Book Review: Glyphs of Uncertain Meaning by Tim Gaze

glyphs by tim gaze

Tim Gaze is an Australian artist residing in the Adelaide Hills. Since the late 90s, he has been an active poet, writer, publisher, and performer. He is also notable as an artist specialising in asemic writing (expressive mark-making that has the appearance of a language). In 1997, Gaze, along with fellow artist Jim Leftwich, applied the term ‘asemic’ to the quasi-calligraphic works they were creating and sending out to various poetry magazines at the time. 

(A note on the term asemic: it technically means seme-less, without the smallest unit of meaning, but it has since come to stand for any writing, scratches, or glyphs that are without semantic content. The term ‘asemantic’ may be more appropriate since while asemic works may lack semantic content – that is, meaning to be found in words, phrases, and sentences – their abstract nature leaves the viewer free to supply their own meaning and interpretation; so it would be somewhat mistaken to refer to asemic works as meaningless. Another alternative term, ‘pansemic’, has been proposed; it represents the polar opposite of the literal translation of asemic: instead of containing no meaning, pansemic writing contains all possible meanings.)

Through his co-coinage of the term asemic and efforts to circulate it in the small press experimental poetry network, Gaze helped to engender what would soon become an international art genre.

I received an email from Gaze, who had come across my previous posts on asemic writing, and he kindly sent me a copy of his latest book, Glyphs of Uncertain Meaning, arriving all the way from Australia. This book consists of letters, symbols, and marks, which Gaze refers to as “glyphs”, created between 1998 and 2008. He used a variety of writing tools in their making, including pens, pencils, marker pens, a Chinese brush with bottled ink, and an atomiser spray bottle with ink.

The ‘uncertain meaning’ of the book’s title comes from the belief – related to the brief discussion on the meaning of asemic above – that “the process of reading these glyphs is up to the reader”, as Gaze says in the preface, adding, “You are invited to ponder, even to find partial meanings or no meaning at all”. The artist remarks that some of these glyphs are “well-balanced and are perhaps beautiful in the same way as calligraphy. Others are clumsy and perhaps ugly to many readers.” 

While much of asemic writing focuses on the aesthetic component of writing, Gaze’s intention is different. He states:

I’m interested in the way meaning might be found in these glyphs, rather than whether or not they are conventionally beautiful. Instead of applying aesthetics, I hope you can find a sense of purposefulness, although the purpose might be mysterious and difficult to fathom. Different readers will come to different understandings of each of my glyphs compositions.

If you need some sort of theory to justify this approach, the ideas of the linguist Roy Harris could be useful. To paraphrase him, every time we write is an act of improvisation, with the potential to produce something new, and every time we read is an act of improvisation, with the potential to find meanings not anticipated by the writer.

Gaze’s quasi-calligraphic glyphs remind me of similar work from the Belgian artist – and pioneer of asemic writing – Henri Michaux, who Gaze says “is an obvious influence on my style”. Personally, these types of glyphs feel the most evocative and prone to open meaning and interpretation. After posting some examples of these glyphs on Twitter, someone commented on how they are like a Rorschach test. I would have to agree. The ambiguous, expressive splashes of ink and brush strokes could bring to mind an image in one viewer very different from another. 

Some of these quasi-calligraphic glyphs, to me, are like figures (some more clearly figures than others) adopting a strange gesture or posture, which is certainly in the style of Michaux (especially his Mouvements project). What I find interesting about asemic writing, especially ambiguous glyphs like these, is their tendency – at least in my experience – to trigger pareidolia, the tendency to perceive a meaningful image (e.g. faces) in a nebulous visual pattern. Due to pareidolia, some interpretations of asemic writing may be shared, but the more nebulous and Rorschach-like these works are, the greater their repository of possible meaning.

As well as Michaux, Gaze’s other influences include international graffiti culture, Chinese visual culture (in particular, cursive calligraphy and ancient pictographic signs), and Korean and Japanese visual culture to a lesser extent. For instance, in the 20th century, Japanese calligraphers developed the ‘single character’ and ‘calligraphy of few characters’ styles. Gazes notes that his “creations are similarly minimal compositions”. 

Despite these East Asian influences and the artist being an English-speaking person, Gaze is attempting, as he puts it, “to reach for a form of expression which can communicate across cultures”. 

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