Portraiture stripped bare
Pablo Lafuente

Art Reveiw, April 2005

Fiona Banner's use of text to paint her female nudes - as in the following exclusive artist's project for ArtReview - discloses the power structures that determine how such portraits are created and consumed.

In the early 1990s, two European films managed to capture in moving images the creative process of painting - or at least painting in its most classic form In El Sol del membrillo (1992), Spanish director Victor Erice followed hyper-realist painter Antonio López in his attempt to portray a quince tree in the courtyard of his Madrid home. In the French film La belle noiseuse (1991), Jacques Rivette told the story of the making of another portrait, this time of a- young woman (Marianne, a character played by Emmanuelle Béart) by a fictional painter (Edouard Frenhofer, played by Michel Piccoli). Both films were to a large extent based on romantic ideas of beauty and genius, and focused on practices that maintained a representational approach to art. López and Frenhofer were on a quest to capture on canvas the essence of their respective subjects, using the means demanded by the subjects themselves. But as these films showed, no portrait is possible without the artist exerting a certain degree of violence on that which is to be portrayed. This is why López, determined to remain essentially an observer and recorder, fails to finish his painting. And it is also the reason why Frenhofer, all too aware of the necessity to physically and mentally coerce - almost torture - his sitter, succeeds in his goal.

In contemporary art practice, where the subject has lost its preeminence and representation is no longer the aim, most painted portraits are made from photographic images of the subjects, taken by the artist or by others. Here, the photograph acts as a mediation between the model and the painter, and the original binary relationship thus becomes a complex equation in which there is room for multiple external and internal elements. But in the public consciousness, the essence of a portrait remains the intimate relationship between an artist and a sitter. And this conception overlaps with a certain gender structure: that of the active male and the passive female.

When Fiona Banner was invited in the summer of 2004 to participate in the Port Eliot Lit Fest, a literary festival in Cornwall, she chose to work around that relationship in a context that, like classic portraiture, is still characterized by an unbalanced gender structure. Her piece, Marianne, nude port eliot, was a verbal portrait of a female nude, named after the model. But, for the first time for Banner, the work was also a performance: both her and her model stood on the stage, Banner writing her portrait directly onto the canvas, while the sitter stood naked in front of artist and audience.

Verbal portraits and descriptions of images have been a constant in Banner's work for some time. In THE, NAM (1997) she describes in writing six Vietnam films (Full Metal jacket, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now!, Born on the Fourth of  July, Hamburger Hill and Platoon), putting the action into her own words. This text was then printed - unedited - in a 1,000-page, 280,000-word flick book that reflects a mistrust of images and image-making techniques, at the same time that it acknowledges their ability to seduce. The stress here is on the discursive character of visual material - both still or moving. But the registration in writing of visual information isn't just about documenting a certain content, as if words were a remedy against forgetting or misremembering. The trace of the written text also presents itself as an incision, with its own material character (the pages and pages of black type) and its own affective content (the involvement of a narrator who is engaging intimately both in the story and its telling).
That affective content is even more present in works in which Banner uses her own handwriting, like The Rumble in the Jungle (1995) or Nude (2002). This last piece, drawn on the walls of Tate Britain as part of her entry to that year's Turner Prize, was also her first portrait. It meticulously describes the body and movements of a female actor in a porn film, from `the dimples around her buttocks' to `her face, greasy cold, unmoved'. The choice of porn material is conceptually connected to her work with the military, which doesn't just include the use of films (as in THE NAM or Black Hawk Down, 2004), but lately also fighter-plane models and parts (in the installation Parade and the artist's book All the World's Fighter Planes, both, 2004). The porn industry and the armed forces are two environments where structures of domination and manhood can still be proudly maintained. Porn films and war films, then, are sustained by a parallel discourse, a discourse that needs a suspension of judgment to persist. When it is somehow made explicit, the intensity of the relation of the viewer to the images is to a certain extent diminished.

In Marianne, as in the similar project Banner has developed on the following pages (this time the model was free to move around the room), the strategy of narrating does two things at the same time: it creates a life portrait, and it discloses the discourse behind its elaboration. While Rivette's four-hour film manages to show with extreme rigour the simultaneously intimate and impersonal character of the relationship between Frenhofer and Marianne, it concludes by asserting the possibility of visually capturing that relationship, both in Frenhofer's finished painting and in Rivette's film itself. Fiona Banner, in her portrait of her own Marianne, is aware that images are not autonomous, their meaning always produced by a discourse that accompanies their production and consumption. By choosing verbal language, she's going straight to the source of that meaning, enabling herself to redefine it - and with it, the act of portraying itself.