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Artist of the week 210: Anna Barham


Words take on a new life in the surreal animation of this London-based artist, returning time and again to the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna where the modern alphabet began

Words fall like raindrops in Anna Barham's animation Proteus. True to the work's title, they are shape-shifters, morphing from one phrase to the next: "strange outline"; "up rears tail"; "el transmutation". Barham's poetry is one made entirely of anagrams. It's always surreal, packed with nonsensical asides as well as lines that are unexpected delights. "Tasting lemon rapture; purring at lemon taste" is one of the gems from her artist's book, Return to Leptis Magna.

These four words (and the ancient Roman city they refer to) are at the heart of the young London-based artist's work. She's revisited them over and over in her videos, drawings and performances, where they have yielded a staggering number of anagrams. For Barham, Leptis Magna is very much a city of the imagination.

The "real" site on the Libyan coast is now a ruin. She has never been there: her only physical encounter with it was in Windsor, where a number of its stones were transplanted from their arid home during the 19th century and resurrected as a folly in the lush surrounds of Virginia Water. Leptis Magna is also the place where the modern alphabet originated. For Barham, who studied sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art, letters become the building blocks for refashioning those ruins into something new.

Slick Flection, currently included in the delectably titled Eye Music for Dancing (a show that celebrates concrete poet Bob Cobbing), pushes the rhythms that govern language into the realm of dance. This new sound piece pushes language out of the realm of text into the physical world, with a tap dancer improvising to the beat of Barham's voice reciting. Meanwhile, her older video Iris abandons language altogether, as images of everything from flowers to eyes flit by to the thrum of fingers typing.

Like Leptis Magna's stones, words lose their original intention in her work and take on a strange new life.

Why we like her: For White City, her current Art on the Underground commission. It's art that travels: a series of posters bearing Quick Response codes (like barcodes for smartphones) provide the gateway to videos that can be accessed on your mobile, including roundel poetry by Charles Swinburne and an animation of the many depictions of Tyche, the Greek goddess of chance who rules over the project.

Upping your game: Barham has a heavyweight interest in games and rules. It all stems from the theories of language and metaphysics she got into as a maths and philosophy student at Cambridge, before she turned to art.

Where can I see her? Eye Music for Dancing, Flat Time House, London, until 28 October; White City underground station, London; Revolver, Matt's Gallery, London, until 21 Oct; Arcade Gallery, Frieze Frame, London, 11 to 14 Oct.

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