Fiona Banner by Linda Ruth Williams
The Vietnam war was a crucial landmark in our increasingly suspicious relationship with the image. When the war’s visual icons – photographs, newsfootage, the whole genre of fiction films spawned by the conflict – begin to usurp the historical event itself, the relationship between the reality and the fiction of its representation blurs. The anxiety created by this moment when history and representation bleed into each other lies at the heart of Fiona Banner’s Vietnam pieces. For those of us growing up after the event, struggling with the fact that our sense of its history is intimately bound up with its filmic and fictional rendition, Banner’s project has particular relevance.
Banner’s formal mode of working also occupies a unique place in this exhibition, which connects two distinct but related ways of viewing art and cinema and allows them to overlap and spark off each other. Her extraordinary artistic engagement with film, with visual narratives and with words as images, poses the question of how history can be subsumed by its representations in a very specific way. Viewed through the interdisciplinary context of art and cinema, art read as cinema and cinema read through visual art, Banner’s works necessarily inject a third term: writing. What, then is the interconnection between language, cinema and the image here? Why are the films about Vietnam crucial to the way these elements are mixed?
The age-old question that painting has posed and re-posed, of how to address movement in a still image, is rephrased in Banner’s work with an uncompromising emphasis, yet at the heart of this work is a paradox. By starting with the movies, moving pictures, the movement image itself (and thus, in a sense, posing the question the other way round), Banner challenges the stillness of pint, ink or text on paper. For her. works such as the monolithic Apocalypse Now (1996, pencil on paper) are still films rather than film stills. Gregor Muir has described Banner’s previous works, constructed in this mode – Top Gun (1993, pencil on paper), The Hunt for Red October (1993, pencil on paper) and The desert (1994, pencil on paper) as ‘not so much landscapes as wordscapes’, but that implies an absence of motion, which is belied by the cinematic concern at the heart of Banner’s project. The compendium text comprising Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter might be read as a flick-book, a device which, as an ancestor of cinema, plays with the phenomenon of the persistence of vision. Banner’s images never sit still, and not just because they are prescribed by the movies. Inspired by some of the blockbuster cornerstones of contemporary film-history (inspired? – yes although the relationship between filmic starting point and Banner’s response is hardly an easy one) Banner writes out her image, which hovers between categories and between conventional interpretations; Is this a novel, a drawing or a picture? It is certainly not a film. Or is it?
Take The desert for example, a wide linear narrative, retelling Lawrence of Arabia in toto. Like Apocalypse Now, exhibited here, The desert is a double epic, an epic of space as well as time. Offering a stiff version of the impact of Lean’s engulfing 70mm Super Panavision, The desert covers such a huge visual expanse that it can only be experienced in bits, with the eye acting as secondary editor, necessarily panning and scanning between the different elements within the frame – clearly one of the key experiences of the film too. The fact that you cannot possibly take it all in, so crucial to Lean’s vision from Lawrence of Arabia right through to his death, also marks Banner’s sensibility. Lean’s characteristically sumptuous adventure spectacles marry classic literary adaptation with a romantic boy’s own drive - this is true not just of Lawrence of Arabia, but of Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage India.
These films have also bound history into an excessive and seductive web of fictionality; film fictions built on and derived from literary fictions, distorting, behind a layering of mythic representation, not just the texts of E.M Forester or Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but also the reality of the Russian Revolution, the Irish struggle or the Raj. Like ‘Vietnam cinema’, Lean’s cinematic fables have, in part, become our histories. Executed on an epic scale, each is marked by a curious lack of closure, by questions that remain unanswered and by a sense of disappointment. ++++ By mythologizing both action and defeat, Lawrence of Arabia provided perfect Banner material and set an agenda that would bear fruit in the Vietnam works. Certain issues strike one immediately when observing her work. That she is a woman artist working on boy’s material will for some be an obvious point of entry, but is not, I think, the most interesting issue at stake. That she has focused on perhaps the most significant development in film of the past decade or so, the action adventure spectacle, might be seen as crucial to the critique of action heroism implicit in her choice of material. This would impose a moral definition on Banner’s project, however, which the works themselves subtly evade.
