Fiona Banner, Tate Gallery, London.
Review by Michael Ellis

Art Monthly, Issue 220 October 1998


Giant lightweight full stops made of polystyrene, colliding words in a field of red ink, invisible letters that play out a game of hide and seek – this could be the basis for a linguistic theme park, but it is also a description of three works that lead us into a confrontation with the structure of language and order of meaning. The walls of the Art Now exhibition space are mostly taken up by two works. One is a single wordscape, Break Point, 1998, which describes the action from the film Point Break. The other word, You gota lot of nerve, 1998, consists of four canvases that carry the words of a verbal assault in the form of a lyrical accusation” ‘You gota lot of nerve to say you are my friend, when I was down you just stood there grinning,’ It begins. Laid out across the floor is a group of white polystyrene sculptures of full stops at a massive 1800 point size.

For those familiar with Banner’s work, Break Point is the most recognisable piece. But unlike earlier works such a Top Gun and The Hunt for Red October, it does not take a film in its entirety, but instead concentrates on a single chase sequence from Point Break. The action of the film is transcribed in the artist’s own words, complete with the odd interjections of dialogue. The text is worked across a large landscape format canvas (recalling the cinema screen), and the space between lines, words and letters gets narrower as they proceed down the canvas and the action of the chase progresses. Eventually, they pile up into an unreadable wreckage of letters and words that have, so to speak, caught up with each other and crashed.

Although this very visual play with words is alarmingly simple, the chase as metaphor for trying to pin down events to words and words to a meaning pretty much sums up what Fiona Banner has been getting at with the film-based wordscapes that she has been making for the last four or five years. Break Point forms a kind of final interpretation of this series of work and allows her to move on, if not away form the overarching theme of language as imperfect vessel. ++++ You goto a lot of nerve doesn’t make use of film iconography but uses another form of popular culture – song lyrics – as a starting point, Banner has carved out a version of Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street into the surface of four canvases to produce a stream of invective which makes the most of the word ‘you’ as an accusatory and derisory stab throughout. The thrust of the lyric stems from a friendship betrayed, but the insult is paid back with interest. Probably because the tone is so accusatory, there is a compulsion to define the ‘you’ and so to search in turn or the voice in the piece (though this does of course depend upon whether you already know the song or not). As the audience, you become both recipient of the barrage of words and deliverer of them within an internal monologue. The ambiguity of such a pointed attack, aimed at everyone, someone or no one in particular, is echoed by the similarly untethered form of the words which have been cut from the canvas, and so we read words that do not, in fact, exist. That this is significant seems all the more likely in the light of a previous work, similarly made and simply titled No Letters, 1998. Banner is stressing the fact that the words are read contextually, by what’s left of the canvas, so that their very form can only be recognised by the surrounding material. In the same way, the meaning of the words can only be understood by various negotiations, for instance between an event and its retelling, words and their context, the voice of the speaker and ears of the interlocutor.

You gota lot of nerve goes a conceptual step further than Banner’s previous wordscapes in seemingly wanting to exist between mediums rather than in them. It is not so much the appropriation of material from popular culture as an intention to affect that material in transit, and as far as possible, to act directly in the audience’s minds.

The full stops in the show play out variations on the theme of their function. They are the marks that punctuate and, by default, interrupt the free-flow of words in speech or writing. They are the objects that end every utterance – mute, dumb, speechless objects, enlarged to a scale where they become obstacles. Each one is titled by its font style, and all but the Courier script add a sculptural quirk to the perfect geometry of the sphere. They are also quietly amusing sculptures, their minimalism defined by the prescripts of the font design: abstract sculptures that are, literally, just beyond words.