David Roberts Art Foundation, Symes Mews, London NW1 7JE

Fiona Banner: Every Word Unmade


29 January - 5 March 2016

Review by Phoebe Cripps

Fiona Banner’s latest exhibition is punctuated by the small markings, lines, curves and scribbles that make up language. Neon commas and beanbag full stops pepper the space, between which spoken words and illuminated letters inject meaning to join up the dots. The separate works function together as a whole through narrative opportunity and semiotic transcendence to turn the exhibition into a kind of performative verse of poetry.

Dominating the space is ‘Every Word Unmade’ (2007), for which Banner hand-blew all 26 letters of the alphabet in glass. Arranged together at 21-metres long, these skeletal neon forms glow and fade, often strikingly in time with the London Underground trains running just below the gallery. In places, the letters are shaky, the sign of an inexpert hand; Banner describes the difficult process of making neon as ‘one big stutter’. The work teeters on the edge of all the infinite possibilities of language – it quivers and flickers in a kind of dance heralding all the words and stories that might emerge from its forms.

The most successful works here, however, deal not with words but rather with the spaces between. The full stop as a marker of closure, pause and expectation is a recurring theme of exploration for Banner – in fact, her first work in neon was a single full stop, on display here. ‘Neon Full Stop’ (1997) is ‘a breath encapsulated in glass’, and, more significantly, the archive of the first breath taken in pursuit of a new form of self-expression. The pause of the full stop here denotes hesitancy and uncertainty but also all the potentiality of opening that comes after the closing.

In 2007, actress Samantha Morton came to Banner’s studio to pose for a nude portrait, which took the form of a descriptive piece of writing. The following evening, Morton read the text for the first time in front of a live audience at Whitechapel Gallery. What results in the filmed performance is the intimate moment in which the actress, who must always interpret other characters, encounters her own interpretation at its most basic and exposed. The wall text describes the performance as a kind of ‘striptease’ but the work is much more innocent and poetic than that. With her full stop for a navel and commas for eyebrows, Banner reduces Morton to punctuation, and thus reveals all the little gestures and histories within the body that make up a life. As these unravel before her, Morton remains stoic in continuing to read, and her words reverberate around the gallery, permeating the experience of language in other works. As a new form of portrait, it is revelatory.

Working across different media, Banner demonstrates how the language through which we attempt to express ourselves can be performative, poetic, infinite. By reducing everyday forms, from the cartoon dog Snoopy to our own organic bodies, to marks and symbols, we become language, and language becomes us. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘Full Stop’ beanbag sculptures placed throughout and shaped as the full stops of several typefaces. When we sit on the full stop, we embody the pause, awaiting the next opening.

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