Arsewoman in Blunderland
Patricia Ellis

BAN NER, Revolver 2002

"It's just about wasting time, and I'm quite interested in that."

Everyone just loves a cliché.(1) That warm glow of cosy comfort, as familiar as a hometown, loyal and unwavering as a best friend. A cliché doesn't demand attention, require effort, insult your intelligence, or take centre stage. It's the most all encompassing genre: generic, accessible, predictable. Dumbness(2) is intimacy in its most democratic form. In the context of a cliché, you can just really be yourself(3).

Being an underachiever just ain't what it used to be.(4) Being blasé requires a serious amount of effort. Fiona Banner spends an incredible amount of time in this pursuit. She's making Art. With a capital A, exactly as learned in school: Text Art(5), Public Sculpture(6), Spoken Word sound recordings(7), Neon Signs(8), and(9) Strip Curtain paintings(10). Immediately recognisable, pre-chewed and ready to digest(11). Making the work, however, is incredibly time consuming, almost Zen-like meditative. And this leaves Banner with far too much time to think.(12)

Inertia is what happens when something is pulled in all directions at the same time until it's properly strapped down, trapped. It's a punk sort of irreverence: pathetic, humiliating, desperate, and honest, sappy, and bitter, tender, and lonely. Simulatneously. Fiona Banner's work seems to be sterile conceptual, but it's thinly disguised hysteria. Choking back tears of empathy, lip quivering on the verge of a nervous breakdown kind of frantic. It's a self-indulgent, meaningful vulnerability.(13) Banner's work is essentially about control: keeping it together.(14) Getting to those hard to reach spaces words just can't describe. Using words because images are just too limiting. Being so sincere it sounds fake. The real stuff is always so damn cliché.(15)

"And then there's this neon which is called Spell." Banner's pointing to this perky flower shaped neon light on the wall, explaining how it was conceived when she found all of the different coloured sign tubes in the dumpster at a Bingo(16) hall. "It's made from these cracked and broken words. It always seemed really sad and vulnerable and something seemed quite poetic about them -- not only had the light gone out of them, but the meaning had expired. It didn't make a word anymore, or even a letter. It's almost quite tender, trying to weave it back together again." Banner is completely genuine in her sentiment. Her obvious fondness doesn't waver as she continues: "I liked the idea that neon was this really fragile thing and it's also this dangerous stuff and when it's not contained it becomes something else. The sign shop guy said: 'well as long as it's not at room temperature it will be all right,' and they got all freaked out that I had this stuff in my studio and it turns out that the gases liven again and become airborn at room temperature and I liked that idea that it was only at room temperature it becomes a killer, only in a proper social environment…"

Banner cares desperately for the defunct. She relates to it, nurses it, tries to make it feel better. Banner champions the wallflower(17). It's a co-dependent relationship(18), fostering the damaged, correcting the thing she loves most about it. She would never resurrect something to be healthy, she likes malice far too much.(19) Banner's works are like orchids, thriving only with meticulous care, in dark crevices.

Banner's Concrete Poetry consists of over one hundred giant insults. Quick dry cement threats(20): WANKER, SHITHEAD, WASTER. They're every insult Banner remembers being called, a sort of cycle of bullying now aimed at the viewer. But that doesn't mean she doesn't care. "Because they're insults, there's almost a tenderness to it. If you say that to somebody there's something that you've become disenfranchised from, so it's not un-loved -- it's the opposite of that. There's a kind of passion and energy to the words. To express hate and disappointment -- you're much more confided to words because you can't go around hitting people. So the words actually have a purpose.(21)"

But mostly for Banner, words are just another way to waste time, to share the experience first hand. Her text pieces are blow by blow accounts of films she's seen(22). Pure 100% description without filtering. Pictures without a picture. Literature without embellishment. The beauty of Banner's writing is that it's so crude: immediate descriptions of what she sees, but without emotive quality. Described with faithful accuracy, their detachment is almost pornographic. "I got quite interested in porn, because it was dealing with those impossible images. But what can you do when you're fascinated by stuff but it's impossible many levels?"

