Fiona Banner, "Not So Much a Coffee Table Book as a Coffee Table" (2015)

Fiona Banner, “Not So Much a Coffee Table Book as a Coffee Table” (2015) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

BEXHILL, UK — If you ever get joy from the written word, you might not like Buoys Boys, Fiona Banner’s pun-themed exhibition by the sea. The former YBA does for literary writing what Damien Hirst has done for sharks: prose has become a harmless spectacle; texts purely visual.

In the past, Banner has been known to fill walls with scrawled recollections of feature films from the genres of pornography and war. Vietnam films alone have inspired an epic typed, printed, and bound response as thick as a phone book. Banner is unapologetic about self-publishing and does it under the imprint “The Vanity Press.” She has registered a pair of trousers with an ISBN.

Fiona Banner. “The Vanity Press” (2013), neon parts bent by the artist, published by The Vanity Press

And on the last Saturday in September, on the southern coast of England, she flew a number of dark, helium-filled periods from the roof of the modernist De La Warr Pavilion. On the day of the launch, they loomed over the Bexhill gallery, defying the visitor to pen a word or two about the show.

In this case, the artist and many critics share the same pathology: a condition of uncontrollable verbosity known as logorrhea. Indeed, meeting Banner, one realizes that she is very happy to talk at length about her work. Language may have become exhausted in her art, but given a career that already spans three decades, she shows no signs of losing interest. When she mentions her peers from “the Saatchi days,” during which British collector Charles Saatchi rebooted art in the UK, it’s clear that she views her progress as dogged; she never had the early boost that a Turner Prize or a tabloid firestorm might have given her.

“I was always very keen that my work was not literary,” she tells me, which is no surprise. Her fat book about the Vietnam War sits on a plinth in the gallery space, where visitors are compelled to handle it with white gloves. The type is Helvetica. The pages are unnumbered. There are no contents. It is, simply, impossible to read. “I was very clear that that was an unedited text,” she says, “because I wanted it to reveal things that I hadn’t prescribed… I wanted to be subject to what I was observing.” One thinks of the automatic writing practiced by the Surrealists, but with an imagination saturated by cinema and the Cold War.

Fiona Banner, “Buoys Boys” (2016), sculptural performance

“I was very keen on addressing the materiality of the book,” she continues, “making it this hubristic, overblown paperback that, after all, is not very special.” With some 1,000 large-format pages, it is definitely not one of those paperbacks you can forget you’re reading. “You’re always grappling with this… overspilling object,” says Banner. To make this point, the publication is accompanied by a monumental sculptural rendition of the book; it is shoulder-height to the viewer, impossible to ignore, and even more impossible to read.

Nor is legibility the primary concern for the exhibition notes, which come on a folded sheet of A3 in a typeface of the artist’s making. She describes it as “an emotionalized bastardization of a lot of fonts that I’ve used [elsewhere].” Font, as she tautologically calls it, combines an old-fashioned ecclesiastical look and feel with an au courant encounter with the computerized glitch. Visitors are greeted with a marble baptism font carved with the word “font” in the new font called Font — in typical Banner fashion, the many layers of any given piece soon become dizzying.

Exhibition signage written in Fiona Banner’s new font, Font

Although it may not have been her initial starting point, and though she has never seen herself as a “text artist,” Banner defends her interest in the materiality of language. “It’s simply that as an artist, as anybody in life, if you use certain materials, they become your medium, [and] then you enter into a tactile and intimate relationship with them.” While this might become a problem in traditional literary circles, Banner tells me that her work has “quite a presence” in the arena of experimental literature.

Since she has written more than a million words and surely spent the 10,000 hours folks will tell you are required for competence at any given activity, I ask Banner whether she is in danger of becoming a proper writer. She responds: “I’m suspicious of the term ‘serious writing.’ It suggests that a humorful position isn’t possible.” And although her text-based work “doesn’t conform to the expectations of literary writing, and it is outside of the obvious narrative spaces of the world,” it is, she says, both humorous and serious.

Fiona Banner, “ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9” (2013), 424-page paperback, published by The Vanity Press

Fiona Banner, “No Image Available” (2012), 400-page hardback, edition of 1 published by The Vanity Press

What’s more, in the age of the meme and the subtitled viral video, Banner points out that “the definition between words and objects and words and pictures is breaking down.”

Certainly the world of publishing is breaking down, and with her work through The Vanity Press, Banner is making merry in the digital aftermath. Along with the aforementioned trousers, she has also registered a poster and a neon sign as official publications. To compound this, she once registered her own self with an ISBN, prompting the British Library to write and ask for copies of all of the above. That letter, along with Banner’s reply, has become an artwork included in this show.

Fiona Banner, “Font” (2015)

Like most self-published authors, it all began with a burning desire to see a work of her own in print, in an uncompromised form. Banner recalls talking about her plans to self-publish at a party in the mid-’90s and getting shot down by another guest, who said, “You can’t possibly do that. That’s vanity publishing!” Banner woke up the next day even more excited by the idea: “I thought, ‘What could be greater!?’ My whole life as an artist is vanity publishing!” And so The Vanity Press was born — a project that the exhibition notes describe as “the backbone” of Banner’s practice since 1997.

“I liked the play on ‘vanity,’ the sort of feminization, if you like, of the publishing industry,” she tells me. Then she adds, with reason: “I don’t actually think the enormous publishing houses, the enormous publishing supermarkets (because they’re all just conglomerations now anyway), have the monopoly on what’s great.” She also takes the optimistic view that, when it comes to books, the internet is a real force for democratic good.

Except, one might add, what’s with all those full stops, many more of which balloon up in the gallery space here in the DWLP?

Fiona Banner, “Buoys Boys” (2016), installation view

Leaving the show on a sunny day, the rooftop installation may surprise you, with its inky dots drifting back and forth against the blue sky. As I visited, first there were two, and then a third came into view. They drifted into a row, like an ellipsis: Put so many periods together, and you suggest more to come. In the case of Fiona Banner, I hope there is much more.

Buoys Boys continues at De La Warr Pavilion (The Marina, Bexhill), through January 8, 2017.

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Mark Sheerin

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared...