Fiona Banner's toys for boys are a turn-on at Tate Britain
The Guardian, Monday 28 June 2010
The artist has upped the ante with her Harrier and Jaguar: fascinating, phallic fighter planes that look like they have skidded in on a shower of sparks
There they are: two hi-tech war toys, phallic and fascinating. The Harrier jump jet hangs just inside the entrance of the long gallery, framed and cropped by an arch as one approaches. When Tate Britain opened this morning I saw two early visitors walking straight past on their way to the Whistlers and the Turners – before they turned to find the jump jet in a permanent nosedive, arrested inches above the floor, wings outstretched, rear lost somewhere up by the skylights.
Even hung by the tail, the Harrier is a symbol of power. But, like the assassinated Mussolini strung up by his feet, it also shows that power is mutable. I couldn't resist lying underneath, nose-to-nose, sensing the weight and mass and power of it above me, like a stilled pendulum. From this position all I could see was the circular nose cone, filling my vision like a football about to belt a goalie in the face. I am less certain that Fiona Banner needed to draw feathers on the bodywork and wings of the jet, even though she's done it discreetly; the Harrier is in any case named after a bird of prey. Maybe she wanted us to think of vermin strung up on a gamekeeper's gibbet, or a game bird hung in Tate Britain's neo-classical larder. Banner probably also wants to remind us of earlier drawings she has made, using fighter-plane wings as her canvas or paper. Previously she has written moment-by-moment descriptions of war movies – including Apocalypse Now and Black Hawk Down – and of the experience of drawing from a live model. Now she gives us the real thing.
It is a complicated experience. The planes are inescapably sexy, dangerous, compelling. At the far end of the Duveens, the Jaguar rests on its tail and its cockpit, as though it has skidded in on a shower of sparks in a special-effects disaster movie – except the wings would have been torn off by the intervening pillars as it screeched through the gallery. The Jaguar has been stripped of its paintwork and polished to a reflective aluminium shine. Somewhere between evil hypodermic and swordfish, it injects itself into the space, and might almost disappear among its reflections. I'll be honest: I found the confrontation a turn-on. They're boys' toys, and that is Banner's point. The Jaguar originally had a cartoon painted on its nose by one of its crew: a rendition of Viz comic's Buster Gonad, with his Unfeasibly Large Testicles, which he has to cart around in a wheelbarrow. "Look," Banner said to me this morning, pointing up at the twin black exhaust vents either side of the Jaguar's tail, "there's his gonads."
Banner's Harrier and Jaguar has upped the ante both of her own art, and of the Duveens commissions. This is more than a familiar transposition of two readymade objects from the hangar or the war zone into Tate Britain's neoclassical galleries. It is a timely and well-placed work, which enters into a dialogue not just with the decorum of its architecture, but also with space. One can make both sculptural and symbolic association with the earlier commissions: Mark Wallinger's earlier State Britain and Martin Creed's runners. Banner, too, invokes war and power, speed and image. Her fighter planes have become images of power as well as impotence – and, therefore, of art itself.