Anna Barham

Magenta, Emerald, Lapis


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Anna Barham born 1974
Video, projection, colour
Duration: 30min, 3sec
Purchased 2013

Not on display


Magenta, Emerald, Lapis is a colour digital projection in which Barham uses a tangram puzzle (a square cut into seven pieces that can be re-formed in various ways) to create letterforms, eventually building up words into phrases that are anagrams of the work’s title. In the projection, the tangram pieces are shuffled and reshuffled until they become recognisable as letters, demonstrating how composite symbols can be transformed by the reordering of their parts. The work exists as a Quicktime file on a USB memory stick and has to be projected directly from a computer. The resolution of the image is 1024 x 768 pixels. It exists in an edition of three, and Tate’s copy is number three in the edition. Each edition is accompanied by a certificate of authentication printed on a unique blind embossing of the shapes from the film. The work was originally conceived to be accompanied by a structure for viewers to sit on made from tangram shapes like those being manipulated in the film. The seating is reconfigurable to make a new arrangement to suit each venue where the work is exhibited. However, the projection can also be shown without the seating.

Barham works with video, sculpture, drawing and performance, and she often focuses on the interplay between a system and the potential it offers. Much of her work centres on poetic texts created using a self-prescribed set of rules and, in particular, the rules of the anagram, a word play that is the result of rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase, using all the original letters exactly once. Barham has been working with anagrams since 2007, her interest stemming from the idea of revealing a word’s ‘unconscious’ meaning by exploiting its associative potential. She has explained that this word play has ‘a literal sense, but no explicit meaning. It sets up a situation where meaning has to be actively constructed by the viewer. It allows for something to happen and be generated’ (quoted in Desclaux 2011, p.101).

Barham combined her fascination with anagrams with her interest in the story of the archaeological discovery of the ancient Phoenician city of Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya, one of the three cities that were later collectively called Tripolis, from which Libya’s capital Tripoli derives its name. Thus the titles of her works are themselves anagrams of the words ‘Leptis Magna’, in numerous different permutations with their own connotations. More recently, in works such as Magenta, Emerald, Lapis and the related Linnet Trumpets Agora 2010 (Tate T13532), she has created anagrams of the phrase ‘return to Leptis Magna’, which is also the title of a book she has published which consists entirely of anagrams of the same phrase. Barham was drawn, in particular, to the fragments of the ruins of Leptis Magna that were given to King George IV in 1816, and that were used to build an artificial ruin at Windsor Great Park. For Barham, the detritus of the ruin, a fragile and incomplete construction that had been taken out of context and therefore opened to new meanings, became a point of departure to explore the structure and form of language in a kind of ‘linguistic’ anastylosis, whereby the city’s name is endlessly restored and reconfigured by reassembling its parts and, when necessary, incorporating new ones.

Following the rules of the anagram, Barham’s works apply logic to stretch language to the very limits of its capabilities, to the point when it stops making sense. The rearrangements of letters in Magenta, Emerald, Lapis reflect the formal value of words when considered as individual letters that act as shapes, and play with the capability of language to create meaning and the reader’s insistence on finding it.

Further reading
Catherine Wood, ‘Anna Barham’, Creamier: Contemporary Art in Culture: 10 Curators, 100 Contemporary Artists, 10 Sources, London 2010, pp.38–9.
Vanessa Desclaux, ‘Anna Barham, Step into Tangram Rule’, Volume, no.2, 2011, pp.91–103.

Carmen Juliá
November 2011

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