An Imaginary Museum: Ballard at the Gagosia
“Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard.” Exhibit at Gagosian Gallery, Britannia St., London. Curated by Mark Francis and Kay Pallister. 11 February - 1 April 2010.
On entering the Gagosian Gallery, my first feeling was one of disorientation. The exhibits range across four rooms and the lobby without thematic organization or conventional labeling, and navigating the space became only slightly easier with a copy of the exhibition plan. My immediate sense of dislocation was amplified by the gallery attendant’s suggestion that I should pay attention to Roger Hiorns’s Untitled (2007), consisting of 235 clear contact lenses scattered on the floor in front of Paul Delvaux’s Le canapé bleu (1967): from trying to take in too much, I was directed to something I might otherwise have missed.
The gallery attendant, like J.G. Ballard’s oeuvre itself, encouraged me to see, not just look at, the scenes around me. Yet it was difficult to apply this level of close attentiveness to the material in the Gagosian exhibition, which included the canvases of Pop Art and Surrealism, sculpture, screenprint, video projection, installation, and even a mechanical pig. Seemingly taking its formal cue from The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Ballard’s collection of “condensed novels,” rather than from Crash (1973), the gallery left visitors free to engage with the exhibits in any manner they saw fit. As Ballard wrote in a 2001 author’s note to The Atrocity Exhibition, “simply turn the pages until a paragraph catches your eye” (vi). Visitors to the Gagosian could do just this, forging their own narrative from the materials on display. In his autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), Ballard recalled his many hours spent haunting London’s gallery spaces, particularly the National Gallery, where he was able to recalibrate the Renaissance portraits into his own imaginary museum of surrealist masterpieces due to “the absence of explanatory matter” in the form of wall captions (155). What follows is an engagement with the exhibition on my own terms, then, and not any kind of comprehensive overview. I will be dipping into the exhibition catalogue along the way, not just because it cost a staggering £65 and I want my money’s worth but because, as I was told by a gallery assistant, it can be seen as a continuation of the exhibition itself.
Will Self’s astute essay in the exhibition catalogue introduces many of Ballard’s themes, from the “dialectic of social control and breakdown” (25) to Ballard’s “intuitive grasp of the choreography of mediatized reality” (28). Moreover, in time for this year’s World Cup, Self picks up on the “elective collective psychopathology” (25) that Ballard explores in later texts such as his final novel, Kingdom Come (2006). Ballard saw football in particular as “a catalyst for rejecting the norm” (25). As he said to Self, “The outward appearance is so calm, but even here in suburbia there are strange currents … we saw it during the World Cup” (25), a four-year cycle visible and audible as I submit this review, since I live some seven miles from Shepperton and a stone’s throw from the bears in the Bentall Centre, the real-life inspiration for Kingdom Come. As Self’s introduction suggests, “the Ballardian had become common-place” (29).
Self notes that “Ballard’s narratives cruised the concretized periphery” (29). In the exhibition, this outlook was given its visual analogue in the underpass of George Shaw’s Lowlife (2009), Florian Maier-Aichen’s Untitled (Freeway Crash) (2002), and Dan Holdworth’s excellent Untitled (Autopia) (1998). Like Vaughan’s photographs in Crash, Holdworth’s nocturnal diptych encourages a view of the motorway from multiple perspectives; this is a landscape worthy of a second glance. Although the work is predominantly unpeopled, what appears to be a patrol car is visible in the distance of the dual perspective, awaiting deviance. Viewers of the work, seeing from the position of the photographer, are encouraged to enter into a dialogue with the distant vehicle and the strip of tarmac and concrete in between; the scene is saturated with possibility. The placing of this diptych in the exhibition along with Maier-Aichen’s “autopian” work encourages us to make connections between the urban environments in Ballard’s work and the American freeway—not least because Holdworth’s title resonates with one of Reyner Banham’s four “ecologies,” “Autopia,” in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971).
Preceding the publication of Crash (1973), the first text of Ballard’s so-called urban trilogy (the other two being Concrete Island  and High-Rise ), Banham’s book on Los Angeles is absolutely in tune with Ballard’s exploration of the modern urban landscape. Like Banham, Ballard and Holdsworth offer a revisionist form of architectural history that engages with the city as it actually is. Banham embraced the peripheral, from the geological history of the city and the ecology of “Surfurbia” to the design of hotrods and drive-throughs and, of course, the freeway system. Anthony Vidler encapsulates Banham’s jocular but erudite tone in his introduction to the reprinted text (2000), where he points out that Banham’s book, arguably like Ballard’s work and the urban landscapes and Pop Art presented in the Gagosian, calls “for a post-technological, post-academic, even post-architectural, discourse” that “refu[ses] to lower its gaze in the face of sprawl, aesthetic chaos, or consumerist display” (xxxi).
In addition to documenting all corners of the city, both Ballard and Banham address the psychology of engaging with “Autopia” through the rear-view mirror. As Banham suggests, lane discipline in freeway driving is symptomatic of a “willing acquiescence in an incredibly demanding man/machine system” (199), requiring a level of intellectual engagement and the acquisition of “special skills” (196) in order to partake in uninhibited circulation—all of which Banham contrasts with England’s motorway equivalent. Banham considered himself to be “habituated to the psychotic driving … in English cities, and the squalor of the driving conditions” (197), a view Ballard took up in an article of 2006 entitled “Why London Needs to Disappear.” Ballard said he was “all for the private car,” and speaking of the Los Angeles freeway system, he suggested that “what we need is not fewer cars but more roads. And the only place to build roads is up in the air” (“Why London Needs to Disappear” 24). Banham too praised the “private car” as providing “a version of democratic urban transportation” (199). Their remarkably comparable visions might have come to pass in England had the New Brutalists Alison and Peter Smithson (for whom Banham acted as chief historiographer) fulfilled their dream of an automotive road network of streets in the sky. Ballard exposed the “faint traces” of this network in Crash and Concrete Island; for him, the Westway (the elevated dual-carriage section of the A40), like the freeways of Los Angeles, offered not only a quick route to Shepherd’s Bush from central London but a backdrop for exploring the psychopathologies involved in freeway driving (and crashing). Ballard notoriously hated inner London, which he called “heritage London” (“Why London Needs to Disappear” 24); and his refusal to engage with it (unless he could flood it or blow it up) parallels the brevity given in Banham’s book to his “Note on Downtown … because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves” (183). We do not get the city in its entirety in Banham’s, Ballard’s, and Holdworth’s works; the spaces they choose to explore reiterate the importance of the peripheral and interstitial.