Strange, because another thing that strikes you about these images is their immediate lack of subtlety. The desert, for example, is a huge block of material asserting a vast sense of scale, but it is underpinned or undermined by voices of frustration woven into the detail. And – to put it crudely – it is long as well as huge, an epic narrative as well as an epic screen space. It is here that Banner’s use of time, and the reader’s or viewer’s experience of time through the work, becomes crucial. The whole is presented in one image, all 222 minutes of the director’s cut is run through this picture as its text, offering in a flash the whole story as the whole picture.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, arguably exemplifying the next stage of cinema’s experiment with the epic, is the starting point, for (as with Lean) Coppola’s film also needs to be read as one element in a web of intertextuality, spinning off from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then wrapping in the lustre of its own legendary status as a film born of trauma. Rising from the ferment of publicity tales and later, the self-conscious mythologizing of the film’s excesses in Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now layers on to the fiction of imperialism (Conrad’s) its own fiction of war. Coppola’s supremely arrogant statement that the film was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam only reinforces its position as a prime example of a genre that has displaced the war itself as a historical event.
The anxiety about representation of representations certainly haunts Banner’s work, but in her narrative replay she also engages with the genre’s curious compulsion to repeat. Films in this genre have often been read as therapeutic works of national catharsis, expelling from the American body politic the traumatic past. But it seems that his exorcism is unsuccessful; the trauma sticks and film-makers must keep returning to the event and replaying it, excessively and endlessly, not least in Coppola’s recycling of Apocalypse Now.
Banner’s written account of the film needs to be read, however, not just as a companion to this cluster of Vietnam pieces but as a further engagement with scale, text and narrative. As with the earlier works, Banner has striven to keep her narrative retellings as plain as possible (letting the films speak for themselves, perhaps, through the taps in their scripts as well as through the text itself; what she leaves out is thus as crucial what she includes). She gives the ‘bare bones’ story, starting at the beginning and ending at the end, as all good stories should. What commentary takes place here is enacted through an active presentation of the narrative.
What does it mean then to ‘read’ these pictures as stories? What does it mean to judge Banner as a writer, a re-presenter of these filmic representations? How do her words affect or infect their filmic origin? For Banner, Apocalypse Now or Lawrence of Arabia (films of heroic absurdity and compulsively confessed failures) incorporate and engage in their own self-critique. Working through these narratives reiterates this, poising that self-critique again, or activating it in a new form. A literary response to this would be that there is no such as an ‘innocent’ representation’ – presenting involves distortion, editing, twisting the tale. Perhaps, then, Banner’s work has responded to a contemporary suspicion of the image by producing images paradoxically composed from a relatively non-suspicious use of language. Certainly there is an excited involvement here, a passion that emerges through the handwriting itself as well as through the breathless need to tell the narrative in the present, keeping pace with the moment and the moving action of the images spooling before Banner as cinematic viewer. Still, her narratives have a kind of literary innocence, which her images can never have, yet word and image are intimately bound together in the life of her work, plain tales and deceitful images continuing to play off each other. In the light of this it would be interesting to see how Banner’s own literary style has altered in the writing of these works, how ‘plain’ these renderings are, and now that ‘plainness’ develops through its engagement with the film in question. Does the seductiveness of these narratives prevent us from approaching the words as suspiciously as we approach the image? Does Banner, perhaps, present a kind of cinema verite (or literature verite) account of these fantasy action extravaganzas?
These questions arise from the strange kind of accessibility that haunts these epic works. Despite their exotic mise-en-scene, when they are ‘translated’ into artworks they are actually quite readable. Apocalypse Now or Lawrence of Arabia – films you might know, films invested with a cult glamour – are here laid out for you with similar titles in unpretentious, unchallenging sentences. Yet, with this simple device, Banner has constructed something that resonates between story, film and still image, but is none of these. This is coherent prose, certainly; it is even formally conventional. The style is fluid and peculiarly unremarkable. Punctuation is in its place – something Banner plays with in another 1995 work, Un*******believable (pen on formica) which is all punctuation and no words. Form sheets are dotted with punctuation marks, scattered in humorous little groups as if keeping each other company, or conspiring together having banished he words. Unlike Apocalypse Now, a text with perhaps too many words, Un*******believable is a text with no words: on the situating signs of emphasis or pace are those with nothing of what they refer to. It as if a monumental act of deletion has taken place, leaving only the presence of an absence, although the final effect is funnier that that: more of a child’s join-the-dots than a philosophical fill-in-the-gaps. By contrast, Banner’s pieces for this exhibition are brimful of coherent, ‘proper’ prose. Yet coherent prose can become quite incoherent, quite unreadable, without a single word being changed, when framed and presented in this way. For these are words loaded, primarily, not with linguistic significance but with the seduction of imagery. These are words that look more than they mean.
