Saturday, 18 September 2010


TATE BRITAIN  Millbank, London  

The best time to go is at the weekend. Turning your back on the Thames, walk up the Tate's wide stone staircase, dodge young people sitting there holding hands and eating sandwiches with the other hand. Straight through the revolving doors into the magnificent Duveen Hall. And there it is. 
Hanging by its tail from the ceiling and nearly touching the floor, is a huge decommissioned fighter jet, its contents emptied out. It’s a Sea Harrier, 14 metres long with a wing span of 7.6 metres, the kind of plane which saw action in Bosnia and the Gulf. Now it’s a captive beast with feathery markings tattooing its grey surface. It reminds me of dead birds which used to hang in rows outside butchers’ shops at Christmas and which still nestle inside the illustrated pages of Dickens’ Christmas tales. It has plenty of admirers. We stand around and marvel. Lying flat on her back underneath the empty nose cone is a little girl about two years old. Is she safe? I want to run and gather her up but I stand still and admire her bravery. 
In front of us is a killing machine – but we cannot deny that its beauty and elegance are awesome. It’s a weapon which was at the cutting edge of technology and is no longer fit-for-purpose. Once its sound seemed to crack your ears, but now it's dumb. A captured beast, a cast aside trophy, scrap metal still confronting us with what war might mean.

 "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." Fiona Banner
Down at the other end of this neo classical gallery I see the outline of a Jaguar jet, lying belly up on the floor, like a submissive animal. Stripped and polished into an immaculate metallic shine, its surface is transformed into shifting distorting mirrors, the kind you see at a fun fair. Some of us play with grotesque images of ourselves but no one who walks past can detach themselves from this monster. Small screws run up and down the fuselage like a row of ants. Some make a patchwork pattern of small squares. As I walk round this huge pregnant belly with its outstretched wings I almost trip over the tapered metal rod protruding at the tail, which starts out slim and inconspicuous, then swells into a pointed end, softly curved as if designed to enter something or somebody. 

Why go on a Sunday? Because you will find a joyful noise everywhere: children skittering around the Art Trolley with its cargo of cardboard rolls and foil and coloured paper and glue. Dads are sitting on the floor, backs to the wall absorbed in crafting rockets and airplanes. One of the attendants points out to my 2 young grandsons Sam and Josh that when they get home they can hurl their rockets down from the top of the stairs to see who wins. They smile. 

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