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Fiona Banner profileArt Monthly, Issue 194, Mar 1996
Reluctantly, Fiona Banner described some early works: paintings inspired by the film Top Gun. Like the movie, these images starred MiG fighter aircraft travelling - as they do - at unbelievable speeds. How did Banner convey this velocity? Well, as the series progressed, the jets nosed closer and closer to the edge of the canvas. What Banner was after was the blink-of-an-eye - that instant of unimaginable speed. But this sensation is simply too quick for painting. Thus, the comical proved inevitable: the final works in the series depicted empty skies. But what was important was that, even when empty, they were still paintings of MiGs. Banner was interested in something that films, with their rapid editing, can exploit: the way that we are deeply and utterly flabbergasted when witnessing something of incredible magnitude - in this case, speed. What's more, she was attempting to explore this within that most artificial of arenas: the frame.
The frame, as we know, is omnipotent; what lies outside of the frame does not exist (ask any Renaissance artist). This notion was rather upset by photography, with its disinterested cropping, but it was narrative film which really exploited it by harnessing the power of the out-of-frame: unseen horror. We all recognize the archetypal image of the victim looking off-screen in terror, over the cameraman's shoulder. Banner wants to see that unframable fear, to grasp the whole universe in one go. She wants the full narrative in a single frame. Her solution? Top Gun: a single block of text describing the whole film from the viewer's perspective. Not a copy of the script, not a copy of the book, but documentation of what she witnessed whilst watching the film: everything, the whole lot, contained within a single bromide print measuring 65x30cms.
Of course the task was impossible; the text is unreadable as a dramatic narrative since there is essentially no beginning and no end; your eye skips around the sheet, breaking-up the information into unintelligible fragments. After all of the edits have been edited-out, we can only receive the plot in little pockets of action. But this monumental morass of information really lets you know where you stand; it allows you to perceive the volume of the film in a hitherto impossible way. (Not that Banner is an uncritical admirer of films like Top Gun - her Inside-out Aviator's see to that; they are a pair of mirrored Ray Ban Aviator's sunglasses with the lenses attached backwards, so that the wearer's perception of life is reversed as they can only ever get to see what is behind them. And, of course, their own vain self - in extreme close-up.)
After speed, came bulk: the bulk of a nuclear submarine and a wall-sized hand-written text called The Hunt For Red October. Again it is the film as viewed by Banner, but this time accompanied by Trident Nuclear Submarine: eight photographic panels combining to depict a life-size portion of the aforementioned vessel. Once more, the attraction is the magnitude of the subject; as you may know, nuclear submarines are huge - a paradox considering the fact that they are designed to be undetectable; stealthily out of the frame. These are invisible monsters. All of which is reflected in the photographic image, which consists of little more than a field of grey and black, punctuated by a vertical line of white numbers in one panel. Here, the documentary material par excellence has attempted to show us the truth of Trident, but has actually given us impenetrable abstraction. (To twist things up a little more, the image is in fact blown up from an Airfix model kit; the MoD refused to supply images.)
Banner likes impossible tasks, like when she decided to make an image of that seemingly impossible aerodynamic contradiction: the double-rotary Chinook helicopter. She wanted to draw one because 'they look wrong anyway, so how could I possibly may it look right?' Her perverse logic also led her to attempt something truly absurd: a literary car chase. Bullit and French Connection are two text blocks describing the mother and father of car chase films. This time the hand-written texts were forced into frames of a set size so, as they near culmination, the words become bunched. Effectively, the dense ending causes the reader to skip or trip-over words. Either way leads to a literary crash.
Further single-block text pieces include: The desert, which uses Lawrence of Arabia, described by Banner as 'a great moment in the history of wideness'; The Rumble in the Jungle, a blow-by-blow account of the Ali-Foreman fight; and Space Exploration, a fictional film constructed by Banner from actual NASA footage documenting the journey to the moon in 1969. The latest is Apocalypse Now!, a colossal 21x8.25ft, 50,000-word 'war painting' that deals with Coppolla's 1979 epic. The whole film is based on the absurdly linear narrative of 'go up the river, find Kurtz', so they go up the river and they find Kurtz, end of film. But what the Americans find inconceivable is the savagery of the land. Indeed, on the only occasion they leave the safety of the boat, they are attacked by a tiger! ('Never get out of the boat ... absolutely Goddamn fucking right! Not unless you're going all the way.') And this is why Kurtz is so mysterious; he has gone native: he understands the scale of the savagery and it is this monolithic knowledge that the whole movie doggedly drives towards, right from the very beginning. So obviously he is the character that Banner is drawn to, which explains why she made Kurtz, a monumental 9.5x11ft drawing - made up of short vertical lines reminiscent of handwriting - based on a film still of the statuesque Brando in character. (Not that he needed to be in character, for the myth of Brando is virtually interchangeable with that of Kurtz.)
Most recently Banner has made THE NAM, a 500-page book which collates descriptions of several Vietnam films into one intense volume. The stories are typed in capitals and run into each other without a break - difficult reading, especially since the words have to run to keep up with the action. But then this is not literature, it is an explosive flip-book. Jungle-like in its lumpen lack of structure, it has the emphatic impact of a comic, and yet does so without relying on pictures - you don't read the text, the text comes out at you.
You see, Banner's works are always intense. And that is because she is exploring a sensation that we all experience, but suppress quite rapidly. Let me illustrate what I mean: I once dreamed of an aircraft carrier. It was in an enormous tank which had underwater windows, allowing me to see the whole ship in one go, up close. It was the most terrifying nightmare I have ever had; the colossal bulk of this thing inspired panic, not because it was going to crush me, but simply because it was. Because I was standing beside it, seeing everything, all at once, in one go, and hence I could relate to it like I do a bus - in other words I managed to comprehend its magnitude. To quote Jules in Pulp Fiction: 'I had what alcoholics refer to as a "moment of clarity"'. I guess the experience worked along similar lines to Douglas Adams' creation, the Total Perspective Vortex, which allowed the subject to grasp their scale in relation to the universe to such a degree that they simply died from the experience.
So you see why Banner's work simply has to achieve a level of monumentality; it is concerned with grasping the incomprehensible magnitudes that we grow oblivious to, but of which the powerful medium of film can sometimes remind us. For example, it took the Apollo 11 moon-landing to remind three-quarters of mankind of the terror of scale, but by the time Apollo 13 went up, no one wanted to know. Until it was made into a movie, of course.
And here we have the root of Kurtz's wisdom: the fact that he could keep in his mind the blinding magnitude of his experiences - he would never grow accustomed to these terrors. So it is that Banner seeks to comprehend that knowledge, a knowledge which we require a fictional character's dying breath to remind us of: 'The horror! The horror!'.
text copyright david barrett
images copyright the artists