high art & plane speaking

How often do you feel really gripped by a piece of contemporary art? I don’t know much about art and am often unsure about what I like, but I like Fiona Banner’s ‘Harrier and Jaguar’ a lot. I wonder why?

Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries are a special context. Tate Britain is so much more approachable than its Modern big sister which, much as I like the building, seems to engulf the ideas it holds, the gazillions of tourists pouring through not helping matters. Tate Britain has less space but the bigger picture – the broader context of art tradition a foil for the limited amount of contemporary works.

The sheer improbability of this 20th century hardware robbed of motion is enhanced by the neoclassical architecture. The Harrier is strung up like a hung gamebird, the Jaguar an impossible accident. The planes could not be more surreally out of context. We can experience their spectacular physicality up close and you can’t help but wonder ‘how did they get them in here’?

The theatricality keeps this in the mind long after the experience. The title introduces a relationship between the two aircraft, their placement a dramatic narrative: the Harrier is poised almost like its namesake over prey, the Jaguar supine a hundred yards away as if run to ground, defeated, flayed, reduced to bare metal. Fiona Banner is well known for her use of signs/texts and visual/verbal wit echoes around the piece: the Harrier’s glance-and-you-miss it etched feathers across the wings, the galleries’ arches faintly suggesting a birdcage, the burnished Jaguar placing viewers’ reflections in the work – all compelling stuff.

As a member of the Airfix generation I can’t be sure that the planespotting factor is not also great part of the appeal for me. A memory of the awesome sight of two Vulcan bombers, low over my school football pitch is evoked by any Big Things That Fly (from Canada Geese upwards). To see these two planes frozen, extracted from the air makes you think of them in an entirely new way. Designer or not, you have to admire these aerodynamic sculptures and the beautiful engineered efficiency of the anonymously authored design details: panels, fixings, intakes, vents and control surfaces.

Underpinning the celebration of the forms, the visual and verbal games, there is absolutely no escaping the fact that Harrier & Jaguar are no Attenborough documentary characters but sophisticated, expensive, ‘predatory instruments’ – arguably pinnacles of human achievement in terms of the promise and delivery of death to people who might disagree with us. Uncomfortable. Tate Britain’s Director sums the work up: ‘Sobering… impressive, exciting… nauseating…’.

I think art and science’s purpose is to explore and interpret the world for us. Contemporary artists are fearless explorers but few seem overly interested in communicating their findings. Most of all I like Fiona Banner’s ‘Harrier and Jaguar’ because it engages, provokes and contradicts, but in particular communicates like little else. These pics don’t do it justice. Go see it.

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