Chinooks away: Fiona Banner's terrifying homage to a helicopter
The Guardian, Thursday 18 September 2014
Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a peaceful place. On a misty autumn day, its loping hills nestle in isolation from the world’s troubles – war, pestilence, referenda – and it’s to this tranquil place that artist Fiona Banner has brought the hum of danger.
Wide and weighty blades turn overhead, gathering speed and pushing gusts of air to the edges of a hangar-like gallery. Through the glass wall you can see trees in the milky mist, the safe stuff of rural England. In here, the chopper blades conjure up Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, 1970s Northern Ireland, or whatever place of troubles fills your imagination; anywhere the double sets of blades of the Chinook military helicopter have hovered above shell-shocked cities, deserts, farmlands.
Banner’s installation, Chinook, is a perverse homage to the American-made aircraft, which has been in active service since 1962. The Chinook is a military classic. It was used in Vietnam and has flown in conflict and crisis zones ever since. With its long body and twin rotors turning in what seems an impossible, paradoxical way – why don’t they collide? – it is a monster of modern war. Yet, as Banner can’t help enthusing when we chat about it, the Chinook also has a “redemptive” side, carrying people out of trouble, and a vulnerability because of its heft: something touching as well as scary.
The Chinook has been flying for even longer than Banner has been making art about the Vietnam war. Back in 1997, she published her extraordinary artist’s book The Nam, in which she recounts – blow by blow, death by death – the action of classic Vietnam war films. Here, she turns some of those words back into things, as the helicopters from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (or, at least, their humming blades) materialise in an art gallery.
How do you translate the world into words? What is the relationship between language and sensory experiences? Banner turns such apparently dry philosophical musings into exciting, intense, funny art. In her video Mirror, also showing here, the actor Samantha Morton reads out a description of her own nakedness written by Banner. She posed nude for Banner, who “portrayed” her in words. The description Morton reads out is sensual and explicit – is it also “true”? Is it a mirror, as the title announces it to be?
It is just as impossible to turn a real Chinook, with all its might, mass and history, into a work of art as it is to capture Morton in a portrait. Reality is too wild, savage and strange to be held by art. Words are not things. Things are not words. One of the things Banner likes about helicopters is the tendency to give them “wild” sounding names – the Chinook are a Native American people, like the Apache.
The two lifesize rotors that spin over my head are ghost dancers, echoes of a distant war. The thing itself – a helicopter, a world of pain – hovers at the back of the imagination, getting nearer now as the motor speeds up. Shadows and light flicker on the gallery floor. Words can’t describe the times we live in. The whirr of helicopters is our Homeric war poem.
Fiona Banner: Wp Wp Wp is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 20 September to 4 January 2015