The Nam
Review by Stephen Bury

Art Monthly, June 1997


The Nam has its origins in Fiona Banner’s one-off book exhibited in the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1996 alongside her large-scale hand-written transcription of Apocalypse Now and drawing of a Chinook helicopter. It has now been published in an edition of 1,000 copies to accompany an exhibition at the Frith Street Gallery. In this book, Fiona Banner has assembled a seamless, shot-by-shot, continuous present tense description of six Vietnam War movies – Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July - those uncertain sites of ‘buddy’ values streaked with imperialism, militarism, racism and dubious patriotism.

Her project is not one to produce the archetypal Vietnam War movie script with all plots and all conceivable permutations reduced to some simple, structuralist formula, but to create an ambiguous space parallel to the films, distant, separate, at the same time both inside and outside filmic space, defying both narrative conventions and the vaunted immediacy of cinema; this is an intermediate zone where transcription becomes translation and repetition mutates into re-creation.

She almost casts herself in the role of the benshi of post-sound but still silent Japanese film, in the audience, glossing the image, speaking the lines. Her rendition is very vivid, visual: ‘Mike leaves off with one arm and turn round to wave at the chopper. It’s coming down, closer and closer, so black. Then you see the three of them on the bridge, from inside the cockpit they look tiny. Then you see the chopper from the side, not black anymore, but matte green’. This insistent, deliberately pedestrian, almost childlike notation of shots – “Then,’ ‘Then,’ ‘And then’ – conjures up the 50s nouveau roman of Claude Simon or Alain Robbe-Grillet. It is also in the tradition of experimental writing influenced by the stream-of-consciousness method of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. There is no beginning, no end, no past, no future, the montage of film is just re-montaged.

This is not just an artist’s book but a multiple. It is insistently an object: its 1,000 leaves on 80 gsm Redwood Part Mechanical paper, in an intimidating pave 28 x 21 x6 cm format, weighs 2.388 kg. It defies traditional assumptions about the book and text; it is un-paragraphed, un-paginated and un-chaptered. It could be a flip book but it fails to generate the main characteristic of that format since any kinetic qualities are dulled by the almost constant appearance of the page. The heavy 16/17 point Helvetica typeface hammers out an unrelenting, breathless present – we are there too, but not there, can never be there, trapped in a simulation of a simulation.

If the artist’s task is to take us see the world around us differently, Fiona Banner’s The Nam, like Douglas Gordon’s slowed films, interrogates the nature of film (or is it video? One suspects the text might have been generated from the freezed frames of that medium) and our experience of it. What is cinema? What isn’t? Does the audience constantly remake the film it watches? How does the written text relate to sound (further problematized by the taped pieces of the installation) and vision? This audience, at least, remains spellbound.

Stephen Bury is the Librarian of and a lecturer in the History and Theory of Modern Art at Chelsea College of Art & Design.