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January 15 2012

A Room for London – review

A small vessel perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall has become London's most coveted hotel room

The river Thames has a way of defeating plans for its jollification. For decades architects have looked on its great, tempting emptiness and felt an irresistible urge to propose beaches, inhabited bridges, lidos, zones for festivals fluttering with pennants and balloons, places to promenade as if it were the edge of the Mediterranean. In the 1980s Richard Rogers imagined an archipelago of pleasure, with the forms and construction methods of oil rigs remade into towers and pinnacles of fun. Most recently, the architects Gensler proposed the floating hospitality suite they called the London River Park.

Mostly these plans don't happen. The river flows on, lugubrious and imperturbable, which is possibly because, as Joseph Conrad observed, it is not really a fun sort of thing. "And this also," he wrote in Heart of Darkness, "has been one of the dark places of the earth," as he embarked on that book's journey into forms of savagery that lay beneath a veil of civilisation. For him it was the "sleepless river" of a "monstrous" and "brooding" city. "What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river," he also wrote, "into the mystery of an unknown earth!"

One Thames project that has happened is A Room for London, a boat-like object perched high on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth hall at the Southbank Centre, as if stranded there by a receding deluge. Where many Thames proposals want to put things of land on to water, this puts something riverine – a boat – on to land. It is a temporary structure, a cross between building and sculpture, by the architect David Kohn and the artist Fiona Banner. It contains a single hotel room which anyone can in theory book, if with rather more difficulty than Olympic tickets. When nights for the first six months were made available they sold out in 12 minutes; the next batch goes on sale on Thursday (at £120 a night).

This little space is the production of an impressive array of cultural impresarios: the Southbank Centre, Artangel, and Living Architecture, the organisation set up by the writer Alain de Botton to build beautiful new houses which can be rented for holidays. It comes, like many cultural projects in 2012, with an Olympic tag, being officially part of the cultural Olympiad. As well as paying guests, writers, artists and musicians have been invited to stay there, and be creative.

From the outside the jaunty vessel seems to fall within the "fun" category of Thames projects. It juts perkily into the void, and three little wind turbines, like displaced propellers, whirr on the top of a triangular rig. It is a toy, palpably and deliberately incongruous. It is a folly. But it turns out that its makers also had Conradian ambitions. The boat is called the Roi des Belges, after the vessel in which Conrad himself sailed up the river Congo, in the journey that would inspire Heart of Darkness. Inside there is a cabinet containing old maps of the Thames and the Congo, in reference to the parallels that Conrad made between the two rivers. An octagonal table and a box of dominos echo similar objects described in the master's novels.

There are other inspirations. The intricate house and museum of the architect Sir John Soane is cited by David Kohn as a help in designing the "episodic" sequence of small spaces that are inside the boat, as you progress from a little vestibule to a galley, to a bedroom that opens up to penthouse views of the river, bracketed by the Palace of Westminster to the left, and St Paul's Cathedral to the right. Alongside the river maps there is a copy of a drawing by Soane's collaborator JM Gandy that shows Soane's Bank of England as if it were a Roman ruin, and which might be taken as a comment, if desired, on financial calamity, or on the fragility of civilisation described by Conrad. Kohn also mentions the baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor as an influence, even though his heavy white stone churches would come top of most lists of Structures Least Likely to Float. The spire-like superstructure of A Room for London refers to these churches, and to the spires of London in general.

The main point, says Kohn, is to combine the intimate and the epic, in a way not unlike the relation of domesticity to vastness that you get in boats. "The interiors feel comfortable and you know what to do there, but it's not just an easy or twee kind of comfort. You are connected to the Thames, to a wider world, also to what one thinks of the world. You have a relationship to disputed, uncertain territory."

In all this the intention was to avoid kitsch and creating a one-line joke. The timber-lined interior, stained in places in rich pinkish-red, is not pushed to the point where it is literally boat-like in every detail, but rather seeks other architectural qualities, which is where the influence of Soane comes in. It was also important to Kohn and Banner that the structure was exactingly well made, by the specialist company Millimetre. "It is solid; it has a kind of earnestness," says Kohn, which keeps it away from being a stage set.

