MAKING IT REAL
Fiona Banner in conversation with Matthew Higgs
The following conversation took place at Banner’s Bethnal Green studio around the time of the artists’ Tate Gallery Art Now exhibition.
Matthew Higgs: In 1997 you exhibited a small blue neon work in the shape of a full stop, which you described at the time as ‘the smallest neon in the world’. The recent series of sculptural full stops exhibited as part of your project for the Tate Gallery’s Art Now Room appear to be an extension of this work. Had you been thinking about the potential of the punctuation mark for long?
Fiona Banner: Well I’ve been thinking about pauses and breaks in speech forever. But a few ears ago I made a piece of work called The Corrections Made To The Text of Apocalypse Now, which in a way was like a digital equivalent to liquid paper. I had started to proofread this long text that describes the film Apocalypse Now and for whatever reason, primarily, I guess because I’m an appalling speller, compounded by the fact that I write exceedingly fast, I ended up correcting virtually every other word.
It started me thinking about the whole process of proofing and spell-checking. So instead of just correcting the words, I ended up taking the words out, all of them, but keeping the spaces where they had been so that I ended up with something that resembled a landscape or more accurately, something that looked like a galaxy of punctuation marks. That, in turn, suggested or alluded to the idea of an entire text – without the use of any actual words whatsoever – a long silent expletive. There’s always this attempt to keep up with words, I find, and it’s impossible. You can’t describe things as they’re happening, not without losing a lot. From that point on I started thinking about punctuation in a spatial, more concrete way. The idea of punctuation as ‘form’ that might actually represent itself. Not long after that I was having this difficult time with someone and we called each other up a lot, but after a while we didn’t really talk much, but we still spent ages on the phone. Though it was all deathly serious at the time, I had to laugh thinking tat we’d perfected the idea of a silent phone call. It had all the architecture of a conversation, but none of the words. I’m interested in that kind of paradox.
MH: So whilst the corrected Apocalypse Now piece referred directly to the notion of an ‘absent’ text, what were you thinking about with the recent sculptural punctuation marks – the full stops – which appear to me to be more self-contained or singular?
FB: Well there is only one of each and they’re not on the page, they’re on the floor. There are no letters, though I imagined the people visiting might be the letters. The forms are pretty abstract to look at, I was thinking about things that existed without language and the closet I got to that was between language. Like full stops are between sentences…
When I started on them I was feeling frustrated with fantasy, and bored with fiction, and the whole enigma of things that don’t actually exist. So it was the idea that these things might have just popped out from fiction and become real. You have to negotiate with them in a physical way. It was about making something tangible even though I was very aware that I wanted them to retain a very elusive quality as objects. When you encounter them it’s quite hard to believe they are in fact three-dimensional representations of full-stops. They’re all blown up to a scale of 1,800pt. But they are on the whole really different shapes and sizes.
MH: Prior to the three-dimensional full stops you had completed a series of large-scale graphite drawings of full stops that to date you haven’t exhibited. Obviously these drawings occupy an important role – as catalysts – in relation to the sculptural works. Could you say something about the drawings?
FB: The drawings are much much bigger than the sculptures. They were slightly different; in fact they were very different, they were two-dimensional objects. I began thinking about the idea of a punctuation mark as a form of mark making in itself and also I was thinking about the shapes as being both positive and negative at the same time. The drawings are like chasms or black holes. In many respects they were drawings without a subject – that you could project both onto and into. They were in effect versions of large graphite ‘dots’ which were hung roughly at head height so that you could almost get ‘lost’ in them. They have the effect of making our head feel tiny. They are made up of very dense, overworked pencil – so dense that there aren’t any visible marks. The entire shape is the mark.
MH: How did you make this transition from these dense, void-like drawings to the white, seemingly weightless, three-dimensional full stops which appear to be their polar opposite, in so much as rather than being able to get ‘lost’ in them the polystyrene material continually resists and reflects back any attempt we might make to project into or onto them?
FB: With the drawings I had got into blowing up these minute dots, that on the page were so small you didn’t really know what they looked like. So I got familiar with and intrigued by the shapes, then I got excited about something that literally only exists on the page as a two-dimensional thing, becoming physically present, a spatial entity. But sure it’s true that whilst I might have described the earlier drawings as ‘holes’ or ‘voids’ I would describe the sculptural full stops as their opposite – actual forms.
