Fiona Banner's Heart of Darkness
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is impressed by the British artist's take on the classic novella.
Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by British author Joseph Conrad, is the story of the mysterious character Captain Kurtz as remembered by the captain of a steamer traveling up the Congo River. Loosely based on Conrad's own experience as a young seaman, it is written in a deeply descriptive and symbolically-charged manner that has attracted a number of reinterpretations including a film never realized by Orson Welles and, possibly the best known version, the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
British artist Fiona Banner has been mining this fictional territory at least since her 1999 Nam, a "wordscape" describing the violence in that and various other films about the Vietnam War. In this show, she applies the book's metaphorical observations to business conducted in the City of London, a financial heart of darkness in this context, where the brokerages are centered. If morally abhorrent actions in the book are driven by greed, Banner's work suggests that parallels can be found in the capitalist motives of the City.
Yet her exhibition at 1301 PE through April 9, is thankfully less explicit in execution. A wall painted with swooshes of thin vertical lines of dark gray and white, referring to the pin-striped suiting of the businessman, serves as projection screen for her film of black and white images accompanied by a sound track that she composed in part from the cries of floor traders.
The pinstriped motif is enlarged in a tall vertical rendering of rear view of a man's trousers in day-glo orange, somehow looking like the mask of a face, with pants pocket buttons for eyes, the crotch as an open mouth. In the upstairs gallery, walls are covered with the complex text panels for which Banner is best known. She has devised her own font, produced bean bag sculptures from punctuation marks and clearly embraces a concrete and droll approach to semiotics.
For this exhibition, she has reprinted the text from Heart of Darkness on glossy stock in the same format as a luxury goods magazine. She commissioned Magnum photographer Paolo Pelligrini, known for documenting conflict in the Congo, to take pictures in London. She has edited his 60,000 images so that fragmented views of the river Thames, industrial development, architectural offices, besuited men and some women are juxtaposed with Conrad's rich descriptions of the jungle, violence and rumors of encroaching madness. Turning the pages of the magazine, the tough glamour of power and all its trappings is interrupted by Conrad's cautionary narrative.
Just as Conrad's writing seduces the reader into the following the story, so too do the visual efforts of Banner provide more than simple scolding about the collateral damage of colonialism and capitalism. Fiction, film, history are layered in a kaleidoscope of references to engage viewers as art with a purpose. I happened to meet Banner when I went to the gallery and we chatted about whether or not Heart of Darkness was still assigned reading for students. I hadn't read it since school so I decided to re-read it as my own assignment for this review, which added an apposite layer of pleasure to the experience of her exhibition.