And so the lucky purchasers of nights in the hotel room, the intellectual aesthete's equivalent of Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, will be able to contemplate the "venerable stream" much as Conrad's characters did in the cruising yawl Nellie. At sunset they will be able to watch the gloom "become more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun". They can, should they want to, think their thoughts about the world and their place in it.

A Room for London is small, and temporary, and will only be fully enjoyed by a few people. It is not a prototype for future Thames-side development, and offers no solutions to the problems of urban regeneration. It may, even, not quite match the fathomless profundity of its inspirations, being rather an enjoyable and well-made jeu d'esprit. But I have a feeling it will give satisfactions that other Olympic projects will not match: it is intelligent, witty, pleasurable, and is based on observing its surroundings as they actually are, rather than imposing a bombastic idea of what they should be. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 12 2012

A high water mark: artists moor holiday houseboat on London roof

Vessel installed on top of Queen Elizabeth Hall on South Bank is open to the public for overnight stays

There are just a few things missing to complete the scene. Savage dogs, rusting engines from white vans plundered for parts, seagulls squabbling over landfill, scuffed barges laden with gravel and a backdrop peppered with indifferent high-rise housing. Add a slight scent of sewage and the 27-tonne Le Roi des Belges (King of the Belgians) might be berthed on some wind scythed stretch of the Thames Estuary far east of Tower Bridge.

The illusion, conjured on a grey and blustery January morning is not so very whimsical. Le Roi des Belges just happens to be moored on top of the brutalist Queen Elizabeth Hall between the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre. This, though, is no weather beaten Thames trader; it is, rather, an artwork – houseboat, too, which the public can stay in. It was designed by architect David Kohn and artist Fiona Banner, with Artangel for Living Architecture, an organisation set up by the philosopher Alain de Botton to build innovative holiday homes around the shores of Britain.

The shock, having ridden a slow and brutally utilitarian lift up through a jagged concrete interstice between the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, is to find the houseboat anchored to the vast concrete roof of the 1960s concert hall, a terrain as bleak, and as compelling, as any found downriver from Tower Bridge.

Artist and architect say they were inspired by Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, set on the Thames and the River Congo, and by Conrad's tales of how he steamed up the Congo in a boat of the same name in 1889. But, where Conrad experienced the all but unspeakable horror of the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State by King Alphonso II, what you see spread out before you as you board the artworld Roi des Belges, also known as A Room for London, is the most compelling, and gloriously wide-angled, panorama of central London, framed by the Palace of Westminster on the port side and St Paul's to starboard.

"The idea is that where once ships sailed out from imperial London to the rest of the world, today the world has come willingly to London," explained de Botton. "The boat is here to provoke, stimulate and adjust how people feel about London."

Two people can stay here for a single night during the course of this year. Snuggled into their cabin – complete with neat galley, dining a pair of room, bunks that can be slid together, a shower with a view of the dome of St Paul's and a library. Those stowing their jib aboard this happily unexpected houseboat, are offered shelves stacked with books on London, peerless views and the strangest sense of being marooned alone in the heart, not of darkness, but of a neon, fluorescent and sodium-lit city and with the sound of Thames water lapping the South Bank shore overlain with the noise of night buses and emergency service sirens.

A Room for London is a year-long arts venue. A programme of visiting writers includes Swedish author and cultural historian Sven Lindqvist and novelist Jeanette Winterson. Among the musicians staying on board will be Andrew Bird, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist, German composer Heiner Goebbels and Laurie Anderson. Video and installation artist, Jeremy Deller, and Talking Heads' David Byrne will also be part of the crew. Somewhere between July and December you might want to book yourself on board, too, before, Le Roi des Belges is lifted off the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and packed off to her next port of cultural call.

