Beyond Words
Francis McKee

Parkett, No.71, 2004

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A new series of works by Fiona Banner appears, at first, to signal a rupturing of her earlier practice. Parade (2004) is a large group of model fighter planes suspended from the gallery ceiling; each represents a real fighter plane in commission somewhere in the world. There is also a work with words--a large, square sheet of paper, on which airplane nicknames are handwritten in a rough manner. The other accompanying works in Parade include multiple, real, life-size sections of a Harrier jet fighter: its wing (WING, 2004), nose cone (NOSE, 2004), tail fin (TAIL, 2004), and Perspex cockpit canopy (EYE, 2004).

For the most part, these works are mute. The model airplanes remain unpainted and, in a sense, naked. Detailed markings, such as roundels, chevrons, and fin flashes, have not been added. The larger pieces, taken from real jets, have been left untouched as well--their weathered metal, blank.

The absence of intense color places all of the emphasis on the objects' form. The tail fin, which has been positioned on the gallery floor, takes on a sculptural presence-it is minimal, tough, and beautiful. Hanging from the ceiling, the swarm of model planes appears to dive, bank, climb, tilt, and swoop, while standing perfectly still. The stripped shells' surfaces are austere and anti-cosmetic; with such focus on their sleek line and form, it is hard to deny that these machines are incredibly sexy. They've been designed and engineered with the same knowingness as automobiles, combining speed, power, and physical attraction into a concise visual statement. A fighter plane's beauty, however, is inextricably linked to its basic function as a tool for destruction, and the awesome firepower of the modern fighter, with its incredible ability to maneuver at high altitudes, evokes the sublime in a way matched by few other things. Banner has touched on this idea in earlier works as well, such as TOP GUN (1994) and THE NAM (1997), both of which she once described as transcendent scenes where high technology merges with the natural landscape:

You hear the chopper's blades wpwpwpgently but you can't see it.  You can't see anything but the green jungle floating beneath.  Then from down below a light shines in and make's everything hazy. Hexagons of sunlight pass across the screen. Trees seen from below fringe in at the side, moving slowly along.  Light comes through in shards, and the top of the trees look miles away.  You can hear the sound of a stream, frothing white in the middle, spindling through the mammoth trees.  Everything else is damp green, and murky. 1)  

Here, Banner refers to a strange moment where stillness is found in the midst of wild movement. Similarly, the tableau of model planes in Parade functions as a photographic still, calling to mind Susan Stewart's comment that "the reduction in scale which the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday life-world, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its 'use value' transformed into the infinite time of reverie." 2)

Banner's new work reveals connections to earlier pieces in other ways too. The unadorned objects bear some relation to the rough plaster finish of CONCRETE POETRY (2002); and an even more complex link can be made to her raw, handwritten account of APOCALYPSE NOW (1997), and to her later series, Arsewoman in Wonderland (2001). The most obvious link is that the model aircraft are "homemade," a word Banner uses to describe her original Tiffany Mynx film called Arsewoman in Wonderland. The Arsewoman series turned a pornographic image into words, giving a detailed account of the film's action in the artist's own words, clarifying what Michael Archer has described as "the unbreakable link between  bodily existence and the language by means of which we vainly and unceasingly attempt to infuse it with significance."3) In parallel works which were made at this time, such as FOREVER AND EVERY (2002), Banner also grapples with the slippery inexactness of our vocabularies. In this work, she uses an immense field of punctuation marks to describe a story from which the words have been removed; FOREVER documents a breakdown, or crisis, in language.

Banner's new work simply gives us objects instead of words; the objects evoke a visceral and physical response through their lines and form. Fighter planes, like many modern weapons, are fetishized; in military magazines there is normally it centerfold image of a jet, a feature which echoes the layout of pornography publications. Such images of aircraft are viewed with an awareness of their destructive capabilities, providing, like pornography, an almost guilty, erotic pleasure.

Seemingly beyond words, Banner's objects constitute their own language. It is tempting to view the tail fin and nose cone in the gallery as a form of punctuation. Like Banner's earlier Full Stops, both sets of works demand that we address a crisis in communication on a physical level. It may be even more compelling to construct a Lacanian approach to analyzing these works, and to see them as things in themselves-beyond the shifting world of signifiers (especially in the case of EYE). But the works have their own complex inner dynamics. While some of the airplane parts are found objects, others have been cast; as Banner's hand-written guide to viewing the work points back towards "signifying language," it reminds us that the models are themselves "signifiers" of the larger planes. At the same time, her guide is so densely rendered that it is impossible to match a name to a model.

