets Jim Leftwich and Tim Gaze (the latter now publisher of the digital Asemic Magazine) applied the term to their quasi-calligraphic writings, drawings, and collages. Schwenger considers this act of naming to be the launch of “the asemic” as an international movement, which now encompasses a broad range of publications, exhibitions, and online activity.
For art historians and critics, the asemic had already been in play for many years, but without a label as such. In light of the currrent asemic surge, Schwenger explores anew the work of pioneering artists like Mirtha Dermisache (1940–2012), from Argentina, and Mira Schendel (1919–1988), from Brazil. Schendel produced layered palimpsests of fractured letters, word fragments, and ostensibly indecipherable cursive script applied to large transparent acrylic sheets hung from the ceiling. Each of these works initially appears to be a completely meaningless text. But as the viewer focuses on isolated portions of the composition, seen from certain angles, details emerge and coalesce to suggest the possibility of a discernible statement, a potentially urgent message. Invariably, however, the message remains obscure.
Schwenger, an emeritus Professor who is now a resident fellow at University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, defines the interpretive tension that arises from close scrutiny of works like Schendel’s as “the asemic effect.” He sees this tension as a positive force rather than any sort of nihilistic or negative gesture. Early on in the book, endorsing a point made by UWO professor Laurence De Looze, he characterizes asemic art and writing as a form of resistance to global technology’s “linguistic machine that offers templates not only for words but also for thought; that values information over affect; and that reinforces the long history of the alphabet’s dominance over Western thinking.” Schwenger extols the asemic as a provocation to thought—without paraphrasable meaning, perhaps, but not without significance. He proposes, indeed, that “an awareness of what lies beyond our familiar structures of meaning may keep us from having our life scripts written according to an already existent system of signs.”
A chapter titled “Three Asemic Ancestors” underscores the importance of the art and writing of Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly, and Barthes as key to appreciating subsequent asemic works in all their various forms. Michaux, inspired by certain works by Paul Klee and Max Ernst, explored the limits of words by means of scrawled forms, presented in lines, that appear to be a form of writing. Yet while these components suggest individual signs, they are actually neither individual nor signlike. Michaux’s seminal work Narration (1927, India ink on paper), regarded as one of the first examples of asemic writing, consists of eighteen horizontal rows of unruly scribbles, each separated by wide, irregular white intervals. The scrawls grow more agitated and compressed from the top of the page to the bottom, ending finally at the lower center edge with the work’s title quite legibly—and jarringly—handwritten in shaky block letters.
Eschewing an expressionist vocabulary of abstract forms and gestures, Michaux concentrated on the pulse, rhythm, and movement of the line. The markings referred to the body in motion, as he aimed for a kind of shorthand dance notation rather than calligraphic import. These experiments culminated in his 1951 book Mouvements, filled with rows of bravura brushstrokes, lively gestures that recall activated stick figures. After Michaux traveled through Asia, he often made drawings that resemble Chinese characters or pictograms; but to convey the sensation of movement remained his central concern.
Mouvements had a direct influence on Barthes’s paintings and drawings, which closely resemble Michaux’s. According to Schwenger, Barthes had learned from Michaux how to “bypass meaning in order to unlock the power of the illegible.” Barthes called his asemic drawings contre-écritures (counter-writings), and in 1976 published a number of them in the journal Luna-Park, alongside works by like-minded artists Dermisache and Brion Gysin.
Barthes wrote quite extensively on Twombly’s work, and, culling from these texts, Schwenger presents a fascinating—and convincing—case for Twombly as the major asemic artist. Focusing on a 1973 painting, Virgil, he notes how Twombly, by means of the abjectly scrawled name of the poet in partly obliterated letters, manages to evoke—without in any way cognitively depicting or describing—Mediterranean culture and the city of Rome, where Twombly was living at the time. Referring to Barthes’s notion of “atmosphere” in Twombly’s work, Schwenger points out that what Swedish scholar and novelist Aris Fioretos calls the work’s “vapor wrought by erasers” takes on the character of an ambience, from which Virgil’s name emerges and to which it returns.
While Virgil features a legible word, and serves to demonstrate the use of language in the artist’s practice, the significance of Twombly’s art for today’s asemic movement centers on his completely illegible compositions filled with marks that formally resemble writing. Works from his 1967 “Letter of Resignation” series of thirty-eight drawings, for instance, feature irregular rows of frantically scribbled pencil markings on paper that vary in density and intensity from page to page, conveying a sense of recurrent rage. Schwenger suggests that “Letters” may have been a response to the hostile reception accorded Twombly’s 1964 exhibition at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. The show was harshly panned by most critics, including Donald Judd, who called it a “fiasco.” These reactions prompted Twombly to stop painting almost completely for a year.
Subsequently, of course, Twombly recovered from the blow, and regained his reputation with totally asemic works, such as his well-regarded “blackboard” series of large paintings, produced in the late 1960s. Here, elliptical white markings in rhythmic rows set against slate gray grounds, often resemble cursive letters, yet consistently thwart legibility. In these works, Schwenger contends, “we are facing the inscriptive sublime, more powerful for the large scale of the paintings.”
Addressing the thorny topic of asemic writing and the natural world, Schwenger considers artists such as Rosaire Appel and angela rawlings, whose photographs of things like tree branches, leaves, and tracings in sand suggest elaborate scripts. Meanwhile, Cui Fei, in her ongoing series “Manuscript of Nature” and “Tracing the Origin,” arranges objects found in nature, such as dried vine tendrils and twigs, in a manner that conjures the wild-cursive style of Chinese calligraphy. The “characters” that appear in the series, however, remain unreadable.
The elaborate and sometimes monumental installations of Chinese artists Wenda Gu and Xu Bing, produced since the 1980s, have taken the asemic concept to a new level. For his room-size Book from the Sky (1987–91), Xu Bing invented some four thousand indecipherable characters, each adhering closely to the conventions of Chinese word formation and calligraphic practice. Wenda Gu, in his many vast installations, incorporates script in pseudo-languages (both Eastern and Western in appearance), made of human hair collected from barbershops around the world. The letters of hair, Schwenger points out, express a “tension between the natural and the cultural.”
The book concludes with an in-depth exploration of contemporary asemic novels, films, videos, and music scores, including books by graphic designer Christopher Skinner. His ambitious four-part novel, Four Fools (2011), features page after page filled with elegant script in a typeface of the artist’s invention, redolent of Islamic manuscripts. Like the ancient Maya glyphs that never fail to beckon, Skinner’s pages seem to be a product of some lost civilization, and to bear an enigmatic message. Perhaps someday it will be deciphered with the help of a futuristic Rosetta Stone. For now, though, the novel’s implied narrative unfolds only in the viewer’s imagination.
Asemic: The Art of Writing is rewarding on a number of levels. It is surprising, though, that the world of Art Brut and outsider artists is apparently not part of Schwenger’s purview. Predating Michaux’s experiments, self-taught artists like Adolf Wölfli created elaborate, idiosyncratic, and largely indecipherable, written “languages,” and the connection here would seem to be appropriate, if not obvious. Schwenger’s endeavor apparently aims for the asemic to be acknowledged and embraced by the contemporary art world and cultural mainstream, which is commendable. It could be even more exciting, though, to further explore and underscore its revolutionary, counterculture potential.
1 Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, New York, Hill and Wang, 1953/1967, p. 75.
This article appears under the title “The Asemic Effect” in the May 2020 issue, pp. 25–27.