Fiona Banner, Frith Street Gallery, London
An index of military aircraft is a cenotaph, the Bayeaux Tapestry a brutal essay, in a muscular show about writing
Sunday 21 November 2010
Easily overlooked, the key to Fiona Banner's art is pasted up in a corner of her new show, The Naked Ear.
It is, or purports to be, the copy of a letter of reply from the artist to something called the Legal Deposit Office, concerning the registering of her work for an ISBN. This in itself is odd, since Banner is an artist and ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. But then the work in this space is all printed – Banner has a small publishing house, The Vanity Press, in her home town of Rye – and is printed with ISBNs.
These numbers are mostly on paper and in poster format, some portrait, some landscape, in a variety of fonts and sizes, on different-coloured backgrounds and in different layouts: some like eye-test charts, others the pedestrian word-walks of Richard Long. One poster is deckle-edged, another corrugated. Some are framed, most are not. In one memorable case, the ISBN has been carved in stone and propped against a wall. The point is variety. Each work is unique, with its own name – Chair, Sunburn, Poem Two – and yet all are the same, word-pictures or picture-words. They are collective testimony to man's need for order, for reading one assemblage of brushmarks as a nude and another as a bowl of fruit, three abstract squiggles as C-A-T and another three as D-O-G.
Banner's art has always concerned itself with systems, and this new work is no exception. In particular, it is about the separation of words and images. "Ut pictura poesis," said Horace – roughly, let writing and pictures be the same – and yet they are seen as different, in some way inimical to each other. Not so to Banner.
She has, in the past, blown up Times New Roman commas into waist-high bronze sculptures. Upstairs at her new show, a piece called 1066 re-enacts the Bayeux Tapestry in words: "The guy's down on the ground, arrow in the side of his face. Another takes one in the hand, cries like a beast as he pulls it out." Banner's mural both describes the Battle of Hastings and depicts it, one army of words overprinting the other. History, as Orwell said, is written by winners. Words may be pictorial, they may even be beautiful, but they can never be neutral.
You can see why ISBNs might intrigue Banner. At heart, they are an attempt to control words by systematising them. From the aforementioned letter on the wall, the Legal Deposit Office has ordered the artist to register her ISBNs for
ISBNs, counting all printed matter as verbal rather than visual. In witty response, she has had the 30 or so works, each a depiction of its own ISBN, bound into a book with a meta-ISBN. But unlike many word-based artists, Banner is more than just clever. The key to her brilliance – that is not, I think, too strong a word – is a feel for the formal qualities of words, not just what they say but how they look.
Bound up in this, too, is a sense of what they portend. Words make sense of life, ISBNs make sense of words. And yet the idea that anything can be made sense of, that there is a single truth to be told, is only ever an illusion. To Banner, words are always mythologies.
In the upper gallery is a four-metre menhir of Jane's All the World's Aircraft. Banner's book-stack, called 1909-2011, has the air of a monument, a cenotaph perhaps. In recording a century's worth of military aircraft, it elides cause and effect: it is, as it were, a memorial to itself. Two of the fighters listed in it are currently at Tate Britain, in an installation called Harrier and Jaguar. Another, Tornado (serial number ZE728), is across the way from Banner's book-obelisk, melted down and cast as a huge bell.
At first, this calls to mind swords and ploughshares, although swinging Tornado's clapper reminds you instead of Donne's line on not sending to know for whom bells toll. We live in a day when the inadequacy of words as a cause for war – remember weapons of mass destruction? – has again been vividly exposed. Read the news any day of the week, though, and you'll see how that revelation goes unheeded. Any chance that David Cameron will visit this show? Probably not. But at least next year's Turner Prize judges may at last recognise Banner's brilliance, and give her the recognition she deserves.
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