Porn on the fourth of July: Fiona Banner rewrites the art of war
Adrian Searle

The Guardian, Tuesday 13 October 2015

“THE BASTARD WORD”, reads a neon sign that fills a whole wall. My life is filled with bastard words, and so is Fiona Banner’s Scroll Down And Keep Scrolling, at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. If her neon sign addresses her conflict with words, it also embodies her difficulties with neon. The glass lettering is stressed and wonky and has scorched the paper template on the wall behind it. It hurts just to look; I know how the words feel.

Words on the wall, words in eye-chewing colour combinations, words in giant books, handwritten words and words in a font of the artist’s own devising. She has even had the word “font” carved on to a real church font. We are baptised with damn words.

Books are stacked from the floor to the ceiling: there are books in vitrines, and a book that has been turned into a huge bench. This last one is my fault. I apparently once wrote that Banner’s The Nam – her 1997, 1,000-page, shot-by-shot present-tense description of Vietnam war movies (Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Hamburger Hill and Platoon) – was “not so much a coffee-table book as a coffee-table”. That’s the title of this gargantuan 2015 blow-up.

“The Nam has been described as unreadable,” says the blurb she appended to her original book and the posters for it, which now paper an entire room, along with the bench, a cut-out of Banner and a stack of The Nam piled as tall as she is. The whole configuration is lit by changing coloured lights that emulate those used in the printing process. The room goes cyan, magenta, yellow and black, causing all the printed material to throb painfully as we look.

The show surges with visual and aural assault. It’s a war zone in there. The sound of her work Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead batters the ears: the clamour of the “open outcry trading” of city boys at the London Metal Exchange accompanies Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin’s shots of the lives and times of traders (we even see one on his knees, throwing up in a doorway). The city becomes a conflict zone. Here the boy soldiers have stepped out of their ubiquitous camo and into pinstripes.

Banner’s ‘Mr Kurtz …’ is a kind of reversal of Steve McQueen’s 2007 film Gravesend, which, like Banner’s work, uses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to study the global problems of international trade (in McQueen’s case, the mining of coltan in the Congo). And of course, Francis Ford Coppola used Conrad’s story as the model for his 1979 Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now.

Full stops punctuate Banner’s show like bullet holes – or rather, like bean bags. Kids sprawl out on them to watch a film performed by bright orange windsocks. The socks wobble, nod, kiss and flap goodbyes on a summer’s day. Adults perch precariously on the soft full stops to watch another film, of a Chinook helicopter performing aerobatics – the thwapping rotors mixed in with churning house music as the ’copter performs the Arse to the Grass, the Rear Waive, the Mobius Dick and other expert pilot moves. For a machine that looks so lumbering, the Chinook is dangerously nifty. I know clubbers like that, too. They’re a menace on the dance floor.

For an artist with such a mistrust of words, Banner uses a great many of them. She even has her own publishing imprint, The Vanity Press. But such mistrust is common. Even the great Antonin Artaud wrote that all writing is pig shit. Much of Banner’s writing is plain description: she has made “written” life drawings (one of which is subsequently read by her sitter in an illicit video), written descriptions of porn movies as well as Hollywood war films. Here, her account of Tyffany Minx’s Arsewoman in Wonderland, in nasty flouro-pink script, is hung upside down, rendering the text extremely hard to read. Standing there and reading the inverted text (the difficulty is a definitive turn-off) is both a pain in the arse and a kind of literary 69. She’s a tease, that Banner.

But she can be almost lyrical. On Ikon’s top floor stands a scaffolding tower, just like the ones she has used to install works at innumerable exhibitions. The difference is that this one is hand-blown from clear Murano glass. Both magical and dangerous, its transparency alludes to the tower’s disappearance: they’re ever-present in galleries while shows are being installed and the lighting being adjusted, but nowhere to be seen once the exhibitions are up.

But she can be almost lyrical. On Ikon’s top floor stands a scaffolding tower, just like the ones she has used to install works at innumerable exhibitions. The difference is that this one is hand-blown from clear Murano glass. Both magical and dangerous, its transparency alludes to the tower’s disappearance: they’re ever-present in galleries while shows are being installed and the lighting being adjusted, but nowhere to be seen once the exhibitions are up.

Much of Banner’s work is a game of transpositions. In a concurrent show, she has installed a pair of Harrier jump jet nose cones high on the wall of London’s Frith Street gallery. She has covered the metal in black graphite. They look like a pair of proud and thrusting breasts, complete with nipples. This may well say something about the mindset of male plane designers. Banner’s art is full of ambivalences and complications. I’m all for them and they make art richer. She must like all this stuff: words, engines of war, testosterone-laden war movies and porn flicks. Her installation of real fighter planes in her 2010 Tate Britain Duveen commission testified to the attraction of their immanent power as much as their stranded impotence. Words and things – what else do we have?

Fiona Banner’s Scroll Down and Keep Scrolling is at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery until 17 January 2016