Fiona Banner: How words can be worth a thousand pictures

She’s used to shocking the art world with her ‘stripteases in words’ but now it’s Fiona Banner’s turn to make the judgements. The Wirral-born artist talks exclusively to Laura Davis

PORNOGRAPHIC artist” is one of the titles the media gives to Fiona Banner, the Wirral-born 2002 Turner Prize nominee. Yet her works include less bare flesh than Michelangelo’s David.

They do not, in fact, include any real flesh at all, not in the conventional sense anyway.

Her nude portraits do not show the naked figure, instead they convey it through a series of words that describe her subject’s body.

For Mirror (2007) she created what she calls a “striptease in words” of the British actress Samantha Morton. Superhuman Nude, her poster for this year’s Paralympics, describes the body of an anonymous athlete in text on top of an abstract painting.

“Every nerve waiting. One lip blue one pink. Gazing upwards then tilting forward.. . . Hair hanging loose, small finger tapping steel buttocks, isosceles of white behind. . .” – reading this sensual portrait feels oddly more voyeuristic than looking at a photograph of the athlete’s body.

“I actually think the Paralympics is more interesting than the Olympics somehow and to have the opportunity to collaborate with a Paralympic athlete was really fascinating,” says the Young British Artist, who is one of the judges at this year’s John Moores Painting Prize, based at the Walker Art Gallery.

Much art work connected to the Olympics is based on the concept of physical perfection – the neoclassical figures that Hitler’s “official state sculptor” Arno Breker created for the 1936 Games are an extreme example.

Also inspiring Banner was the idea that technology that disabled athletes use to be able to compete – such as South African amputee Oscar Pistorius’s blades – makes them more able than so-called able-bodied athletes.

“There’s lots of interesting and contentious conversation happening around that,” she explains.

“When the athlete came to my studio and tried on his extraordinary prosthetic leg, I thought ‘in a way this guy is advantaged in his sport’.

“Then it throws up all sorts of things about perfect form and the history of the Olympics that’s interesting as well.”

Banner, 45, works very much as a traditional portrait painter would – creating the piece in front of her life model.

“In many ways it’s the same. I think there’s a slightly exaggerated process there and sometimes a performative element that you don’t necessarily associate with a straightforward, traditional life drawing,” she says.

“The athlete came to my studio and he just hung out and we talked.

“He posed as anybody would for a life drawing and I made a word portrait of him.”

Banner employs words in her art to “circumnavigate the image” and question the act of looking and voyeurism in a way she finds herself unable to do using conventional images.

She was nominated for the Turner Prize for her textual work, Arsewoman in Wonderland, which transcribes a porn film in pink ink on a 6m-wide advertising billboard.

“My interest in art and language developed at the same time,” says Banner, who grew up in New Brighton, where she attended Murrayfield Primary before moving to Howell’s School in Denbigh, North Wales.

“Then I went to art college and they got separated because at the time language wasn’t an area they really recognised. I left college and gradually the two things merged.”

Her Merseyside upbringing was what persuaded her to agree to join the John Moores Painting Prize jury alongside fellow Turner Prize nominees Angela de la Cruz (2010) and George Shaw (2011), Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick and BBC creative director Alan Yentob.

The panel is meeting this week to view the hundreds of works that have made it through to the second stage of judging. Around 40 will be included in the finalists exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in September when an overall winner and several runners-up will be named.

“I don’t generally sit on panels. I think it’s a hard thing to do really but I’m kind of sentimental about Liverpool,” says Banner.

“It’s been quite overwhelming to see the length and breadth of the work people are producing at the moment. I’ve been impressed by the extent of people’s endeavour.”

What sets the John Moores apart from other art prizes, she says, is the anonymity of the entrants. Not until they have made their final decisions do the judges learn the artists’ names.

“It’s without the normal hierarchies and context of the art world,” says Banner.

“I think there are some very good things about that and there are also some quite difficult things.

“You don’t know whether people are working in quite a public way and receiving feedback or if they’re working in a reclusive way on their own.”

As for art prizes in general – Banner appears conflicted.

“Any conventional competitive scenario is quite complicated for artists,” she explains.

“That’s not what we’re here for but one understands it can galvanise focus and energy.

“And it’s hugely important that artists that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to show in an exhibition like this are given the opportunity to do.

“I do think the John Moores reflects what is happening in painting today.”

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