Conceptual art: the kind of art you don’t actually have to see. That has been the standard quip for pretty much the last half-century. If the art is about ideas, and the ideas have priority over the visual means, then why don’t we just read about the ideas instead? It would save us all the trudging around the galleries.
Leaving aside the usual arguments about the term itself — does it cover Rene Magritte, and what about Marcel Duchamp? — and sidestepping the many thousands of experiences that would be lost to the imagination if one never saw the works in reality, there may be some truth to this point on occasion.
And one test case might be the work of Fiona Banner, shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2002, popular with critics, curators, scholars (and quite possibly others, who knows?), and currently filling the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain with two fighter planes, a Harrier and a Jaguar, the latter at bay, the former suspended nose-down like a bird.
Two kinds of predator and sure enough the Harrier has actually been painted with wings, as if it was not already named, and shaped, like a bird. Beyond this tautology, Banner has nothing to say about the lethal functions or political history of these machines. Her idea is simply to extract them from the real world and position them like sculptures in the museum.
Now if this enough for you — and I don’t deny that they are spectacular close up, as anyone might guess — then the trip would be worthwhile and you may also be interested in her new show at London’s Frith Street Gallery too. There, you will see more works, most in written form, though some conceived sculptures, purporting to carry ideas as well.
A vast gray bell dangles from the ceiling, its rope in ready reach. Tolled, it sends out a long toneless knell. “The resulting sound is a direct reflection of its form,” states the press release, quoting the artist. Is there any bell of which this could not be said?
And is a bell really “the simplest form of communication”? Wouldn’t that be a human gesture, such as a wave or a smile? And what is the point of the scale? The sheer size, the color, the mournful sound: All are hinting at the funeral rite and the death knell. At which point, the viewer may discover that the bell is forged from the fuselage of a Tornado jet fighter. (Or not; I only found the information in the press release.) Either way, the secret ingredient now feels both additional and superfluous.
For without this knowledge, the bell is only a bell — though what a bell. With this knowledge, it becomes a concept. Meaning, value: they fall between the two and it is no surprise that the conversation when I was there was very similar to that at Tate Britain, mainly where did Banner get hold of her war planes?
She has also purchased all 97 volumes of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. These are stacked in a towering column — but to what effect? Had she arranged them in the form of a cenotaph it might have been trite; flat on the floor they might have resembled gravestones, it’s true. But this tower simply looks like what it is: an enormous pile of books.
Jane’s is to the military as Grove’s is to music: a standard reference work. It does not “embody” the development of the military industry any more than the tower, which effectively renders the record unreadable. Banner is also displaying facsimiles of sci-fi novels written by the first editor, Fred Jane; these only show what a lurid writer he was and how obsessive. They are as inconsequential — politically, historically — as the thrillers of Douglas Hurd.