First impressions are deceptive. Apparently accessible, Banner’s works can look quite neat, at least when the text is printed as with The desert. Apocalypse Now, however, is rendered crazier by virtue of the uneasy intimacy in the style and dash of Banner’s own hand. The handwriting brings with it not just a self-consciously declared subjectivism but various forms of cracked obsessiveness. The text can begin to look like ‘lines’; a school punishment – a ritual empty repetition (like Vietnam cinema itself) or the insane outpouring of a captive. Then, when compared against handwritten scribble, the sheer neatness of the print in other works begins to take on a pristine weirdness all of its own. Look closely or stand back, the words do not stay still; they melt into a dizzying forest, through which rivers of white space (between lines, as it were) offer a path, or seduce you in reading, reading on, only to lose you. Letters and words melt into the grey-on-white minute patterning of the whole. Sentences fuse and dissolve; your eye will wander. But then again you may find a moment you recognise, a scene you remember and dialogue you recall – your favourite moment, perhaps – and something will make sense, just briefly Your eye will rewind or fast forward, it will freeze frame those moments it recognises like a seasoned video user’ moments of cult cinema, of dialogue bites remembered, repeated and shared, that seal a film in its own mythology. Then you will think that this is not a picture but a book, a book without its binding (a diary perhaps) and just as you do, the words will be lost again in the frenzy of letter-patterns you are also looking at. If a book, it is a book that exceeds its limits – unbound, the words have bled through the margins. If a diary, it is a diary as monologue, or free association, but this is no exciting confessional, we are merely witnessing the banal tedium of someone else’s fascination with the plot. Bored, perhaps, you will stand back, and then significance will melt again into image, and you will slip, and fall, somewhere between reader and viewer, viewer and spectator. Book becomes picture, and back again. Banner presents her viewers with the impossibility as well as the possibility of reading.
Scale is not just a question of mass in these works. There is always an oscillation between the too-big and the miniscule, and here, I think, lies the works’ absurdity and humour. Read Banner’s Apocalypse Now alongside her pencil drawing of Brando as Kurtz (Kurtz, 1996, pencil on paper) or Kurtz as Brando. Kurtz, icon of terror, is nothing but a construct of tiny grey lines. The image is merely the effect of diminutive mark-making, yet in long-shot, standing back, it is difficult to tell if they are lines or words (what’s the difference?). The closer you look, the faster the horror of his vast image dissolves into its component parts. The colossal plays off the minute throughout these Vietnam pieces, and is always dependent upon it. Brando’s gesture towards the tragic or grandiose is the film’s – and the drawing’s – final, ridiculous, disappointment.
Proximity is all, a truth borne out by Vietnam on film when perspective is entirely an effect of distance, of how far or how near your subject is. So much of the power of ‘Vietnam cinema’ emerges because of a problem of translation, or because the transmission of motifs, images, music even, from one culture to another makes a difference. The global view, or the view from across the Pacific, is quite different from that taken up close. The transplanted subject is a key motif; Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven & Earth – films pitched between ‘here’ and ‘there’ – lay out the agonised dislocation of psyches and bodies no longer at home at home, subjects suspended between U.S. pre-Nam training or post-Nam hospitalisation, and the war zone itself. The significance of these films is, finally, the significance of not being there, of never really arriving in Vietnam – its reality only becomes real when reviewed from America itself. Even Apocalypse Now is essentially a journey, with an absence at the end of it These are films in which nothing is in its place: home has become something other whilst the other takes on a macabre familiarity (the irony at the heart of Coming Home). The Doors never sounded as good as when they were transplanted across the Pacific. Perspective makes the difference.
Distance and translation also mark Banner’s works, which are themselves pitched between (at least) two cultures, the language, grunts, inarticulacies and non-linguistic spectacles of American action cinema and the translations and transliterations of a woman artist working in Britain in the 1990s. Thus Banner builds on to the film’s own sense of displacement another dimension of foreignness.