Le Roi des Belges is the sixth of the adventurous new rental houses commissioned by Living Architecture. These include the Balancing Barn on the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and Walberswick by Dutch architects, MVRDV, the Shingle House on the extreme south-easterly point of England at Dungeness, by the Glaswegian team NORD Architecture, and the Dune House on the fringe of Thorpeness,Suffolk, by Norway's Jarmund/Vigsnaes architects. All are moored by the sea, yet none is as literal in form as the shipshape Roi des Belges. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2011

July 03 2010

Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life

National Portrait Gallery; Tate Britain, both London

It is hard to believe there could be any modern masters left who have not yet been thoroughly rediscovered, but so it seems with the wonderful French photographer Camille Silvy. The more one looks at his images – so human, so immediate and inventive – the more remarkable this seems. Silvy left thousands of photographs of London and Paris in the mid-19th century. Collectively, his portraits flash up a glimpse of an era like few others. Yet since his death 100 years ago, very little has been seen of his work. A new show at the National Portrait Gallery, which opens on 15 July, will be the first in a century.

What did Silvy photograph? A viscount on horseback in Rotten Row; and his blacksmith, no less proud, in the next shot. A couple of Mayfair swells; and the Indian crossing-sweeper who cleared the mud from those quality streets. A chorus line of girls in military uniforms, a soldier displaying his war wounds, an actress famous for her joyous laugh. Three MPs poring over a bill on the steps of the Commons.

What is striking, every time, is the naturalness with which his subjects represent themselves. The photographs are by no means impromptu or informal – the sittings cost a fortune, the portraits were made for posterity – but they breathe with a rare and easy vitality.

The eccentric with his Heath Robinson contraption looks neither boastful nor mad, just properly interested; the children appear plausibly grumpy or blithe. Prince Albert may have the world at his feet, in the shape of a globe, but he has presence far beyond this cliché: more pensive and doubtful than one might have guessed.

Perhaps this has something to do with Silvy's own character. Born in 1834, he was a diplomat for France before giving it all up suddenly for the camera; and then, equally abruptly, retiring. The burst of creativity lasted barely a decade – 1857-67 – during which time he made haunting French landscapes, relocated to London, set up a staggeringly successful studio in Bayswater where he photographed up to 30 sitters a day. At 35, he returned to France and fought in the Franco-Prussian war, later being diagnosed with manic depression. His last 30 years were wasted in asylums.

Diplomacy, or at least acute tact, is there in the pictures. The great French photographer Nadar described Silvy as a "formally clad, white-tied charmer who – as each client entered the studio – would negligently cast a pair of white gloves into an already overflowing basket, and don another, irreproachably new pair… " The gloves were necessary: his sitters are deftly arranged against an immense range of backdrops, each of them subtly altered according to light and character so that no two scenes are ever the same. The charm was Silvy's gift.

Looking at these vivid poses – the tantalising back view, the comedian slipping away through a door, the Englishman suddenly revealing his Australian side in a marvellous one-two sequence – you never feel that the sitters are paralysed by what was generally regarded as a solemn and binding occasion: the giving of one's own face to the future or, as Balzac feared, the loss of a ghost-like layer of oneself. Instead, they seem to have been granted freedom.

Looking at Silvy's daybooks – effectively the day's rushes – in the National Portrait Gallery, scented dust emitting from between their pages, one senses the sheer pressure of numbers, sitters pouring through the studio with their fashionable clothes and period looks. Greek merchants, French bankers, Russian princesses, the cosmopolitan coterie of Paddington station. Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands; Sarah Davies, Victoria's black goddaughter.

Silvy took the carte de visite, in which one put a face to one's name, and turned it into a mass-production industry. People bought his portraits in their thousands, gluing them into albums alongside friends and acquaintances, swanking about who they knew. It is no anachronism to suggest that he pioneered a prototype of Facebook; he even photographed people absorbed in the pages of these addictive books.

