On Writing

I was a child on a bus and across the aisle from me a lady sat reading a letter written in what I took to be Chinese characters. The letter itself was a thing of beauty – written on pale blue tissue, thin airmail stationary that crinkled gently as she held it in her hands. Across the blue page were regular rows of characters rendered in blue ink, rows of tiny drawings across the paper. That an ordinary letter could be such a thing of beauty and that to someone these mysterious glyphs were intelligible, thrilled and fascinated me. I went home and held my own handwritten sheets up to the light so I could see the writing through the back of the paper: it was transformed into an unreadable string of loops and lines.

Work and experimentation have taken me through the study of typography and graphic design, the practice of calligraphy, brush lettering and drawing, into photography, printmaking and painting. The scope and variety of the writing systems we humans have devised over the centuries continue to stimulate my imagination. I’ve struggled to put my finger on just why it is that alphabets and writing systems hold me so consistently in their sway as abstract visual systems. And then finally, in 2007, I came upon an online project by Golan Levin; a software program that generates abstract alphabets, called “The Alphabet Synthesis Machine.” He explains that illusive “realm of semi-sense” I had been chasing after all this time:

I very clearly remember the first time that I encountered an unfamiliar alphabet: it was an event which occurred in my family’s synagogue when I was very small, perhaps four years old. I had just learned to read English, but it had not yet been explained to me that there could exist other writing systems apart from the one I knew. One evening during a ceremony, I asked my father what the funny black squiggles were in the prayer books we were holding. “Sh!” he said: “that is how we talk with God.” Astonished, I became transfixed by the black squiggles, which no longer seemed quite so funny; but although I stared at them until I was dizzy, I could find no way to render them intelligible. Only later did I learn that these marks were Hebrew. Since that time, I have been preoccupied by the possibility that abstract forms can connect us to a reality beyond language, and bridge the thin line between nonsense and the divine.”

©Golan Levin, 2002, The Alphabet Synthesis Machine (http://www.alphabetsynthesis.com and http://www.flong.com/)