Headlined ‘the porn artist’ after her controversial 2002 Turner Prize entry, Arsewoman in Wonderland, Fiona Banner’s canny take on violence, vulnerability and voyeurism is continually insightful. As female artists are celebrated in major galleries worldwide and as overworked city-dwellers flock to life-drawing classes, Banner continues to re-invent the nude – a genre traditionally associated with the male gaze. The artist’s timely retrospective at Birmingham’s IKON Gallery, Scroll Down and Keep Scrolling, obliquely chronicles our changing politics on sex and war.
In fluoro-pink script on a huge billboard, Arsewoman in Wonderland is the moment-by-moment description of a porn film. In explicit detail, Banner describes who does what to whom and what effect it has on them, such as ‘he cums in her face, she moans and rolls over’. Banner uses words – as opposed to line and colour – to side-step the image. Knowing the historical context of the nude in high art and refreshing the complex artist-model relationship, her work is distinct from the ‘raw’ figure paintings of Jenny Saville and Lucian Freud, and goes beyond John Berger’s juxtaposition of female nudes from old master paintings with porno shots in Ways of Seeing (1972). Berger famously said: “Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.” Banner, though, is not convinced. “I like it [the quote], but I don’t agree with it,” she says.
Questioning the authority and ambiguities of pre-existing images and art forms is key for Banner. As if trying to master cinema’s power, she got involved in looking at and describing the human form through watching war films and creating ‘wordscapes’. THE NAM (1997) is a 1000-page scene-by-scene description of famous Vietnam war films – including Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter – spliced together in a hefty tome that’s Biblical in scale. This epic 11-hour ‘supermovie’, unashamedly deemed unreadable by its creator, was followed by Trance (1997), a live 13-hour unabridged reading of the text. Further blurring ideas around performance, theatre and live art, in 2007 Banner collaborated with actor Samantha Morton who posed for a life-drawing session while Banner wrote a description of what she saw. The following night, under spotlights in front of a live audience at Whitechapel Art Gallery, Morton exposed the fresh text. Reading it out loud, she performed what Banner has described as “a kind of striptease in words”. Lily Le Brun, reporting on the event for Modern Painters, wrote: ‘Morton is visibly uncomfortable, struggling for ownership of the text while negotiating the personal information that reveals itself as she speaks.’
Conflict, ambiguities, power and the fetishized objects of war fascinate Banner. Obsessively archiving all the war planes in service throughout the world – as Airfix models – she toys with war’s absurdities and contradictions. Chinook (2013) is a film of this odd double-bladed helicopter, an engineering phenomenon, performing ballet-like moves in a military display; showing-off its dexterity despite cumbersome looks. Her intelligent play with context and embodied space unanimously stirred critics when, in 2010, she installed a real Harrier and Jaguar fighter plane in the neo-classical Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. ‘One plane, the Harrier, hangs from the ceiling like a trussed bird while the other is displayed belly-up on the floor like a wounded animal,’ The Guardian’s Mark Brown reported. Patricia Bickers, in Art Monthly, likened the spectacle of the Harrier to ‘an upended version of Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian man’, standing arms outstretched in perfect human-scale proportions. The evocative power, however, on coming face-to-face with these monumental, beautiful objects that are designed to kill – but impotent – is unavoidably unsettling. Ingeniously, subtle feather-like drawings on the Harrier’s wings subconsciously invited viewers to come-up-close, to embody emotional and physical intimacy.
Banner’s own imprint, ironically called Vanity Press, gives her the freedom to break publishing’s rules and experiment relentlessly, without compromise. Allying with Beckett’s maxim, ‘Fail again. Fail better’, her output is prolific. Following all the required bureaucratic procedures, she ofﬁcially registered herself as a publication, ‘Fiona Banner’, and defiantly tattooed her own personal ISBN code onto her lower back. Attracted by the formal rather than literary, Banner says: “I’m as interested in the object of a book as much as the content.” Her collection of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft encyclopedias – a publication begun by Fred T. Jane in 1909 – features in numerous works, including 1909-2015 (2010-2015), a four-metre high stack of the books. It is a sculpture representing history, perhaps, but with the imminent possibility of collapse.
Banner’s dexterity with language is born of an ongoing struggle with words and meaning, as she attempts to fix something that can’t be fixed. “Personally, I am very conscious of the brilliance of language and its power – I mean it is the blood to our thoughts – but I also find it very frustrating,” she says. Hence, The Bastard Word (2007), which glows warmly in neon across the entire wall at the IKON gallery. Unlike Barbara Kruger’s feminist slogans (‘Your body is a battleground’; ’I shop therefore I am’) or Jenny Holzer’s LED billboard text-works, Banner’s neon has a tender, DIY aesthetic. Deliberately imperfect, she made the piece without any prior training so the letters are wobbly, timid and uncertain, resembling perhaps an early form of language.
Banner’s approach is in contrast to faultless art neons, professionally produced so the material becomes invisible. “Sometimes, by doing things badly or unprofessionally, you reveal things,” she says. Her latest ‘bastard’ is a cross between two typefaces to produce Font (2015), created for the IKON show and generously available as a free download. In Scroll Down and Keep Scrolling, we see Banner’s forever-inventive approach, a contemporary take on Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’. Revisiting her infamous Arsewoman in Wonderland with a sly twist, she’s physically turned the idea on its head: installing the work upside-down in what the Guardian critic Adrian Searle kinkily describes as a ‘a literary 69’.
This article was written as part of the a-n Writer Development Programme 2015-16. For more information click here.
The exhibition ran between 10 October – 17 January 2016 at IKON Gallery, Birmingham.
Manjinder Sidhu is an artist working democratically with The Everyday and sensitive attention to the human experience. Being in relation to the changing world, she collaborates with people, materials and spaces at: InIVA, Tate Britain/Modern, Jerwood Space, The Drawing Room, Walthamstow Marsh, The Maudsley Hospital, Eastside Educational Trust, Peckham Space. Current projects include interactive gallery interpretation at Tate (Art into Life) and CPG Café Gallery, London (Seniors Art School). Interested in collective action and appreciative enquiry, Manjinder is a London Area Rep for engage and was selected for a-n’s Writer Development Programme (2015).
Manjinder has an MA in Museums and Galleries in Education (Distinction), BA Fine Art (First), PGCE (secondary) and PhD in Environmental Studies.