There is a most unusual installation at Tate Britain. In the enormous Duveen Galleries, the two central spaces you walk into on first arriving, artist Fiona Banner has installed two warplanes. Her piece is called Harrier and Jaguar 2010, and is composed of two decommissioned planes, a BAE Sea Harrier ZE695 and a SEPECAT Jaguar XZ118. These are not what you expect to find in an art gallery, even one as adventurous as the Tate, and the first reaction is surprise and shock.
The Jaguar has been stripped of all its markings and its paint, and lies upside down on the floor. It is beautifully polished, sleek, silver, looks touchable and unthreatening. It reminds me of some desirable design object, a domestic item from Allessi, or possibly a trophy, certainly not a weapon of defence and warfare. It is also smaller than I had imagined. I peered into the cockpit, surprised at how small it is. I don’t want to appreciate it, but it is strangely beautiful.
The Harrier hangs from the roof, pointing downwards, its nose almost touching the floor. By contrast, it is dull, grey, and looks exactly what it is : a fearsome machine of war. There is nothing glamorous about this. The feathers drawn discretely on its bodywork do nothing to soften this crude and threatening machine. The party of schoolchildren are dwarfed by it, although they don’t seemed overawed.
Why my different reactions to the two ? It must be the polished silver versus the industrial grey, and perhaps the closeness and touch-ability of the Jaguar set against the Harrier, which towers above me, threateningly. Both are very much at odds with the grand but gentle and familiar Victorian spaces of the Duveen Gallery.
Ironically, the last Harriers (‘jump jet’) took off from the deck of the Ark Royal this month: they are all being decommissioned, 80 of them, as is the carrier, as part of the government’s Strategic Defence Review.
Fiona Banner, is a British artist in her 40’s, who has long been fascinated by the emblem of the fighter plane.
"I remember long sublime walks in the Welsh mountains with my father, when suddenly a fighter plane would rip through the sky, and shatter everything. It was so exciting, loud and overwhelming; it would literally take our breath away. The sound would arrive from nowhere, all you would see was a shadow and then the plane was gone. At the time harrier jump jets were at the cutting edge of technology but to me they were like dinosaurs, prehistoric, from a time before words." – Fiona Banner
See and hear her speak about this work on a Tate video
Once again I am impresed by the skills of the Tate staff in mounting such a complex piece. How did Tate Britain hang a Harrier jet? Leo Benedictus has the answer here.