The Machine As Beast

05Jul10

I sprang up the steps of Tate Britain to see the metallic creature ahead, hanging there with wide arms splayed like a Kong captive.

Before me was a Sea Harrier ground attack fighter once known from the late 80s as Zulu Echo Six-Niner-Five but now the adopted property of artist Fiona Banner. So beautiful, so breathtaking was it suspended from the south Duveens Gallery ceiling that I stood beneath two Ionic columns feeling the same shiver as lovers do when they secretly squeeze each others’ hands near a sensual nude. Its submissive, cruciform outreach seemed to transfix other visitors also standing beneath its wings, tattooed with pretty Icarus plumage. If this were 1500s Florence, we might be witnessing a renaissance ‘copter. Further on the Sepecat Jaguar was rolled onto its spine as if submitting to taunts and jabs by circus children.

“.. The quality of the box matters little”, once reasoned Manfred von Richtofen. “Success depends upon the man who sits in it.”

We wondered where the aeronaut was from this now empty shell? Had the humanoid shed his coat of aluminium with pockets of rockets? Or had he too been taken prisoner, a chase through hostile forests during an escape and evasion attempt miles behind enemy lines? No aviator nor turbofan remained in situ under its outer-layers and we PlaneArt spotters could only inspect its riveted carcass as the Red Baron might have put his finger through the bullet-pocked holes after landing and saluting his downed foe.

“Keep thy airspeed up, less the earth come from below and smite thee,” mused the flight instructor William Kershner.

Pete Wilson, the machine’s last pilot suffered this fate after losing control on the Top Gear runway in 2000, earning himself a Martin-Baker tie pin by smartly leaving its cockpit in one of their ejection seats. He might already have read ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ by de Saint Exupéry and in the seconds that he returned to earth, quietly recited the words: “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

Landing a 48,000lb jet at 150mph on a pitching aircraft carrier and stopping within 300ft has a particular scrotum-tightening quality to it. Navy aviators will tell you it’s like losing your virginity and crashing your car in the same two seconds.

“Chi Vola Vale,
Chi Non Vola non Vale,
Chi Vale e Non Vola è un Vile”

Which translated from an Italian Airforce Ministry wall, means ‘He who flies is worthy, He who doesn’t fly is unworthy, he who is worthy and doesn’t fly is a coward.’

The war artist Paul Nash saw an immediate relationship between the aesthetics of the plane and its technology. His pictures of Wellington bombers having personalities akin to the mammalian exhibits he saw in the Natural History Museum: “.. Their structural idiosyncrasies,” he noted. More recently, the American photographer Jeffrey Milstein in his book ‘AirCraft: The Jet as Art‘ has allowed us to salivate art and aviation and his blurb reads “Their silver contrails a feathery reminder of the age in which we live.

So like Nash, Milstein and now Banner, I have long been fascinated with sublime flying machines though the latter’s obsession with those designed specifically for airborne warfare especially strikes a chord after my project with the RAF. ‘Harrier and Jaguar’, “the bond between weapon and ornament” fits this space so much better than say, Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall: a more appropriate hangar perhaps on the basis of powered-technology yet here, a hundred yards from MI5’s own ministry, the wingtips seem restrained by narrow galleries whose coded walls whisper ancient ideologies of defence and empire.

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