Her solution: a giant billboard completely crammed with pussy-pink text. "Arsewoman In Wonderland(23) is probably the only porn film that I really like. I realised that I've never really written about sex, and I've never really talked about sex -- I've talked about sex in an intimate way with a lover, but people don't really talk about sex… I thought there wasn't really a language of description for sex like there is for everything else. It's an exploration about writing about something that really isn't about language -- it's pre-linguistic, it's kind of primal. In that way it's a ridiculously good film -- there's not a plot for it, and nobody says anything And It's pink because sticks out in a way, and you get into it and it's a sort of an eye fuck.(24)" But, as Banner explains, the aesthetics are really as important as the cerebral. "It gets cruise volume as I hock it around and it gets fresh layers and gets to the point where it's so thick it's creeping off the wall. When you show stuff more than once, it suggests that this is another layer to it, making that business of showing stuff again and again mean something. And I just like the look of it, you know when you see all that billboard stuff on the street -- it's like battle of the egos.(25)"

Ego is the thing which makes Banner's work doubly complex. It's always this passive aggressive game, flirting between timid intimacy and steely self-control. At heart, Banner is essentially macho(26). Her punctuation sculptures are the epitome of this ego trip. Large black steel full stops and commas lie scattered throughout the park, oppressively monumental, like the unexploded bombs of jokes fallen flat, or unrequited love offerings. In the day time children climb onto and conquer these ineffectualities of language. At night, lovers and perverts alike gain solace from the black negative-space holes of oblivion they punch into the landscape. Occasionally a dog will pass and just piss all over the whole thing. It's the ultimate cliché: the poetic sadness of true and monumental effort. Banner would be pleased.

Big, clumsy, ballsy, and mute. Banner's work is all about being swallowed up. Being engulfed in something larger than life: the awful, majestic, the sentimental, and the strange. It's a lonely business of heartache, finding a language which is inherently defunct. Going to extremes to feel small and in awe of it. Sometimes the unsaid is the most beautiful thing in the world. Sometimes the defunct are the true heroes.

"They just look so dumb in that park." Banner laughs. And she's right. Humility is the greatest virtue. Don't you just love a cliché?


(1) Play it again, Sam: who doesn't melt when the guy gets the girl, the underdog wins, or in the end it turns out that the butler did it? It's why all good detectives wear trench coats and harbour bourbon in their seedy offices, why all femme fatales are blonde in knee length black dresses, why live concert footage is always shot on the most grainy footage even if it has to be computer manipulated to look that way. Furniture salesmen always scream at the top of their lungs. Pimps always have gold teeth. Spies always have German accents. Beauty queens always want world peace. If they didn't, it just wouldn't be the real thing. Back

(2) Fiona Banner leans back in her leather bound chair and straightens her NHS science guy glasses: "Dumbness is really important in art. It's all just really really stupid. It's a quite primitive activity. That doesn't mean it can't be extremely sophisticated as well, but there's always something so unbelievably stupid." Back

(3) 90% of your house was bought at IKEA. In your lifetime you've had a dog named Spot, and a cat called Fluffy. In your closet right now are a pair of Camper shoes and a American style T-shirt with team numbers on it. You'll love Missy Elliot (for the next 6 months anyways) thought you can't understand a single word she's saying, but your favourite music is all sappy 80s stuff which reminds you of your first boyfriend. You regularly eat out at expensive Italian restaurants knowing your make better Bolognese at home for a tenth the price. You think Ally McBeal is really clever and Sex In The City is outrageous. All these things really mean something to you, you can really relate. It's what makes you individual. Back

(4) In the old days, anyone could be a complete dumbass layabout. But then that whole Gen X thing happened and it actually became a Profession. Back

(5) Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holtzer, Guerrilla Girls. Back

(6) Yeah, it started with good intentions with Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and the gang, but look what's in your local park or in front of your town hall now… Back

(7) XXX eat your heart out. Back

(8) From Nauman, to Holtzer, to Emin, to Ronidinone, fill in the chapters… Back

(9) (god forbid) Back

(10) Ooooh ,the shredded paper, ribbon, plastic sheeting, or cloth curtain which hangs from the ceiling. XXX created a monster with this one. There's not an art student on the face of the planet without one of these in their portfolio. Banner's take is by far the most literary. She uses the idea of the curtain as space construction, or portals; like the fluidity of sentence structure - the way a period both stops one thought and sweeps you immediately into the next one. Her process is incredibly time consuming; Black Blinds are metallic like strips, seemingly cut from a space age metal, giving the illusion of being razor sharp at the edges. They're made by scribbling for hours and days with a graphite pencil on paper. The process is like being lost in time: endless blacking out, erasing. "I like the idea that it's a walk through painting. Is it the fantasy that you project onto the painting, or is it actually what's on the other side when you're looking at it. Those are the things that I'm thinking about. It's actually quite mucky when you walk through it. I like the idea of walking through it, but then you have the fucking thing, like tendrils all over you. I also like the blinds, you see them on things like porno-shops and places like that. You've got to have the blinds up it stops people being able to see in, but at the same time it's like waving a flag. I always called them space confusers, so I like the way you can break up space, and suggest that you might move through to another space, in a way almost like punctuation." Back

