Break Point is a large painting comprising sixty-six rows of red text written horizontally on a white background, which collectively describe a car chase. As it progresses from the top to the bottom of the canvas, the text begins to appear slightly smaller, the individual letters are written more closely together and the spaces between the lines gradually become more condensed. The rows’ length, covering the full width of the canvas, makes the description awkward to follow, as viewers must move their eyes and heads considerably to take in the words, and it is also difficult to identify where to restart the text when the eye moves to the beginning of each new line. In addition, the narrative is incomplete, as letters are often partly cut off or entirely omitted at the beginnings and ends of the lines. The text consists of descriptions of rapidly unfolding events and short quotations, providing very little contextual information – no characters are named, and it is rarely clear who is acting or speaking. It begins with two characters in a car who see four people running out of a shop and entering another car, which they then chase for some time, before the car in front eventually crashes and flips over. The driver of the flipped car climbs out and there is then a standoff at a petrol station that involves a man being set on fire, followed by another chase on foot. The end of the narrative is illegible because the letters are so densely packed and some of the letters in the final row have their lower portions cut off.
Break Point was made by the British artist Fiona Banner in 1998, while she was living and working in London. It was produced on two differently sized pieces of heavy-weight, plain-weave cotton canvas that Banner sewed together. She placed the sewn canvas over a stretcher and primed it with a white acrylic emulsion gesso, applying the primer in several layers and working over it until it had an extremely smooth finish. The artist then wrote the letters onto the surface in a red marker pen using vinyl stencils. Small pencil marks are visible on the bottom of each row of letters at regular intervals of approximately 500 mm, and it is likely that Banner drew these in as a guide.
The text is a description of a scene from the film Point Break (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1991), and in preparation for making this painting Banner watched this section of the film and wrote an account of it, which she then used as the text for the painting. Point Break tells the story of Bodhi, a surfer and bank robber, and an FBI agent named Johnny Utah, who goes undercover to catch Bodhi and his gang. Banner’s text describes a part of the film in which Utah and his partner witness the gang leaving a robbery and then chase them.
The title of this work involves a pun on the name of the film: whereas ‘point break’ is a surfing term that denotes the breaking of a wave by a coastal promontory, the title of Banner’s painting is closer to the phrase ‘breaking point’, which refers to a moment when physical tension leads to an object snapping or emotional stress causes a psychological breakdown. This resonates with the tense nature of the scene described, but also reflects the way that Banner’s text becomes increasingly difficult to read as it moves down the canvas, such that meaning is seen ‘breaking down’. Break Point is one of a group of works that Banner began to produce in 1994 consisting of prints and paintings featuring written descriptions of film scenes (see, for instance, Don’t Look Back 1999, Tate P78533). In a 2009 interview the artist observed that in these works ‘the narrative is kind of scrambled’, stating that this reflects her interest in the limits of linguistic communication:
We’re bound to work with [language] but sometimes it’s not enough, or it’s in the way, and obviously sometimes (in life and in art) it doesn’t work right as a tool for communication.
(Banner in Fiona Banner, Nude Portrait, London 2009, p.15.)
Break Point conveys the frantic pace of the chase scene in Point Break by presenting the narrative in a way that is difficult for viewers to follow. In 1999 Banner explained this in relation to the nature of action films, a genre she has also drawn on for her other text-based works from this group (see Top Gun 1994, Tate T13203), stating that ‘Action adventure movies ... [are] always stretching the possibilities of the screen, the speed of them … containing what the eye can’t hold, always too fast to see everything’ (quoted in Louisa Buck, ‘Fiona Banner’, Art Newspaper, no.98, December 1999, p.67). In works such as Break Point this results in a contrasting slowness of comprehension, as viewers are forced to read the narrative in a deliberate and painstaking manner. Banner acknowledged this in 1999, observing that ‘when it’s translated into words … [the scene] becomes this kind of shaggy-dog story ... the opposite of keen imperative momentum’ (quoted in Stedelijk Van Abbesmuseum Eindhoven 1999, p.41).
Fiona Banner, ‘Break Point’, Tate: The Art Magazine, no.14, Spring 1998, pp.59–64.
Cinéma: Contemporary Art and the Cinematic Experience, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Van Abbesmuseum Eindhoven, Eindhoven 1999, p.41, reproduced p.43.
Banner, exhibition catalogue, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee 2002, reproduced p.106.
Supported by Christie’s.