Fiona Banner | Our contemporary Heart of Darkness
In 1997, her book "The Nam" hit the art world, a thousand-page, frame-by-frame transcription of cult Vietnam films and an almost endless and “unreadable” stream of consciousness. In 2005, bizarre, full stop-shaped statues sprouted on the riverfront by Tower Bridge in London. In 2013, she transformed Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" into a luxury magazine, with photographs by reporter Paolo Pellegrin.
As we enter mfc-michèle didier Gallery in Paris, where Fiona Banner’s exhibition “Heart of Darkness” opened last Friday and is running until January 7, two copies of her Vogue-like rendition of Conrad’s novella top two plinths, suggesting two towers, almost reminiscent of the World Trade Center landmarks destroyed in New York in 2001. In many ways, the language Banner speaks has very physical and very ephemeral qualities at the same time.
“For me (Heart of Darkness) is always going to be a work about art in contradiction and about the duality of the human, which chimes with me because I always make work about things that I am conflicted by,” says Banner, echoing some of the central themes of her practice: dualities, conflicts and contradictions — specifically those surrounding language, her medium of choice. “Language is my key medium. To begin with, when I wrote The Nam I realized that I was very involved with Vietnam films, and that they informed my sense of history, (...) and I started writing around these films, and then writing the films out in this sort of pseudo-objective language, before accepting that it’s completely unobjective.”
Of course, language can also be manipulated, something that weighs heavily on the affirmation of its purported legitimacy, as the exhibition seems to suggest. Having discovered an Orson Welles script for a never-realized adaptation of Conrad’s novella, Banner worked with three graphic design agencies in London to create four posters entitled The Greatest Film Never Made — very realistic images supposedly advertising Welles’ film. A hoax, these posters are not only a celebration of one of cinema’s greatest directors, but also a reflection on how narratives — whether factual or fictional — are constructed.
Another element of Banner’s practice — planes, whose make and models she has almost obsessively archived (in 2006 she published All The World's Fighter Planes) — represent the notion of conflict that ties together her Paris exhibition, exemplified by Phantom, a video of a drone filming a copy of the Heart of Darkness magazine fluttering about an anonymous street and Pellegrin’s photos of London’s financial district — commissioned by Banner and representing a response to her invitation — itself become a “conflict zone” according to the artist.
Speaking about this seemingly incongruous element, Banner explains, “fighter planes as a sort of metaphor have always run through my works. My early way of interpreting the war films I was originally working with was to paint military hardware, as an investigation of the super macho, super heroic, muscular machinery, but rendered in a way that was very different, very ephemeral.” In 2010, she took her plane iconography onto a bigger scale with her Duveens commission for Tate Britain, where enormous fighter planes pierced the silent halls of the institution, questioning the discourses propelled by art through these immense and overwhelming machines.
Banner’s work, from her planes to her wordscapes, might be studded with historical, literary and film references, but it poses questions as to the way we experience the visual, and what role language has in this, also questioning the nature itself of systems of intertextual meanings. At times more, and at others less optimistic, Banner’s outlook remains profoundly attached to the intricacies of language and human communication: “the time I started making full stop pieces was a time when I had run into a crisis with my own medium and I couldn’t really find a way forward with the written works, so I started looking at the idea of an abstraction, and that’s when I made the full stops, these big, physical shapes. It was sort of a way of celebrating the fact of not knowing what the way forward was. (...) I was thinking of the world as being a massive text, and people being the language, and sculptures being the punctuations.”
For Banner, what is truly key is that the themes of Heart of Darkness — and its adaptations, notably Apocalypse Now!, through which the artist first discovered the book, or Orson Welles’ lost dramatization — resonate with our contemporary world: “it’s about what it means now, it’s not about a love of Conrad. (...) I live an unsustainable life as many of us do, in our urban society, which is caught up in systems of excess, selfishness, that we are completely wedded to.” For Banner, Welles’ script “refers to our time in quite a direct way, in that it seems to speak about trade, industry, and greed” — some of the most pressing global issues.
The many forms of conflict explored in this exhibition, including “systems of seduction and unrequitable desire”, war, the conflict between the public and the work, or elsewhere the conflict displayed in the work itself — take for instance Banner’s Break Point where letters disappear into each other, becoming illisible — echo the very present global issues of today.