Published: March 28, 2006
British artist Fiona Banner explores the limits and possibilities of language in text-based drawings, sculptures and installations. Best known for her laborious, handwritten descriptions of war films and epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, Banner has also used the art-historical genre of the nude to explore issues of violence, vulnerability and voyeurism; and has used sculptures of punctuation to investigate breakdowns and gaps in communication.
For her current solo show at New York's Tracy Williams Ltd., on view through April 22, Banner is showing a new series of nudes: text-based descriptions of the female form, made from live models and written on the tail-fins of fighter planes.
A related installation, Parade, will also be on view at 462 Greenwich St., further focusing on her fascination with the "aesthetics of destruction." Described as an "unedited war-scape," Parade collects Banner's hand-made examples of every fighter jet currently in commission somewhere in the world, with more than 100 models suspended from the ceiling. Parade is on view through March 31.
Banner has exhibited worldwide and is represented in various collections, including that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Tate Gallery in London; and the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis. She was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2003.
What draws you to working so intensely with language, as in your 'still-films'-these blow-by-blow descriptions of war movies such as The Nam, a 1,000-page book describing films such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter?
With all of the subjects I work with, there is this fascination with the image-I was fascinated by those 'Nam films, and really seduced by them. But I was also really repulsed by them. I thought, "Am I repulsed by the film, or am I repulsed by the way I was involved in the film, the way I became fascinated by it?"
Using language is a way of stepping back from that, and stepping back from how the image works on us, yet at the same time still having the image there. It's a way of being able to work with images without drowning in the deeply complex currency of those images. Hopefully, what's gained in the process is an original moment of looking at something, or being able to look at something in a different way by side-stepping the image.
How did the "still-films" begin?
Originally, I was making lots of images of fighter planes, using the film Top Gun as a reference for all of these things you don't really see in normal life. But I started to find it incredibly hard to draw a frame around the objects, deciding what should be in the frame and what should be out of it. That led to the desire to make this all-encompassing image, this image that negates the need for me to make such decisions. That's why I describe those films, rather pompously, as being completely unedited texts-and being very much about the pornography of those films.
Why do you choose to work with particularly violent or pornographic films?
Why are so many people seduced by images of war, even though we hate war? Or do we? It's those complex [questions] that I am fascinated by, in myself and in other people. Questions like "Why do we love these great, epic, violent, pornographic, killing films? Why are they our entertainment?" The pastoral-I don't find so complex, so I don't need to try to work that out. But the nude and the violence of how the nude as portrayed in the history of art for example-that I'm really fascinated by.
Let's talk about your nudes. They work in this hyper-intimate way, in describing someone's body in language, in a genre typically associated with the gaze of male painters...
Using words as opposed to line and color is a way of being able, on my own personal turf, to reinvent the nude. The writing is a sleight of hand, it's a way to sneak around the side and look at something that I'm fascinated by.
Do you work from a live model?
I more often than not work from a model, often the same model as it happens, and I work in the way that I might have done when I was in my first year in art college. You know she'll get her kit off, and I'll get out a bit of paper, and we'll have a good go. And it'll be frustrating at times, but [in using language] I'm not thwarted by the clumsiness of working with materials-I personally have much more dexterity with language. It's natural to me.
But it must be an intrusive experience for the model?
It is for both of us, really. I suppose [the nudes] are all self-portraits anyway, in some sense. But somebody getting naked in front of you is as much a responsibility for the person who is being a voyeur as it is for the person who is supplying the subject. It does set up a tense and interesting scenario.
Your new nudes are on these almost anatomical parts of fighter jets. They seem to merge that voyeurism of the nudes with your fascination with war imagery.
The layers of voyeurism in the nude are echoed in the way we look at war and deal with images of war. When I first started making those pieces, I wanted to get hold of some of these [fighter jet tailfins] just because I wanted to see what it was like to have them. It took me an awful long time to be able to get hold of any of these objects, because, importantly for me, they still have a currency.
I ended up having to accrue a little dossier of letters from the Ministry of Defense saying, "I know she looks like a terrorist, but..." Penetrating this incredibly male military world was also quite weird. I hadn't anticipated that there would be this very strange reaction to some bird coming in and going, "How much?"
I suppose there's something [in the nudes on the tail-fins of Harrier Jets] about the vulnerability and fragility that one feels up against this kind of military gear and how it operates in the world. It's the ultimate hardness-in absolute contradiction to our ultimate softness. I'm also very interested in that idea of this military hardware being the new nature. For example, take the nicknames [for the jets], which I've been collecting alongside the images of them: They refer to all-powerful nature: Cheetahs, tornados, etc. And of course, these things are often called birds in movies.
That brings us back to the films: You deliberately pick films that are almost impossible to capture in words, because they're so expansive in their scope...
Lawrence of Arabia is a film that defines the notion of epic, spatially and historically. I was interested in the idea of being able to contain that kind of epic notion, to make language wrap around that and somehow stretch towards it. It's the same thing that really fascinates me about painting: the heroic frame. The fact that [a painting] can contain all this [visual information] that the eye cannot see all at once. There's this slightly absurd and wry reference to that in my work.
Even just the extent of the writing, the fact of tracing the duration of time, has this defunct heroism to it. With the still-films, there was an attempt to describe this entire event or this entire image, whereas my newer work is more "live," if you like, because the descriptions are more unmediated.
I'm also equally fascinated by what language can and can't do. A lot of my work is about how we communicate and how we don't. Of all of my work, the full-stop series [life-size sculptures based on periods from different font types] is most overtly and absurdly about a breakdown in language, which most of us experience at various times.
When I started making those sculptures, I was experiencing a complete disenfranchisement from the way I make work. My thought was how I could make something to represent this dumbness-dumbness in terms of stupidity, but also in the inability to communicate, and this gap of how to proceed from that.
The full-stop sculptures are sort of the reverse of your films. They turn text into an object, rather than the other way around...
They're like the text work turned inside out. I started by making drawings of full-stops, which I though of as completely edited texts-these sort of black voids. But I realized that all these full-stops are different forms. It was interesting how this void that is just about a pause [on a page] actually has a whole character.
So I worked directly from various fonts and was very rigorous about them and made three-dimensional versions of these two-dimensional tiny things. Something inconspicuous became an object you had to negotiate in space. We become like the characters in the narrative of these things; they are literally punctuation that we move around-which is obviously a reference to sculpture and how it operates, but in a very simple, stripped back way.
Tell me about the models of all the world's fighter planes in Parade?
That started with a collection of images from newspapers of the fighter planes of the world for my studio reference. It was important that they were collected from the real world-from how these images come into my own personal world through newspapers. From that I ended up making a focused collection of one of every single type of fighter plane currently in commission around the world. Parade I see very much as like the big description I made of Apocalypse Now, this massive handwritten text, in that it's a completely unedited war-scape.
There's a certain ludicrousness to the way I've become completely involved in what it takes to make those models. And of course in making them I'm referring to the millions of little boys every year who do the same thing. There's this getting into the psychology of people who get seduced by that-and I suppose ultimately it's about the aesthetics of destruction.