Beatrice Gibson: ‘Agatha’ Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

“What I can name cannot really prick me,” Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, positing that the photographic  image, ironically, is activated not by its sense of verisimilitude but precisely the opposite: the presence of the  indefinable, the unnameable. An image which is entirely explained and explainable – in which meaning exists in a closed loop – is sterile, dead; a mere simulacrum. If arguing for a metaphysics of the photographic image might seem a  precarious proposition, though, this will to locate the ineffable has a more immediate adversary: that of language. (1) Once a thing is named, it is forever fixed: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” (2) It can never be another; never be unnamed.

Beatrice Gibson’s work circles this process of becoming, of naming, via word and voice: voice modulated by place, place formed by speech. Her latest work, Agatha, is based on a dream dreamed by radical British composer Cornelius Cardew of a planet without speech; a society and space unspoken. Aside from functioning as a playful philosophical speculation, the landscape of the dream – unbound, unscripted – offers a corollary for Cardew’s artistic method, which was  predicated on improvisation and collective endeavour, on the associative and collaborative, and sought to undermine  the authority of the score — even the composer.

Cornelius Cardew is present across much of Gibson’s work. ‘if the route’: The Great Learning quotes the composer’s own The Great Learning (which itself refers to Confucius’ text of the same name) in a work which circles London taxi drivers’ assimilation of ‘The Knowledge’, a series of songlines in which the city is spoken into being; and her ambitious, multi-nodal project The Tiger’s Mind applies Cardew’s compositional method directly as a means of producing a film. (3) But beyond Cardew himself lies a deep interest in the limit of voice and word, responding to, among others, Jorge Luis Borges, his compatriot Adolfo Bioy Casares, and B.S. Johnson, who challenged the chronologous in a concrete sense with unbound volumes the reader themselves must organise. (4)

Yet where Cardew’s method was novel, the dream is ancient, dreamed endlessly in a return; a reiterative fantasy, the great yearning of all those bound by word. It is perhaps the basis of every dream, imagined as it is at arm’s length from the cautionary logic, the literalism of the conscious mind: the unpicking of singular meaning, the loosening of the mould. A throwing-off of nouns and an awakening to a freer, plural state. A nounless world, like the planet Tlön in Borges’ Tlön,  Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, allows for a multiplicity of meanings, of explanations for why the world is, to be given voice. Tlön, itself imagined by a imaginary country, Uqbar – or at least one which exists only in language, in codices – is written into being to become a material reality and, the author surmises, the only reality in years to come.

“The inability to remember is itself perhaps a memory,” John Berger writes in and our faces, my heart, brief as photos. “One lived with the experience of namelessness: there were certain elemental forces – heat, cold, pain, sweetness – which were recognizable. As also a few persons. But there were no verbs and no nouns. Even the first pronoun was a growing conviction rather than a fact, and because of this lack, memories (as distinct from a certain functioning of  memory) did not exist. Once one lived in a seamless experience of wordlessness. Wordlessness means that everything is continuous. The later dream of an ideal language, a language which says all simultaneously, perhaps begins with the memory of this state without memories.” (5)

Indeed, the only way that language could hope to match the experience of namelessness, to locate an ‘ideal language’, as Berger suggests, is by conferring a unique name on each and every thing: a proposition which Borges makes in Funes the Memorious, in which the boy Funes, unable to forget, refers to a proposition of John Locke’s for a total language as a possible system to structure his hypermnesia, but regards even this to be unsatisfactory as it fails to take into account the influence of time upon objects.

The narrator in Agatha has to navigate the dream-landscape by means other than speech, gradually attuning himself to variables and properties as esoteric as colour-changing and pace-quickening. The landscape, which should be negated by the absence of words, is instead activated by a new set of causal relationships with fluid parameters: a manifestation, effectively, of Cardew’s Treatise (1963 – 67), which asked for a free interpretation of its graphic score, creating a unique instance with every new iteration, and forming a whole from a set of relative positions as opposed to a single absolute one. His use of alternative notation, like that of John Cage or Morton Feldman, does musically what Borges proposes linguistically: it shrugs off the mantle of its imposed language and allows the encoded to exist alongside the uncoded, and the unencodable, and the decisive alongside the aleatory. In short, it proposes a freer system of exchange between  concept and object, as does the world in Agatha.

1. Albeit one with numerable historical precedents in iconographic and ritual images and objects

2. Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily (although arguably this could be read in a different context, that of the (extra-linguistic) essence of things)

3. The Tiger’s Mind runs at The Showroom, London, from 14 November 2012 – 12 January 2013. See for details.

4. Others who work similarly to trouble the word in time and the word in space are not specifically invoked here but bear comparison: Tom Phillips’ treated novel A Humument and Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, among others

5. John Berger, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, pp. 31-32


This essay was written to accompany an installation of Beatrice Gibson’s film ‘Agatha’ as part of ‘Apparent Positions’, a series of four shows I curated for the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. More information at >