(11) It's not even post-modern: Banner isn't combining or mutating known entities, she's just simply replicating them. Back

(12) Contemplation: a slippery slope. At best it leads of Oprah Winfrey self-help fanaticism. College kids tend to turn to Kafka, Neichtze, Karoac, Leonard Cohen. In America, the really comtemplative become post office enployees…. Back

(13) Slow self-inflicted torture: revelling in anxiety somewhere between the soppiness of watching Pet Rescue while PMSing and the cool callousness of having a black bedroom and a Joy Division box set. Back

(14) An odd combination of that British stiff-upper-lip thing, and Jimmy Dean Rebel Without A Cause emotionally wounded tough guy. Back

(15) "I've got a big drawing, a big Forever And Ever on white paper. It's a long conversation with the words taken out. It's much quieter really. It's based on a big text that I wrote that was all about -- I don't know if it really matters -- some stuff that just really went wrong. I didn't know what I was going to do with it. I didn't like it at all. I tried to edit it, but I was embarrassed -- it was so inadequate in what it was trying to express, so I started to edit it and muck around with it and I didn't like that at all because in a way it the opposite of editing what I was trying to do. So I took all the words out -- if I'm going to edit, I'm doing to edit. So it ended up being this big silent conversation and it reminded me of -- I remember when I split up with this guy we ere having a really hard time and we'd ring each other up and not say anything -- because what the fuck do you say, there was nothing to say. I struck me that the text was a bit like that. Iit had all the architecture of a conversation but none of the words. An now it's like a big abstract. Without a picture." Back

(16) The epitome of banal, tragic, entertainment. Back

(17) Like the Wynona Ryder or Molly Ringwald of Art: the coolest girl on the block, but too sensitive and human to want to fit in. Back

(18) There's nary a Channel 5 movie which doesn't start with a pretty girl taking pitty on a loner outcast boy, a nice family who lets a lonely stranger into their home, a prominent businessman giving a chance to a down and outer. Guaranteed, by act five, they've got a psychopath on their hands. Back

(19) Banner has another piece, conceived to sit outside the door of the gallery. It's one of those revolving gas station signs that spin in the wind (or used to, they were outlawed a few years back because they were potentially lethal to small persons). On one side says LOVE, and the other HATE. As the sign revolves, the words blur into one. "It's really windy in Dundee, it should really go." Banner relishes. "And the best part about it is it has to be chained. Anything that has to be chained is cool." Back

(20) Brick shithouse serious. Like an east end bruiser, or the brass knuckle lettering on a gangsta's fist. The truth is far more slap-stick however: they're not made out of concrete, but are actually Styrofoam encrusted with some garage-brew goop. "Lots of people say it reminds them of gravestones -- an epitaph instead of saying something nice and relevant, it says something like she was the most APPALLING person I've ever had the misfortune to come across." Back

(21) Even if it's futile. The thing about insults is they always sound so childish. Somehow you just can take being called a "Wally" very seriously. Back

(22) Top Gun, Appocalypse Now,, XXX, XXX, XXX. Back

(23) "It's made by this girl and star Tiffany Minx whose a West Coast butt queen, and she's a porn star, a proper star. And she got together - they got a bit pissed off with the porn industry and they got together and made this film, and made the costumes, and there wasn't really a plot, so they cobbled together a plot and she starred in it, and all her porny mates starred in it, and there's a dwarf and a bunny rabbit. It's loosely based in Alice In Wonderland." Back

(24) "When I had it produced at the factory they got really weird with me and I had to print it overnight, and they said I had to come and pick it up in the morning before the ladies turned up and I don't want one single scrap of it here in the morning when the ladies get here." Back

(25) Banner has an accompanying piece to this billboard called My Plinth Is Your Lap. It's a recording of herself reading the Arsewoman text, which like most phone sex or audio-library recordings, she sounds slightly bored. Perhaps it's that the obscene monologue never rises to crescendo, or perhaps it's that her thick XXXX (WHERE ARE YOU FROM?) accent is more reminiscent of football hooligans than Marilyn Monroe. Anyways, the recording isn't meant to be sexy, in the same way text isn't meant to be sexy either. For each exhibition, Banner re-records the piece onto 12 inch records, which are set a-spin atop mirrored plinths. For the show in Dundee, she will play the 'lacquer' (the first and very impermanent imprint which a vinyl record is pressed from). As the lacquer plays continuously, the audio piece will start to deteriorate as the text piece on the wall will accrue yet another skin. Back

(26) She may be the all-star porn-watching, foul mouthed, concrete shovelling, masculine traditional minimalist. But she's one who wears her heart on her leather-jacketed sleeve, and means every single word of it. Back