Fiona Banner: Harriet and Jaguar

Many of us may have already seen images of Fiona Banner’s Harriet and Jaguar, her recently unveiled 2010 Duveens Commission. But this is a work that truly excites and overwhelms when experienced in direct confrontation. Two fighter jets scattered in the neo-classic sculpture galleries of Tate Britain could seem like a simple ready-made statement, but the complexities they arise are far for predictable. One is immediately surprised by the beauty of the objects themselves, like giant toys in a theme park, only to remember that they are real war machines, the ones that blow entire blocks and schools, the ones that kill soldiers and civilians alike. The ones that cause the deaths we see in the news on television.

Fiona Banner. Harrier and Jaguar 2010 © Fiona Banner. Photo: Tate 2010

War is one of Fiona Banner’s artistic obsessions and the fighter jet iconography is by now a permanent fixture in her body of work. But there is a second recurrent subject for her, which she often juxtaposes to the first: porn. Both issues are usually regarded as macho realms where males can engage in power games, but Banner explores these fetishist universes in order to understand why she (and, by extension, the rest of humanity) is so fascinated by the same things she is supposed to abhor. In this quest to expose how guilty pleasures operate, these magnificent fighter jets –beautiful killing machines– have the same contradictory and problematic appeal than any murky sexual practice that we might want to contemplate only in our deepest thoughts. Highlighting this fact is one of the strengths and most interesting aspects of Banner’s work.

Harrier and Jaguar are undeniably appealing and easy on the eye. When visiting the installation, I couldn’t help but noticing the free-floating enthusiasm they provoke: people smiling in awe, relentless picture-taking like tourists by the Tour Eiffel (myself included), little kids playing war games around them… Even the way they have been placed feels like a fascinating and precise choreography. The Harrier is hanging vertically from the ceiling in the South Duveens, it’s round nose/beak hovering just a few inches above the floor. The whole jet is framed by the neo-classic columns like a post-nuclear crucifix with feathers painted on it. In the North Duveens the Jaguar lies belly up, as if it had crash-landed after a failed mission. The paint has been removed so its shiny aluminium body reflects the architectural space and the audience like a mirror (“so they can’t detach themselves from it”, explains Banner). The planes obviously arise the comparison between technology and nature. Since they were baptised after animals, one can also reflect on the doomed human desire to achieve god-like abilities: to create things, to destroy others and to control all of them. Fittingly, Harriet and Jaguar look estranged and defeated here, no matter how dangerous and powerful they were not so long ago.

Fiona Banner. Harrier and Jaguar 2010 © Fiona Banner. Photo: Tate 2010

The power of this monumental piece of Fiona Banner lies not in the symbolic introduction of military imaginary inside a museum, but in the objects being two fighter jets that were actually flown by British soldiers in military campaigns, namely the Bosnia and Gulf wars. The successful strategy of Harrier and Jaguar –clearly refusing to patronise the viewer– results, unsurprisingly, in a serious questioning of the agency of political art. There are lots of well-meaning artists whose main concern is to embed political and social issues into the cultural discourse, raise awareness on the ugly truths we don’t want to be reminded of. But once inside the gallery many of these works loose effectiveness. The realities they are denouncing become removed, alienated, fictional, something you can take a souvenir picture of and then forget. And there is a currency in that, both for art world and the mass media, that it is something to be reckoned with.

Harriet and Jaguar, Fiona Banner’s work for the Duveens Galleries Commission 2010, will be on view at Tate Britain until the 3rd of January 2011

An edited version of this review was published on this is tomorrow in August 2010

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About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

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