Fiona Banner: Harrier and Jaguar
Review of the Tate Britain Duveens Commission 2010, until 3 January 2011
First published in Third Way (September 2010)
The ‘readymade’ work of art has come a long way in the hundred years since Marcel Duchamp exhibited his bottlerack, snow-shovel and urinal. He claimed his works had no aesthetic interest or meaning. Today’s artists are more overt about the resonances they seek from their choices, and Fiona Banner’s current exhibit of two real warplanes sets a myriad sparks flying. For all its simplicity as an idea, it is impressive, thought-provoking and rich in reflective potential.
Partly this work is about how we express ourselves. War, we are told, is diplomacy conducted by other means. Planes such as these are often used to make a point, or to achieve an end where words have failed. Even in peace time, they are an expression of power, a visual flexing of political muscles. How do we assess and respond to non-verbal expression?
And can we put into words the contradictory feelings we have about these machines? Like many of her contemporaries, Banner is interested in the forces of human attraction and repulsion. These planes are designed for functionality, not aesthetics. What, she asks, does it say about us as human beings that we find beauty in these machines that are built to inflict appalling death and devastation? Why do we stand in awe as they skim low over the landscape? Why are we drawn towards them, instead of turning away in disgust? Human nature, with our capacity for beauty and horror, love and guilt, is a great mystery to our society.
But then these planes are not simple readymades. They are what Duchamp termed ‘assisted readymades’. In the case of the Harrier, the artist has decorated it with feathers, drawing attention to a point made in others of her work, that so many warplanes are named after creatures from the natural world. Is our propensity to violence drawn from the natural world? If so, why do we feel bad about it?
The Jaguar has been stripped of its paint, and polished to a highly reflective sheen. The artist says this is to make it seem like a luxury item, though whether this is a reference to the Jaguar car, or the very different kind of luxury of a Jaguar cat, is not clear. Either way, you want to stroke it. But then you catch your own fragmented reflection in it, and perhaps you are made to reflect on your reactions to it.
The Jaguar is displayed upside down, like a submissive animal. More impressive to me is the Harrier, which hangs vertically in space, its nose just a few inches from the ground. It is like a game bird, shot and hung. Seen from afar, warplanes seem organic, like their animal namesakes, a seamless unity of power and strength. But, close up, you see the rivets that hold the plates of metal together, and it seems flimsy and vulnerable.
Size and scale are vital in responding to any work of art, and that is certainly the case here as, standing in the presence of these machines, one sees how small the cockpit is in comparison to the rest of the machine, how tiny the individual human being is in comparison to the speed and destructive power of the machine. And yet, however small we are in comparison to the machines, it is still human beings who build them, fly them, and press the trigger.
Perhaps this mixed experience of beauty and awe, fear and horror, is our society’s version of the sublime. But in a society that has turned its back on God, there is no one else to worship, and no one else to blame. It all comes back on us, and is very perplexing.
Harrier and Jaguar, 2010 (Harrier detail, front and back views)
© Fiona Banner
Harrier and Jaguar, 2010 (Jaguar detail)
© Fiona Banner