Fiona Banner’s solo exhibit presents words in a visual way in everything from sculptures to nudes, by Peter Goddard
Toronto Star, Saturday March 3, 2007
Around mid-afternoon today, visitors to The Power Plant will have the opportunity to gaze upon nude figures. Yet they won’t have to go through that nagging extra step of putting into words all those saucy descriptions that make nude watching rewarding in the first place.
Fiona Banner will be doing the imagining for everyone. ++++ In this one-time performance piece for the opening of The Bastard Word, a mid-career mini-retrospective at the Harbourfront Centre gallery, the British artist ‘paints’ the nude figure in a densely packed formulation of words – an example of one information-rich symbol appropriating another.
As Banner’ nude text painting evolves, those wonderfully indescribable visual stimuli provoked by the sigh of a naked body – “her thigh veins blue,” went one Banner evocative description of an earlier nude – are hot-wired directly into the brain by way of her text. It’s art with the art appreciation built right in.
“These are verbal nudes, a kind of retake on the nude, if you like,” she says, “For me, executing the piece is actually a way of reinventing the nude. I want to work on this traditional genre in a fresh way. While using words to describe things, I can use words in a very visual way.” ++++ Swell, one things. Gone are the hassles occurring whenever art and media meet and one inevitably gets the other wrong. Banner’s practice – it includes her 1989 silk=screen written distillation of Don’t Look Back, American director D.A Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary on Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour – mediates the interface of art and its verbal translation. In this way art’s media and message merge.
Much in Banner’s exhibition, curated by gallery director Gregory Burke, has its beginnings in the most readily accessible aspects of popular culture. “The Bastard Word,” the exhibition’s title piece, itself consists of 28 drawings of alphabet letters crated to reference aspects of fighter planes. “Neon Alphabet,” is made up of 26 h and-crated alphabet letters done in neon. It’s having its debut at the Power Plant. ++++ Banner has a love-hate thing for fighter planes. As visually ‘seductive’ as they are, she finds their function is nonetheless ‘repulsive’. “Parade,” the piece that reportedly initially tweaked Burke’s interest in curating The Bastard Word, is an ever-evolving sculptural installation made up of tiny models of the world’s fighter planes with their national identifications erased. “Tornado Nude,” consists of an 18-foot high wing of a Panavia Tornado, a pan-European jet fighter now in service in Iraq with text layered across its entire swept-back surface.
Altogether, The Bastard Word knots together the strongest strands binding Banner’s interests. These emerged together earlier in her career in 1994 when she compressed Top Gun into an imploded descriptive visual text shown alongside models of the fighters used in the macho 1986 fl-boy thriller with Tom Cruise.
In 1997, Banner self-published The Nam a novel-length textual implosion of her description of a number of Vietnam War-themed Hollywood films as The Deer Hunter and Hamburger Hill.
So, yeah, swell, Banner’s gift for media-provoking projects has indeed been good for her career. And why not? “We all put art up on some strange, intellectual plinth,” she says, rather scornfully. “We elevate it to something that it isn’t and can never be. It doesn’t bother me that people have a very direct response to the work I do. It sets itself up for that. I think it points at a certain familiarity with and the desire to be drawn into the things. That’s okay with me, because that’s my starting point.” At the same time all is not always so swell. Banner’s word-painted description from 2001 of the porn flick Arsewoman in Wonderland led to a nomination for the 2002 Turner Prize. Yet there was also a good deal of public and critical consternation over the text where charged words such as “she gasps” were outlined in hot cherry-red.
“It’s art,” ran a 2002 headline in The Guardian on a piece about Banner’s Arsewoman, “but is it porn?”. What seemed particularly disturbing to onlookers was the way the artist’s textual remix of the porn film’s moments, using classic lurid, porn-flick colours, had as much visceral oomph –as the original film – if not more.
Yet all of this is not as scary-new as it might seem. In fact, Banner’s textual deconstruction harks in part back to the New Criticism school of literary criticism from the 1930s and 40s.
Banner aims to strip text of its literary quality; only to give it more of a tease when she reuses the same text for her own purposes. Indeed, her fascination with typography itself has lead to perhaps her most beautiful pieces her ‘Full Stops’, the sculpted freestanding versions of sentence ending periods.
“I use language as a way of creating some critical distance,” Banner says. ++++ “This way I can explore and navigate through my own fantasy and disappointments. Yet at the same time, the way I use words is also a way of collapsing that critical distance.”