Appearances though are deceptive. The wing, nose, and tail fin have an epic scale about them in comparison to the models. As Vietnam pilot Mark E. Berent points out, the machine is designed for a snug fit; "We don't actually get into the thing," he explains, "we put it on." (Banner's titles for these works make this same point.)4) While the larger airplane parts spawn heroic narratives, the kit-sized helicopters and fighters lose none of their fecundity. Such model airplanes, after all, were designed as props for a child's daydreams of imagined battles taking place in high altitude of his/her bedroom ceiling.

Banner's delicate, hand-written guide to viewing the aircraft also points to, and questions, the macho nature of these machines by such fictional names as Superstallion, Havoc, Tiger, Persuader, Cobra, Haze, Hormone, Hokum, Gazelle, Bronco, Lancer, Tornado, and Fagot. She seems to pump testosterone
through each one in a way which brings to mind Carole Cohn's 1980s study of subliminal sexual imagery found in the language of nuclear weaponry. In this study, Cohn argued that, while there was a thrill in learning this coded language, what was more important was one's "sense of control," and "feeling of
mastery over technology." 5)

Despite its innate muteness, contemporary weaponry, seems to breed myths, images, languages, and narratives. Fighter aircraft are known to have spawned other names as well, such its bumblebees, nightmares, tomcats, bulldogs, Jaguars, bats, hawks, black sheep, black hawks, panthers, marlins, cheetahs, and vampires. The association with animals is ubiquitous, acknowledging the bestial dimensions of war, and claiming the most extreme attributes of each creature. Behind Banner's new works, there is the formidable energy of nature to metamorphosize planes into hurricanes, helicopters into hawks, and jet sections into limbs.
All of this turbulent power is then stripped and crushed into the confines of a gallery space. The Harrier wing and tail fin could inspire visions of high altitude dogfights, explosive velocity, and unbridled kinetics beyond the reach of the human senses, but instead, ruthlessly dismembered, they lie tamed and aestheticized within walls, mocked by the nearby models that reconfigure their violence in the terms of solitary hobbyists and daydreamers. This act of being humbled explains the queasy sense of pleasure that Parade delivers. It reminds us of our sometimes unspeakable fascination with images of war and destruction served up by the media and catered to by multitudes of movies, toys, and videogames. To the hobbyist, the lonely, obsessive hours of model-making and the isolated study time of pornography both draw on the primal human need to construct vicarious, unattainable fantasies.
Deeper still, there exists the disturbing thought that the world of raw objects and actions always evades precise expression. Parade, if it is to be seen as an A-Z. manual of fighter aircraft, is an alphabet at war with itself. Both menacing and fragile, these objects do not connect or collide, but remain separate and still. It is a language unmade, a series of indecipherable, tantalizing hieroglyphs on the verge of making sense. Charting Banner's engagement with fighter aircraft-from TOP GUN, through the Vietnam movies, to these more recent works--one finds a clear trajectory. On one level, all of these artifacts mythologize battle, but while TOP GUN reflects the confidence of a resurgent U.S. Air Force in the eighties (associated with movies such as Apocalypse Now, 1979), its focus is clearly on the trauma of defeat; one of its most telling images is of a downed American fighter plane rotting in the jungle at the edge of the Mekong River. Over twenty years later, the opening scenes of Black Hawk Down (2001) revel in the dizzying glory of state-of-the-art military technology before crashing back down to earth through the image of a fallen helicopter in Mogadishu. Both films dwell on the impossible defeat of a highly sophisticated, technological empire at the hands of lightly equipped Third World soldiers.
Banner's fragments of a Harrier jet go further than the wreckage depicted in these film. Her amputated sections of aircraft sit and lean against the gallery wall like classical ruins, denoting, in their fatality, the collapse of an empire of signs. As much as any mere military defeat, it is the impossibility of communication that is being mourned, and as grand the shiver of fear and find ourselves oddly at home in the debris.

1) Fiona Banner, The Nam (London: Frith Street Books, 1997).
2) Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 65.
3) Michael Archer, "Your Plinth Is My Lap" in Banner: Your Plinth Is My Lap, ex. Car., Katrina M. Brown, Susanne Titz, eds., Neuer Aachener Kunstverein/Dundee Contemporary Arts/Revolver, 2002, pp. 57-66, quote from p. 62.
4) Jon E. Lewis, The Mammoth Book of Fighter Pilots: Eyewitness Accounts of Air Combat from the Red Baron to Today's Top Gun (London: Constable & Robinson, 2002), p. 450.
5) Carol Cohn, "Slick 'ems, Glick 'ems, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 43:5 (June 1987), pp. 17-24.