'Fight and Flight'
Laura Barnett
The Guardian, G2, Tuesday 22 June, 2010
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She has filmed a helicopter ballet, melted a jet – and caused a storm by transcribing a porn epic. Will Fiona Banner's latest work go further?


Rising up through the middle of Fiona Banner's two-storey studio is the upturned wing of a Tornado fighter plane. From the first floor, you can see its tip, slicing ominously through the floorboards like an oversized shark fin. If you lean in close, you can make out hundreds of words etched like hieroglyphics into the wing's smooth metal: "arse", "shadow", "light behind stark against dark skin".

This is Tornado Nude, a work Banner made four years ago: a female life model stood naked in front of her while she painted a description on to the wing of a decommissioned jet. "The Tornado," Banner tells me as she shows me around this high-ceilinged east London space, in which her many works are propped against walls and arranged neatly on tables (a plant sits on a sun-terrace in an old aircraft propeller), "is a really, really important and very vicious airplane. And then I engraved this very delicate and traditional life drawing on to it, in words, and now that's become part of it. It's become this totem, this sculpture – possibly an object you might even worship."

Object of veneration or not, Tornado Nude embodies the preoccupations for which Banner is best known: sex, nudity and war. She has, variously, created a catalogue of every fighter plane currently in use by the British military; published a 1,000-page book containing frame-by-frame descriptions of Vietnam war movies (she calls these "wordscapes" or "still films"); and written a "striptease in words" of the actor Samantha Morton's naked body. In 2002, Banner was nominated for the Turner prize. Her exhibition for the nominees' show included Arsewoman in Wonderland, a no-holds-barred description in words of a porn film of the same name, screenprinted in pink ink on a white billboard and duly displayed at Tate Britain. There was a predictable flurry of outrage; the then culture minister Kim Howells, commenting on the exhibition as a whole, scrawled "conceptual bullshit" across a Tate comment card and pinned it to the visitors' wall.

Undeterred, Banner is returning to Tate Britain next week, where she will unveil a new work commissioned for the museum's two central neoclassical Duveen galleries. Previous artists who have stepped up to this challenge include Martin Creed, who in 2008 sent a series of runners sprinting through the crowds at 30-second intervals; and Anya Gallaccio, who in 2002 filled one gallery with oak trees, and the other with a carpet of sugar. Banner is not allowed to tell me what she'll be doing – all will be revealed next Monday – and can only point to her official statement, that she is looking forward to "working with the phallic pillars of this extraordinary grandiose space". But she can tell me what she won't be doing, which is "exhibit[ing] an entire Westland Lynx helicopter that saw service in the Falkands war", as her Wikipedia entry erroneously had it (it has since been corrected). "That's so weird!" she says in a stage whisper, blue eyes widening. "That's not my plan – though I did recently try to buy a Westland Lynx helicopter. But I bought a Tornado instead."

In person, Banner is not at all what you might expect of a sometime porn consumer, war-film aficionado and collector of military aircraft: dressed all in blue – blue shirt, blue jeans, blue jacket – she is wiry and casually elegant, with a direct, easy charm. Her work, too, is quieter, more delicate, intimate and many-layered, than its headline-grabbing subject matter might suggest.

On the ground floor of her studio, Banner shows me All the World's Fighter Planes, a work that was 10 years in the making, and which she completed last year. It's a glass case filled with pictures of aircraft cut haphazardly from newspapers, each one meticulously labelled like an animal specimen: Hawk, Harrier, Bear, Chinook. "I started making this years ago," she says. "I'd been cutting out pictures of fighter planes from newspapers for a while, and realised I'd started a collection. I became strangely excited by the idea that they all had these names from nature. On one level I find these planes incredibly beautiful, but on another level I'm horrified by them."

The ungainly Chinook (in nature, either a kind of wind or a Native American people) is a particular favourite. Banner has spent the last few months at airshows at RAF Odiham in Hampshire, filming pilots perform an unlikely "Chinook ballet" for a new work. "The Chinook is really bizarre," she says. "It's so inelegant, it looks like it shouldn't be able to fly. In the ballet, they've given the Chinooks certain movements – a turn, a sidestep, a double-twist. It's the most extraordinary thing."

From Rilke to Top Gun

Banner's fascination with aircraft may, she says, springs from the long walks she took as a child in the Welsh countryside with her father (she was born in Merseyside in 1966, later moving to London to study at Kingston University and Goldsmiths). "It was completely sublime and pastoral and beautiful," she says. "And then something like a Tornado would come out of nowhere, and the sound would be absolutely phenomenal. We'd be completely astounded, but somehow the beauty of the moment would surpass even the loveliness of where we were and what we were doing." xxxx For one new work, called Tornado, Banner is taking this interest in aircraft even further: she is smelting down her newly acquired Tornado plane into aluminium ingots, and turning those into a huge bell that she plans to display later this summer, in Newcastle. She shows me her carefully shaded drawings for the bell, pinned to a wall. "From the outside," she says, "a bell is a clear object of communication. But in this case, coming from an aeroplane, it has quite a complex DNA."

Banner says that her work progresses more by accident than by design, although she clearly works hard, spending long days alone in her studio with her dog, Olive (a mongrel or "Hackney orgy dog" who recently took a tumble through the hole in the floorboards around Tornado Nude). She never made a conscious decision to be an artist; as a teenager, she read Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson and Rilke, and dreamed of being a poet or a novelist. At art college, her fascination with words resurfaced, and she found herself writing the first of her wordscape descriptions, of the film Top Gun. "I struggled away with making pictures for years and years," Banner says, "and I found it incredibly complicated. The writing just started to come to the fore as a way through it." She remains obsessed with books – she had her own ISBN code tattooed on to her lower back last year, and runs a publishing imprint, Vanity Press – but her interest is more formal than literary. "I'm as interested in the object of a book as much as the content," she says.

Banner's preoccupation with traditionally masculine subject matter – war films, flying machines, the female nude – raises an obvious question: does she consider herself a feminist? "No," she replies, quickly and emphatically. "No. It's not that I'm radically unfeminist or anything" – she gives an awkward laugh – "it's because I think feminism belonged to a particular point and time. And I can't afford to be part of any 'ism' as an artist. That sounds lofty and possibly a bit pompous, but I just don't impose my political agenda on my work. I'm incredibly lucky to be at this point in history, where female artists are given space and visibility."

What about when that visibility leads to controversy, as happened with Arsewoman in Wonderland? Banner rolls her eyes. "That was one piece! And they're still calling me 'the porn artist'! I just think that sort of kneejerk, oo-er missus reaction is not helpful, really. Because art is layered and complex and requires reflection. And because I never set out to be controversial. On the whole, I actually make very quiet work."

She says she is not afraid of failure; in fact it is something she expects, even embraces. "I find art incredibly difficult," she says. "Most of the things that happen in here, in this studio, they're an investigation. An experiment. I'm with [Samuel] Beckett: 'Fail again. Fail better.'" And when success, in the form of a high-profile commission such as the Duveens, comes her way – what does that mean? She hesitates. "I want to say that it doesn't mean anything. It depends on whether what you do with it will still mean something to you in years to come. And whether it will still mean