Look at his still life of a dead hare, and you will see a bottle of salad dressing and a copy of the day's Times: Chardin and Manet updated. Look at his wedding photographs and you will see that they were actually taken on location.

Silvy's self-portraits show his immense studio with its variable configurations of top-lighting, pelmets, windows and drapes, reflectors made of white paper and calico. So little has changed; or to put it another way, Silvy is always so far in advance. He exploits the double exposure, develops the collage and the dramatic reconstruction, exposes multiple images on the same negative.

It is not that nobody else was doing this, but rather that he does it with such sensitivity and sometimes even tenderness. I especially love a photograph of twins in one of the daybooks that shows them on either side of two converging walls, separate and yet hinged, cornered but strongly united.

Mark Haworth-Booth, incomparable writer on photography and curator of this show, has borrowed Baudelaire's famous phrase for its subtitle. This is inspired: Silvy is in many ways the equivalent of those painters of modern life, like Manet, admired by Baudelaire. And this is most apparent in the street scenes, with their curious juxtapositions and perspectives.

Scholars have been able to show that four separate images were used in the making of Silvy's spectral masterpiece, Studies on Light: Twilight (1859). Rain gleams at the feet of the two figures beneath the lamp-post, the street angles away into an eery dusk and in the distance a blurred stranger (male or female?) recedes – or arrives. It is exactly what Baudelaire hymned: "the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life".

Nothing says now like a Harrier jump jet, or so Fiona Banner might be suggesting at Tate Britain. Suspended from the roof, this decommissioned plane hangs above the ground like a plumb line, massive nose almost striking the floor, wings spread – a predator to the nearby prey of a Sepecat Jaguar lying beached and inverted on the floor.

Both planes are undeniably magnificent, powerful, menacing; and stalled. Banner has customised them quite pointlessly. The Jaguar is dazzlingly silver-plated (speed of light) and the Harrier has tautologically painted feathers as if it was not already named, and shaped, after a bird.

Like Hirst's shark, they are extracted from the real world for gallery contemplation. Like the shark, they are presented as sculptural forms permeated with lethal associations: fear condensed as a symbol. Except that in emphasising the sleek beauty of the one and the avian characteristics of the other, Banner has effectively neutralised their potency as signs, while at the same time underplaying their historic purpose. Dangling in a barren no-man's-land between poetry and politics they are reduced to – admittedly spectacular – curiosities. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 28 2010

Toys for boys

The artist has upped the ante with her Harrier and Jaguar: fascinating, phallic fighter planes that look like they have skidded in on a shower of sparks

There they are: two hi-tech war toys, phallic and fascinating. The Harrier jump jet hangs just inside the entrance of the long gallery, framed and cropped by an arch as one approaches. When Tate Britain opened this morning I saw two early visitors walking straight past on their way to the Whistlers and the Turners – before they turned to find the jump jet in a permanent nosedive, arrested inches above the floor, wings outstretched, rear lost somewhere up by the skylights.

Even hung by the tail, the Harrier is a symbol of power. But, like the assassinated Mussolini strung up by his feet, it also shows that power is mutable. I couldn't resist lying underneath, nose-to-nose, sensing the weight and mass and power of it above me, like a stilled pendulum. From this position all I could see was the circular nose cone, filling my vision like a football about to belt a goalie in the face. I am less certain that Fiona Banner needed to draw feathers on the bodywork and wings of the jet, even though she's done it discreetly; the Harrier is in any case named after a bird of prey. Maybe she wanted us to think of vermin strung up on a gamekeeper's gibbet, or a game bird hung in Tate Britain's neo-classical larder. Banner probably also wants to remind us of earlier drawings she has made, using fighter-plane wings as her canvas or paper. Previously she has written moment-by-moment descriptions of war movies – including Apocalypse Now and Black Hawk Down – and of the experience of drawing from a live model. Now she gives us the real thing.

