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Fiona Banner’s language-based art relies on its own wit

4 November 2015

When actress Samantha Morton posed nude for Fiona Banner, they produced a work that, unusually, retained all the uncomfortable intimacy of nakedness. Banner recorded their encounter only in text; but to listen still feels like an act of unadulterated voyeurism.

Morton herself recited the description for the first time in front of a live audience at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2007. She had never read the text – which dwells on her body in frank and intimate detail – before, and her performance faltered between dramatic virtuosity and deeply personal exposure. Watching the only recording – an unsolicited and muffled film peppered with the sounds of an audience shifting in their chairs – this work is the rarest of nudes; candid, intimate and human.

(2007), Fiona Banner. Installation, Ikong gallery, 2015.

Mirror (2007), Fiona Banner. Installation, Ikong gallery, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Ikon gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps

A small TV perched on a plinth plays this recording, called Mirror, in a corner of Ikon gallery’s ‘Scroll Down and Keep Scrolling’ exhibition, the most comprehensive survey of Banner’s career to date. The show benefits from understated curation, which elucidates the central themes of Banner’s work while leaving the artist’s character and wit writ large.

Banner designed a new typeface for the exhibition that playfully combines comic sans and Dr Seuss. This gimmicky exercise captures the jocular nature of much of Banner’s oeuvre, but lurking between the lines is a serious concern; how does language filter and divert our attempts to communicate? Banner’s talent is her ability to make us engage with everyday situations and concerns by presenting them in an alien way.

(2014), Fiona Banner. Graphite on wall.

Mista Kurtz – He Not Dead (2014), Fiona Banner. Graphite on wall. Image © the artist

This skill is showcased in film work Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead (2014/15), the result of a fruitful collaboration between Banner, the Archive of Modern Conflict and war photographer Paolo Pellegrin. Pellegrin shot suited businessmen (and the occasional woman) navigating the City of London, an unforgiving world of remorseless competition. Banner created a staccato slideshow of these images, presenting the City as a willing if unlikely muse for the visual language of conflict.

While the show is laden with conceptual provocations, Banner’s playfulness lends ‘Scroll Down and Keep Scrolling’ an endearing dimension. Tucked away in Ikon’s Tower Room, the film work Tête a Tête is a humorous and touching way to end the exhibition. Two windsocks somehow turn to confront each other, their bright orange sleeves blowing and bowing in the breeze. They are coquettish and tantalisingly close; but try as they might they can never quite reach, their connection perennially missed. Banner asks whether communication can ever quite bridge the gap that separates us. She leaves the answer blowing in the wind.

(2014), Fiona Banner.

Tête-à-Tête (2014), Fiona Banner. Courtesy the artist and Ikon gallery. Image © the artist

‘Fiona Banner: Scroll Down and Keep Scrolling’ is at Ikon gallery, Birmingham, until 17 January 2016.

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