Fiona Banner, The Power Plant, Toronto
Review by Ashley Johnson

Canadian Art, Summer 2007.

Language is under suspicion and subject to extraordinary rendition in the British artist Fiona Banner’s exhibition at The Power Plant. “The Bastard Word,” interrogates covert aspects of the human psyche in its conjunction of the alphabet and an encyclopaedia of warplanes.

A former Turner Prize nominee, Banner has been exploring language for some time and is known for her text-basted “still-films”, which describe in minute detail what the artist observes while watching a given film. THE NAM was a work that simultaneously dissected six films on the Vietnam War, including The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now.

The title work in the exhibition, The Bastard Word, is a new piece that uses the sleek and deadly mechanical forms of warplanes to construct an alphabet. The execution of this is not at all mundane, and the graphite forms twist and twirl as if in some daring aerial manoeuvre.

Banner might be in love with these machines: the sensuality in her drawings is overpowering. Yet they bring death with them. A personal resonance for me is the loss of my nephew, who co-piloted the first British Lynx helicopter shot down over Basra, Iraq, in May 2006. He was in love with them too. At the military funeral, man words about honour and valour were spoken, disguising the waste.

Conscious of the invasive character of language, Banner unfurls reams of text that have no ordinary grammatical structure but spill out onto walls and surfaces, like the huge, erect airplane wing, titled Nude Beam, in the large room. The text feels organic. It writhes and wriggles like spermatozoa, with no discernable beginning or end, just swimming. As an extension of the still-film idea, these words draw nudes. Occasionally, as a live performance, Banner observes a nude model, transposing her impressions into text.

The interesting thing about her text is its sense of lurking impropriety. The art-historical nude has always been sanitized, distanced from the taint of pornography. Banner beguiles the viewer with benign observations of light and shadow spooling over the body, then abruptly shifts to crude language like arsehole or pube. One of her earlier still films described a porn film that translated Lewis Carroll’s book about Alice into Arsewoman in Wonderland. She questions the voyeur within us and how language can obfuscate as much as explain.

Other elements of this exhibition are a neon alphabet, Every Word Unmade, and a work called Bones, an array of punctuation symbols made from hand-bent neon tubes; appropriate, since punctuation articulates language, serving as its skeleton. A display of models of all the world’s warplanes suspended from the ceiling is titled Parade. A DVD called All The World’s Fighter Planes presents an inventory of cut-out images. Twenty-nine dummy books on life drawing present an empty shell of expertise, just a camouflage. Throughout the exhibition, Banner avoids being moralistic about either gender issues or the murderous intent behind military hardware. These concerns are there as a subtext, but do not detract from this excellent show.