It is a complicated experience. The planes are inescapably sexy, dangerous, compelling. At the far end of the Duveens, the Jaguar rests on its tail and its cockpit, as though it has skidded in on a shower of sparks in a special-effects disaster movie – except the wings would have been torn off by the intervening pillars as it screeched through the gallery. The Jaguar has been stripped of its paintwork and polished to a reflective aluminium shine. Somewhere between evil hypodermic and swordfish, it injects itself into the space, and might almost disappear among its reflections. I'll be honest: I found the confrontation a turn-on. They're boys' toys, and that is Banner's point. The Jaguar originally had a cartoon painted on its nose by one of its crew: a rendition of Viz comic's Buster Gonad, with his Unfeasibly Large Testicles, which he has to cart around in a wheelbarrow. "Look," Banner said to me this morning, pointing up at the twin black exhaust vents either side of the Jaguar's tail, "there's his gonads."

Banner's Harrier and Jaguar has upped the ante both of her own art, and of the Duveens commissions. This is more than a familiar transposition of two readymade objects from the hangar or the war zone into Tate Britain's neoclassical galleries. It is a timely and well-placed work, which enters into a dialogue not just with the decorum of its architecture, but also with space. One can make both sculptural and symbolic association with the earlier commissions: Mark Wallinger's earlier State Britain and Martin Creed's runners. Banner, too, invokes war and power, speed and image. Her fighter planes have become images of power as well as impotence – and, therefore, of art itself. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Flights of fancy

The annual Duveens commission features a Harrier jump jet and an RAF Jaguar XZ118 as art exhibits

A Sea Harrier jet used by the navy over Bosnia and an RAF Jaguar that saw active service during Desert Storm were today unveiled as the incongruous new art exhibits at Tate Britain's grand neo-classical Duveen sculpture galleries.

The planes were installed by the artist Fiona Banner as part of the annual Duveens commission. One plane, the Harrier, hangs from the ceiling like a trussed bird while the other is displayed belly up on the floor like a wounded animal.

The exhibits are Banner's largest work yet and part of her continuing fascination with war and jets. "I've slowly arrived at these sculptures," she said today , admitting that she was "seduced" by fighter planes. "Years and years ago I remember going for a walk with my dad in the Welsh hills. I must have been seven or eight and it was so quiet and beautiful and suddenly, out of nowhere came this Harrier jump jet which completely ripped up the sky. It was a completely transformative moment but we were left, literally with words knocked out of us, wondering how something that was such a monster could be so beautiful."

Banner said she was not trying to make some easily digestible point, nor was it an anti-war work. "This work is more about how people react to it, rather than a big black and white statement.

"We all hate war but these objects inspire a strange enthusiasm in us. When you reflect on their beauty it's a strange thing, people say surely they are designed with an aesthetic in mind and, of course, they're not. They are absolutely designed to function and that function is to kill, and that says something questionable about our aesthetic judgement and makes us ask questions about our moral position."

Just getting the planes in to Tate Britain was a challenge and a specialist rigging company was used to advise on how best to break up the jets and then put them back together inside the galleries.

Nor was buying the planes easy. Banner declined to say how much they cost and said she had made contacts in the world of military plane buying about 10 years ago when she was after tail fins. "There are broker dealers in the UK, Europe and the US who buy directly from the MoD."

Merseyside-born Banner has frequently referenced war planes in her work and in 1994 transcribed the film Top Gun into a frame-by-frame written account. She also collects newspaper cuttings relating to jets and created an Airfix model archive of all the war planes in service throughout the world.

She has found as much as she can about the two jets she uses at Tate Britain. The Sepecat Jaguar XZ118, which has been stripped of paint and polished so viewers see their reflection – "you can't detach yourself from it" – has the more interesting history. It was used in the first Gulf war, part of Desert Storm, during which time the plane's nose had a large picture of the Viz cartoon character Buster Gonad – known for his "unfeasibly large testicles". It also supported peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.

The Harrier has been embellished with hand-painted feather markings to heighten the sense of it being a trussed bird. It too was deployed in Bosnia and was ignominiously written off in 2000 when it was crash landed after a tyre burst.

