Fiona Banner, Font, at Frith Street Gallery, London

16 October 2015 By

An important mid-career survey of Fiona Banner’s work opened this month at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, offering a chance to look across two decades of work and appreciate the development of themes and concerns that have remained constant throughout.  At Frith Street Gallery this month her concurrent show offers a concentrated distillation of these, as well as signalling their future evolution.   There is a looping, iterative quality to the complex relationships between the ideas at play here, a taught interconnectedness that requires the viewer’s focus to dilate repeatedly between a single work and the whole installation.

An approach to language that is alternately playful and monumentalising is a defining characteristic of Banner’s work.  Think back to the 90s and her vast wall-based text works – hand written descriptions of movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.  Think of the sculptures she has made since 1998, that take their form from full stops in a variety of different fonts and when rendered in black-painted bronze can punctuate a gallery like so many high-design stools.

The first object one encounters on entering the Frith Street space is not made by Banner:  it is a 19th century baptismal font.  Partly blocking the way in to the gallery, this modest stone object sets up the notion of the power of naming, with a punning connection to typeface fonts that has, however, no shared etymological roots.  The process of surveying her own work in preparation for both exhibitions led to Banner devising her own typeface, which she has used throughout the Ikon exhibition and which is registered under the entirely reflexive name “Font”.  It is also used in Banner’s new publication under her own imprint, which reproduces Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness – the basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 meditation on the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now.  The book is illustrated with photography commissioned from Magnum conflict photographer Paolo Pellegrin, who was asked to chronicle the activities of the Square Mile of the City of London as if it were a conflict zone.

In the large-scale film work that dominates the space of the gallery this magazine-style publication is seen blown and tumbling about the streets.  Filmed from a modern drone quadcopter camera, the downdraft literally harries the magazine across the pavement.    Occasionally the shadow of the drone is visible, its four rotators spinning, recalling Banner’s frequent use of the Chinook helicopter that featured so iconically in Coppola’s film.  A throbbing sound track overlays the show with a quite menacingly claustrophobic atmosphere.   The whole effect is to bring in to alignment conflicts spanning over two centuries, emphasising not similarity so much as a dismal continuity.

New to this body of work is the use of a pinstripe motif that appears on the catwalk, or should I say runway, that bisects the gallery, and also on the bentwood chairs that are dotted either side of it.  It is not as if flows of capital were ever alien to conflict, but the dynamics of the contemporary military-industrial complex are here invoked – entirely faceless, devoid of 19th or 20th century combat heroics, a process enacted by machines, funded by digital flows of capital across continents.

This is a complex, impressive, compelling show that looks particularly handsome in Frith Street’s tough architecture.  Anyone who can should also try to hop on a train and get up to Birmingham for the Ikon show, which is on until mid-January.

Caroline Douglas

Fiona Banner, Font, Frith Street Gallery, 17-18 Golden Square, London W1F 9JJ. Open Tuesday to Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Saturday 11.00 – 17.00, Saturday 17 October until 18.00. Exhibition continues until 31 October 2015.

Fiona Banner, Scroll Down And Keep Scrolling, Ikon Gallery,1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, B1 2HS. Tuesday – Sunday, 11am-5pm. Exhibition continues until 17 January 2016.