Projected onto the wall at Galerie Barbara Thumm, spilling over its edges, is Fiona Banner’s new film, ‘Phantom’. Shot from the perspective of a drone, the camera – and likewise the viewer – looks to the ground below. From this distance, lying on the asphalt, we see a book, which we later learn to be Banner’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, resituated in the City of London’s square mile. The financial district – a black box of late capitalism and shady, late-night deals – is evidently of interest to Banner, whose practice often interrogates the limits of language and understanding.
In ‘Heart of Darkness’, the protagonist Marlow develops a fixation on ivory trader Kurtz: a man who “sends in as much ivory as all the others put together”, but later is discovered to possess ‘unsound’ and megalomaniacal tendencies. Much like Marlow’s understanding of Kurtz, our proximity to an object can alter our relationship with it. As Phantom’s drone draws closer to the book, its downward airflow whips at the pages. It becomes impossible to focus on a single point, as sheets are flipped and torn from the spine. At the very moment that we try to draw conclusions from what we see, what we see becomes something else entirely.
But I’m not the only viewer of the film this afternoon: fleshless wooden bodies clad in pinstripe suits slump around the main space. These inhuman forms, without faces, arms or legs, are painted onto plywood chairs designed by the artist. As an expression of power and wealth, a pinstripe suit echoes Marlow’s words: “I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots.” The ubiquity of the City’s pinstriped suit also serves as camouflage, obscuring the identity of those underneath. This isn’t without consequence: the anonymity of those working in the financial sector makes it impossible to attribute blame for financial crimes.
The same pinstriped pattern is mirrored on the walls, in large-scale graphite drawings on bright orange sheets. Banner’s repeated use of orange in these recent works calls to mind Agent Orange, the devastating herbicidal chemical used by the US military during the Vietnam War. The ingenuity of Banner’s work is that extreme violence and banal – even crude – humour are invoked within a single moment, creating an ambiguous and often uncomfortable tension. In ‘Agent Provocateur’, a leering orange wind cone blows air onto another copy of Banner’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, resembling a penis rising and falling at random intervals. When ‘erect’ the wind cone becomes something of a pest, disturbing the pages of the book and making a racket over ‘Phantom’s whirring soundtrack. The relationship between sex and violence is further explored with ‘Nose Art’. These two Harrier jet nose cones point out into the space like two breasts, recalling the folk-art tradition of painting military jets with ‘pin up girls’. The pinstripe motif is again painted onto these cones, drawing an ambivalent line from sexual pleasure and humour to military violence, power and capital. In fact, the kinds of barbarism explored in Banner’s work – drone surveillance, financial backscratching, military intervention – could all be described in Conrad’s words: “pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape”.