Tate Britain's director, Penelope Curtis, said it had been "a very intensive project" that involved many people. "The power of Banner's project lies in its simple but unlikely juxtaposition: two fighter jets in a suite of neo-classical galleries."

The Sotheby's-sponsored Duveens commission was launched in 2000 and became an annual event from 2008. It began with Mona Hatoum creating large versions of everyday objects such as a julienne vegetable slicer, and has included Martin Creed getting people to run very fast through the galleries, Mark Wallinger recreating anti-war activist Brian Haw's Parliament Square protest, and Michael Landy replicating his parent's house.

• Harrier and Jaguar by Fiona Banner, at Tate Britain until 3 January 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 21 2010

Fight and flight

She has filmed a helicopter ballet, melted a jet – and caused a storm by transcribing a porn epic. Will Fiona Banner's latest work go further?

Rising up through the middle of Fiona Banner's two-storey studio is the upturned wing of a Tornado fighter plane. From the first floor, you can see its tip, slicing ominously through the floorboards like an oversized shark fin. If you lean in close, you can make out hundreds of words etched like hieroglyphics into the wing's smooth metal: "arse", "shadow", "light behind stark against dark skin".

This is Tornado Nude, a work Banner made four years ago: a female life model stood naked in front of her while she painted a description on to the wing of a decommissioned jet. "The Tornado," Banner tells me as she shows me around this high-ceilinged east London space, in which her many works are propped against walls and arranged neatly on tables (a plant sits on a sun-terrace in an old aircraft propeller), "is a really, really important and very vicious airplane. And then I engraved this very delicate and traditional life drawing on to it, in words, and now that's become part of it. It's become this totem, this sculpture – possibly an object you might even worship."

Object of veneration or not, Tornado Nude embodies the preoccupations for which Banner is best known: sex, nudity and war. She has, variously, created a catalogue of every fighter plane currently in use by the British military; published a 1,000-page book containing frame-by-frame descriptions of Vietnam war movies (she calls these "wordscapes" or "still films"); and written a "striptease in words" of the actor Samantha Morton's naked body. In 2002, Banner was nominated for the Turner prize. Her exhibition for the nominees' show included Arsewoman in Wonderland, a no-holds-barred description in words of a porn film of the same name, screenprinted in pink ink on a white billboard and duly displayed at Tate Britain. There was a predictable flurry of outrage; the then culture minister Kim Howells, commenting on the exhibition as a whole, scrawled "conceptual bullshit" across a Tate comment card and pinned it to the visitors' wall.

Undeterred, Banner is returning to Tate Britain next week, where she will unveil a new work commissioned for the museum's two central neoclassical Duveen galleries. Previous artists who have stepped up to this challenge include Martin Creed, who in 2008 sent a series of runners sprinting through the crowds at 30-second intervals; and Anya Gallaccio, who in 2002 filled one gallery with oak trees, and the other with a carpet of sugar. Banner is not allowed to tell me what she'll be doing – all will be revealed next Monday – and can only point to her official statement, that she is looking forward to "working with the phallic pillars of this extraordinary grandiose space". But she can tell me what she won't be doing, which is "exhibit[ing] an entire Westland Lynx helicopter that saw service in the Falkands war", as her Wikipedia entry erroneously had it (it has since been corrected). "That's so weird!" she says in a stage whisper, blue eyes widening. "That's not my plan – though I did recently try to buy a Westland Lynx helicopter. But I bought a Tornado instead."

In person, Banner is not at all what you might expect of a sometime porn consumer, war-film aficionado and collector of military aircraft: dressed all in blue – blue shirt, blue jeans, blue jacket – she is wiry and casually elegant, with a direct, easy charm. Her work, too, is quieter, more delicate, intimate and many-layered, than its headline-grabbing subject matter might suggest.

