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 typical ready-made statement, but the complexities that 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 destroy homes and schools, the ones that kill soldiers and civilians alike.
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. 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 easy on the eye, whilst visiting the installation I couldn’t help but notice the free-floating enthusiasm, people smiling in awe and taking pictures, little kids playing war games. Even the way they have been placed is an extraordinarily 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. Framed by the neo-classic columns, it is suspended 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). There is also the comparison between technology and nature. Since the jets are named 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.