Styrene seemed like the thing most ready to hand. If I had been making maquettes of those sculptures I would have made them exactly the same. Styrene’s only just a solid. It’s very very light, it’s one on from a projection, but it uses up real space. I was also thinking of it as a material which is used in packing., so the stuff around things not the actual things, if you like. And also its associations with transport.
Then again it’s used a lot in prop making, so it’s never as itself, always dressed up as something else. I think the surface of the sculptures are illusory, but alluding to nothing in particular.
In the end all I was doing was working on the surfaces, it didn’t seem that different from the drawings. I started thinking of them as ‘all over sculptures’ in the way that I’d enjoyed calling the previous drawings ‘all over drawings’. Anyway, the full stops maintain a maquette-like existence in styrene, as opposed to something more permanent such as bronze.
MH: The sculptural full stops immediately suggest, or even refer back to, the work of ‘classic’ modernist sculptors; Brancusi, Gabo or Hepworth, in that they ascribe to the ‘look’, if nothing else, of this earlier formalist sculpture. Unlike the textscapes for which are probably better known – texts that either describe an otherwise absent cinematic image or attempt to contain something that is in motion (eg. A filmic narrative or drift) – the sculptural full-stops seem in a very straight forward sense to contain or describe themselves.
FB: But then with a full stop I didn’t know what that was exactly, I mean it’s a pause, or an end, verbally it’s a breath. I was interested in the impossibility of interpreting all these very ephemeral things and making them solid. People immediately made the association with Brancusi. I haven’t got a big thing going with those sculptures, but I know they’re dealing with abstract form in a way which makes words seem a bit redundant.
MH: The sculptural full stops rest on the gallery floor. Were you at any time consciously thinking about the now well-worn debate surrounding the idea of sculpture in relation to its support, the plinth? Obviously someone like Anthony Caro comes to mind where perhaps, for the first time, the sculpture literally ‘hit the floor’.
FB: No. The full stops are on the floor because I was thinking of the floor as the bottom line. So it was the obvious place for them. One of the full stops in the Tate show, Avant Garde (from the typeface called Avant Garde) actually looks like a plinth, a vacant or ‘empty’ plinth. So whilst it isn’t a plinth as such it does set up allusions to that whole set of conditions and conventions.
MH: You custom-made containers for each individual full stop. On the exterior of each container is the title of the typeface from which the sculpture originated (Futura, Courier etc). Had you not originally planned to install the full stops alongside their respective containers at the Tate?
FB: Yes. They’re big silkscreened cardboard boxes; they also have the point size and some other stuff on them. I thought they’d work as a kind of titling system. I had this idea that if fonts are agents of communication then they are also in a way a kind of transport, for words, ideas and so on. With the boxes I was keeping some references to how I’d originally thought of styrene as packing, and so on, and also referring to the idea of transport. The sculptures are transported in those boxes, or stored in them. It seems in one way like the whole entity (the sculpture, the box) is packing, is multilingual – highly transportable.
Anyway seeing as I didn’t really need to send them anywhere, I mean the Tate is just down the road, they seemed a bit redundant. Also there wasn’t really room. ++++ MH: This notion of ‘potential’ or ‘possibility’ interests me. Your earlier ‘textscapes’ whilst very much grounded within our collective experience of cinema, remain highly subjective. Ultimately, it is your take on a particular movie, whereas the full stops are objective for more fundamental reasons.
FB: Well funnily though I was trying to make a group of things that it would be difficult to articulate verbally, and maybe that did come from the fact that a lot of my earlier work is about how things are expressed or can become manifest through words – how you can visualise passages of time through language. It’s very easy to talk about the full stops formally, but beyond that it is very hard to discuss then in any other way. So I wanted to make a work that is very hard to talk about outside of its physical, objective state – I realised this quite gradually, but these are what I came up with.
MH: The sculptural full stops have a prop-like quality – they seem to act out the old adage that a sculpture is a thing you bump into when you step back to look at paintings.
FB: That’ s a highly appropriate comment, in fact, that is how the work was often discussed by the people who were helping me on the installation. ++++ It also reminds me of something my dad had once said. He’d been to some country house for a concert and there was a sculpture garden full of Henry Moores. He was telling me about them – probably because I’m an artist – and he said that they made him realise how beautiful the trees are. I think it’s a great comment.