On the ground floor of her studio, Banner shows me All the World's Fighter Planes, a work that was 10 years in the making, and which she completed last year. It's a glass case filled with pictures of aircraft cut haphazardly from newspapers, each one meticulously labelled like an animal specimen: Hawk, Harrier, Bear, Chinook. "I started making this years ago," she says. "I'd been cutting out pictures of fighter planes from newspapers for a while, and realised I'd started a collection. I became strangely excited by the idea that they all had these names from nature. On one level I find these planes incredibly beautiful, but on another level I'm horrified by them."

The ungainly Chinook (in nature, either a kind of wind or a Native American people) is a particular favourite. Banner has spent the last few months at airshows at RAF Odiham in Hampshire, filming pilots perform an unlikely "Chinook ballet" for a new work. "The Chinook is really bizarre," she says. "It's so inelegant, it looks like it shouldn't be able to fly. In the ballet, they've given the Chinooks certain movements – a turn, a sidestep, a double-twist. It's the most extraordinary thing."

From Rilke to Top Gun

Banner's fascination with aircraft may, she says, springs from the long walks she took as a child in the Welsh countryside with her father (she was born in Merseyside in 1966, later moving to London to study at Kingston University and Goldsmiths). "It was completely sublime and pastoral and beautiful," she says. "And then something like a Tornado would come out of nowhere, and the sound would be absolutely phenomenal. We'd be completely astounded, but somehow the beauty of the moment would surpass even the loveliness of where we were and what we were doing."

For one new work, called Tornado, Banner is taking this interest in aircraft even further: she is smelting down her newly acquired Tornado plane into aluminium ingots, and turning those into a huge bell that she plans to display later this summer, in Newcastle. She shows me her carefully shaded drawings for the bell, pinned to a wall. "From the outside," she says, "a bell is a clear object of communication. But in this case, coming from an aeroplane, it has quite a complex DNA."

Banner says that her work progresses more by accident than by design, although she clearly works hard, spending long days alone in her studio with her dog, Olive (a mongrel or "Hackney orgy dog" who recently took a tumble through the hole in the floorboards around Tornado Nude). She never made a conscious decision to be an artist; as a teenager, she read Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson and Rilke, and dreamed of being a poet or a novelist. At art college, her fascination with words resurfaced, and she found herself writing the first of her wordscape descriptions, of the film Top Gun. "I struggled away with making pictures for years and years," Banner says, "and I found it incredibly complicated. The writing just started to come to the fore as a way through it." She remains obsessed with books – she had her own ISBN code tattooed on to her lower back last year, and runs a publishing imprint, Vanity Press – but her interest is more formal than literary. "I'm as interested in the object of a book as much as the content," she says.

Banner's preoccupation with traditionally masculine subject matter – war films, flying machines, the female nude – raises an obvious question: does she consider herself a feminist? "No," she replies, quickly and emphatically. "No. It's not that I'm radically unfeminist or anything" – she gives an awkward laugh – "it's because I think feminism belonged to a particular point and time. And I can't afford to be part of any 'ism' as an artist. That sounds lofty and possibly a bit pompous, but I just don't impose my political agenda on my work. I'm incredibly lucky to be at this point in history, where female artists are given space and visibility."

What about when that visibility leads to controversy, as happened with Arsewoman in Wonderland? Banner rolls her eyes. "That was one piece! And they're still calling me 'the porn artist'! I just think that sort of kneejerk, oo-er missus reaction is not helpful, really. Because art is layered and complex and requires reflection. And because I never set out to be controversial. On the whole, I actually make very quiet work."

She says she is not afraid of failure; in fact it is something she expects, even embraces. "I find art incredibly difficult," she says. "Most of the things that happen in here, in this studio, they're an investigation. An experiment. I'm with [Samuel] Beckett: 'Fail again. Fail better.'" And when success, in the form of a high-profile commission such as the Duveens, comes her way – what does that mean? She hesitates. "I want to say that it doesn't mean anything. It depends on whether what you do with it will still mean something to you in years to come. And whether it will still mean something to the people that come and see it." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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