Anna Barham, Arena, 2011, wood and MDF, 3' 3 3/8“ x 13' 11 3/8” x 13' 11 3/8".

Anna Barham, Arena, 2011, wood and MDF, 3' 3 3/8“ x 13' 11 3/8” x 13' 11 3/8".

Anna Barham

Galerie Nordenhake | Stockholm

Anna Barham, Arena, 2011, wood and MDF, 3' 3 3/8“ x 13' 11 3/8” x 13' 11 3/8".

Using anagrams, Anna Barham has created a seemingly endless language network that riffs off the enigmatic words “Return to Leptis Magna”; the resulting phrases trail off into the nonsensical—“Repaint Lost Argument”—or just as often produce still enigmatic yet more resonant mutterings: “Interrupt Tonal Games,” for example. Occasionally there are phrases that appear to reflect on the network itself, e.g., “Patrol Strange Muttering.” Barham’s approach is an elastic hybrid of Sol LeWitt’s 1974 Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes and the playful nonsense poetry Hugo Ball performed at the Cabaret Voltaire. She is eclectic, ranging from installations to sculpture to artists’ books—the work on view here was a reading from her 2010 book Return to Leptis Magna. The ancient Roman city in the title provides a fuzzy touchstone for her practice. Now a magnificent ruin in modern Libya, it was founded in the eighth century bc by the Phoenicians, whose alphabet, the origin of the script you now read, was spread throughout the Mediterranean world as a result of their trading networks. The writing system that was germinated and then disseminated by the Phoenicians, creating a potentially endless linguistic system, is emulated as anagrams sprout and sprawl from Barham’s germinal phrase.

The resulting audio piece was here set within Arena, 2011, a wooden construction that served as seating for Barham’s audience and shadowed the form of the ancient amphitheater in Leptis Magna. As language dissolved beneath her anagram system, from the merely puzzling (“Armature Nesting Plot”) toward the near breakdown of meaning (“Purr Last Omega Intent”), abstract rhythms took over as pure sound forms. Where were we? Between unfolding anagrams, ancient cities, nonsense, language, and the mysterious, Barham’s art seems intentionally open to the possibility of vagueness in the sense that the mathematician Friedrich Waismann touched on in his description of the notion of the “open textured concept” (later applied by Morris Weitz to art). Waismann writes: “Take any material object statement. The terms which occur in it are non-exhaustive; that means that we cannot foresee completely all possible conditions in which they are to be used . . . and that means that we cannot foresee completely all the possible circumstances in which the statement is true or in which it is false.” Language, artistic or otherwise, is in this sense pure potential, which brings with it variability. Therefore, substantiating a fixed meaning is foreclosed: It is factually impossible and not merely logically difficult. Written language, visual art, sound design, and experience itself are perennially indefinable—or so Barham, along with more than a few others, believes.

Back to the ancient world. Plato theorized that the classical elements fire, water, air, and earth were composed of regular geometric solids such as tetrahedrons and dodecahedrons. A small but intriguing light sculpture formed from tetrahedrons, A Splintered Game, 2009, was the perfect coda for the exhibition (and gave it its name). Here, fluorescent tubes, controlled by a computer sending random signals, turn on and off so that the work’s geometry is perpetually unresolved, in a state of constant becoming: endless pure potential. It is tempting to call Barham’s art esoteric or arcane, but such terms don’t strike the right note. It’s true that she illustrates ideas that Waismann grappled with, as did Weitz and the philosopher Maurice Mandelbaum, as they tailored fundamentals from Wittgenstein’s philosophy to the concept of art. But her art is visual poetry, albeit determined by rules, and not metaphors. As Samuel Beckett once said of James Joyce: “His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.”

Ronald Jones