MH: Alongside the sculptural full stops you are showing a new text work You got a lot of nerve which takes as its point of departure the Bob Dylan song Positively 4th Street. Perhaps you could say something about your particular relationship with this song? ++++ FB: Well firstly it is a very, very acrimonious song. I think it was directed at the East Village scenesters who had ripped Dylan off and written malicious things about him – people who were jealous of him I guess. I always heard a vitriolic voice, someone pretending not to be upset, or pretending not to be in love, somebody jilted, like the person getting the sack saying ‘too late I just quit’. It’s about disappointment.
If I had to describe how the painting operates I would describe it as an indictment of viewership, and I think this is another take on Dylans’ intent. The words, as I said are incredibly acrimonious. They address very specifically each individual listening to the song. It’s always going ‘you’ in a very accusatory way. It isn’t a ‘true’ record of the actual lyrics, it’s my interpretation of the lyrics from memory, I always thought I knew the song word for word but I didn’t, some bits I had made up, missed out, or misheard.
MH: In deciding to represent this particular text, and taking on Dylan’s original, we are inevitably bound to confuse Dylan’s voice with the artist’s voice – your voice. Should we think about You gota lot of nerve as a highly personal, albeit coded, message directed at a particular individual?
FB: Are you asking if I’m bitter?
MH: Well it’s certainly a bitter song.
FB: Actually I’m not bitter, I’m twisted. It’s dedicated to ‘you’, whoever ‘you’ are, standing in front of the painting.
But it is also a very beautiful song, and it is a song that addresses that necessary aspect of making an artwork and being prepared to accept the consequences of putting it into the public domain. I think the song addresses this in a very beautiful way. I was intrigued by this process – of how one invariably produces work within a very personal context and then when you put it out into the world it becomes open to scrutiny and yes, even ridicule. Only at this point does it become problematic because more often than not you are never aware of what the actual response will be. The canvases that make up You gota lot of nerve are very large and whilst the words appear to be very domineering they are actually quite hard to read, partly because of the way they have been cut, or ripped, from the canvas. So what appears to address the viewer in a very unambiguous fashion is in many ways, highly ambiguous.
MH: You’ve persisted in trying to deal with the lyrics Positively 4th Street for more than five years now. Why did you keep coming back to the particular song?
FB: I’m not sure. I think I have made as many as fifteen versions, but none of them turned out to be any good. Ultimately it was the vitality of this incredibly disillusioned song, and the question of how I could render both that vitality and disillusionment, that hooked me.
MH: Unlike earlier typeset works such as The desert, which was inspired by the film Lawrence of Arabia, your use of stencilling in You gota lot of nerve give the work a sense of urgency. It reads almost like a polemic.
FB: In what way?
MH: I was particularly thinking back to the stencilled slogans that The Clash and The Manic Street Preachers used to sport on their shirts or the way that artists such as Christopher Wool or Amikam Toren have used the stencil in their paintings, where there appears to be a maddening desire to communicate, a desire borne out of either frustration or anger. The use of the stencil suggests a sense of immediacy that we might translate as polemical. The stencil possesses an urgency that we don’t necessarily associate with other, more highly formulated, typefaces.
FB: Stencilling is an extremely expedient way of constructing a sign – and it is a good one for artists because you attain a positive through a negative. It makes the word seem present tense, if you like, so it’s a good one for musicians too. When you see a stencilled sign in the street, you know it has been produced in an instant, like a photograph. The letters have been rendered in one moment, unlike writing which is linear – so the words build cumulatively. It almost allows you to read it visually, if you like, like a picture. Yeah, it’s a very straight, direct way of putting something down. You gota lot of nerve uses negative stencilling, or is that positive, anyway it’s the gaps you read. It was important that there is as much there as there is absent.
The polemic is the subject of You gota lot of nerve, you know, the riff between the words and their meaning.
With something like The desert, I only noticed recently, when I was reinstalling that piece, how absurdly it’s written. For a while I just didn’t recognise the words. Then I realised that it’s written in the same kind of language that is used in the film. It has this tautological thing, where the words that I use to describe the film – the whole ‘rhythm’ of them – come from the film itself. It is almost as if it could have been spoken by Peter O’Toole – that’s how it sounds. It’s very impersonal. This goes for the way that the text is presented, it’s visually quite monotonous, or relentless even. It doesn’t reveal much, other than what’s said.
MH: But neither is The Desert reportage, it’s not a documentary account? ++++ FB: No, it’s not, but it exists within itself. It is not an impartial voice. You could say it’s the film’s own voice. When I wrote the press release for The Nam I said it was a ‘totally unedited book’, and I meant it – as an idea. I followed up by saying that ‘you begin to realise that you only notice what you notice’. I suppose the act of reading is another editing process.
So I guess from my point of view it could be seen as reportage, just as you would if you had written it. A report of what’s noticed – where’s the objective moment anyway? Or you could say neither The desert nor The NAM are objective they just purport to be objective? It’s an attempt at a very fair account of exceedingly biased subject matter. The whole notion of how things purport to be objective, or how one chooses to interpret fictive things as fact, was the starting point for that project.
MH: How does an epic project like The NAM figure now in your thinking?
FB: For a while I thought of it as a sculpture, like the outside was the idea, and the words were the back-up, but that was when I had a load of them in my studio. I was very aware of them as stackable spatial entities. I’m interested in The NAM as an object as much as a….as anything else. Now that I’ve hardly got any left, it seems more like a ‘book’. I’m surprised by the ‘gradualness’ of it. Things that didn’t occur to me when I was writing it, now seem very obvious. It was very important to me that the book had no chapters – that it was a continuous text – yet now when I look at it I realise there actually are ‘chapters’. To me it reads as if each of the films is set in a different font, partly because the ‘sound’ of the language changes – the way that I expressed things through words – with respect to each particular film was very different. With the description of the film Full Metal Jacket, for instance, the words kind of shout themselves off the page, like the drill instructor, Hartmann is always shouting; and Apocalypse Now is all smoke and metaphor. So, in fact, it has begun a process of unravelling itself a bit. It no longer seems to be a coherent unit, it is less of a ‘sculptural’ entity. Each film described ended up having its own particular character and seductive power. The words are simply agents of description and, like I say, I didn’t make any decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. It isn’t the seductive power of images per se. It’s the seductive power of images translated into words…
MH: Perhaps you could say some more about this notion of seduction. Does working on these pieces somehow unravel the process of seduction? Is it a cathartic exercise?
FB: I mean how does seduction work? It’s a very live, real thing. It’s not something you can detach yourself from and conspire against. What interested me initially about the movies was their genuine power to seduce, in spite of all the things about them which make them dubious or trite or pornographic. So it wasn’t something which they lost for me, I didn’t ‘comment’ on how that works, I translated it. ++++ MH: Many of the films you have chosen to work with portray or convey a fairly high-pitched notion of masculinity.
FB: But I think it’s a very abstract notion of masculinity that is probably no more foreign to me than it is to you. The films all deal with territory, that’s the theme.
MH: Finally, how do the figurative drawings that you make feature? I’m thinking particularly of the one of a Chinook helicopter or the drawing of Marlon Brando acting out the role of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. They seem to connect to this ‘territorial’ notion of masculinity whist at the same time they seem to exist simply to satisfy an occasional desire to make an ‘image’.
FB: Well for instance with Kurtz – the drawing of Brando – I thought of Brando as being Kurtz and of Kurtz being Brando, both being essentially the same myth, interchangeable. I made that drawing in exactly the same way that I, or anyone, would construct a text – I started at the top left of the sheet and finished at the bottom right. It was an enormous picture constructed out of very small marks. So, in one way it was like writing a picture, something I’ve done a lot. I was concerned with making a drawing that was almost a ‘sculpture’. I was working on building up this thing that was a bust, not really a drawing at all – at least that’s’ how I was seeing it. It was also how I was seeing the monumental or monolithic image of Kurtz or Brando (this is him as both, on the set, but not acting). Also, the Kurtz drawing came about because for almost the entire duration of the film – of which he is the central character – you never actually ‘see’ him, he is permanently in the dark. So, ultimately, it became a way of making him visible – making him ‘real’.
The press release for The Nam reads:
The NAM is a 1,000 page all text flick book. It is compiled of total descriptions of well known Vietnam films – Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Hamburger Hill and Platoon. The films apparently never begin or end, but are described in their entirety, spliced together to make a gutting 11-hour super movie.
Banner describes the films as if she’s there, not influencing the plot, but always on set running alongside the action.