Amidst his enthusiasm for Detroit car-styling and DIY-designed hotrods, Banham reports that many Angelenos’ identification with Southern California is forged by “the automobile as a work of art and the freeway as a suitable gallery in which to display it” (203). This redefinition of the freeway as an exhibition space echoes throughout Ballard’s oeuvre, not only in the performance art practiced in Crash but also through his repeated invocation of the motorway itself as a “motion sculpture” (Crash 48). The inclusion of Richard Prince’s Elvis (2007), an actual-size plywood replica of a breaker’s yard car in the Gagosian, I am hoping, taps into the pedigree of Ballard’s long-standing Crash experiment and the reconfiguration of generic boundaries so intrinsic to his work. Ballard’s engagement with the car crash was “staged” across different formats in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the “condensed novels” collated in The Atrocity Exhibition, the 1968 plans for a Crash play to be performed at the ICA in London (organized with Eduardo Paolozzi and the editor of Ambit magazine, Martin Bax), in the novel Crash itself, and in Ballard’s own exhibition of crashed cars, installed at the New Arts Lab in London in 1970.
Ballard and Banham were both on the board of trustees of the New Arts Lab. In The Kindness of Women (1991), Ballard described the exhibition space there as “a one-time pharmaceutical warehouse” whose “open concrete decks were the perfect setting for its brutalist happenings and exhibitions” (223). The Gagosian is housed in an industrial building near Kings Cross but is more white-cube than Brutalist, although a few exhibits tap into Ballard’s Brutalist sensibility. Ballard’s Crash experiment seamlessly transgressed the boundaries of form, just as the ethics and aesthetics of New Brutalism can be traced across architecture, painting, sculpture, ceramics, car design, and installation space, most famously in the This is Tomorrow exhibit that Ballard visited in 1956. At the Gagosian, Richard Prince’s American/English (2009) goes some way toward conveying this postwar sense of generic instability: the UK and US first editions of Crash are re-presented as found objects or components within a sculpture, hinting that Ballard’s fiction itself can be recalibrated as entirely visual. Without awareness of Ballard’s early visual artistic “experiments,” however, the nuance of Prince’s work would be lost.
It is a shame that the Gagosian exhibition did not explore Ballard’s own multimedia artistic practice in more depth. Only one of Ballard’s own collages, Project for New Novel (1958), originally designed to appear on billboards, is included. This work comprises a collation of what Ballard termed “invisible literatures” culled from scientific journals and periodicals such as Chemical and Engineering News, collected by Ballard when he worked as assistant editor of Chemistry and Industry during the late 1950s. Ballard would continue to use this found-text methodology in his work, either directly in early readings of scientific texts in 1970s happenings and his Pop Art “surgical fictions” such as “Mae West’s Reduction Mammoplasty” (1970) or in more subtle ways, where words and names from found texts reverberate. The reproduction of Project for a New Novel in the exhibition catalogue is particularly sympathetic to Ballard’s collage and found-text aesthetic, providing a resolution not previously obtainable in reprints, or, arguably, the original—an ironic testament to the clarity made possible by mechanical reproduction. In the Gagosian’s glossy version, the viewer can identify individual fragments in the collage, highlighting Ballard’s “cut-in” method (to borrow a term used in Ambit magazine). He assembled not only chunks of paragraph-sized prose, but also micro-level individual letters and punctuation marks.
Not given any wall space, unfortunately, are Ballard’s own “Advertiser’s Announcements,” published in Ambit and New Worlds magazines during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those willing to shell out for the exhibition catalogue, however, are treated to a full set of slick reprints. Consisting of a collage of text and image, these advertisements epitomize Ballard’s ability to move seamlessly between forms, his disruption of the perceived boundaries between “fiction” and “reality, ” and most importantly, his “as found” engagement with contemporary society, fueled no doubt by his experiences working as a advertising copywriter in the early 1950s. Facing up to the logic of a mass-mediated society in the 1960s, Ballard “advertised” his own concepts and ideas; his “Announcements” use phrases, words, and images that echo endlessly throughout his fictions. One of Ballard’s advertisements, “A Neural Interval” (1968), signals his collaborative approach; it credits Eduardo Paolozzi’s image collection as his source for the photograph used.
The importance of Paolozzi and associated Independent Group members to Ballard’s experimental method cannot be overestimated. Ballard repeatedly emphasized the significance of the Independent-Group-related This is Tomorrow exhibition in linking the concerns of the Pop and Brutalist installation environments with his own conception of sf. This sense of kinship was located not in literature but in the visual arts and found its deepest expression when Ballard collaborated with Paolozzi (both in Ambit and New Worlds) during the late 1960s. Ballard wrote the introductory notes for Paolozzi’s box of screenprints, General Dynamic F.U.N. (1970)—a selection was displayed at the Gagosian—that, combined with the Zero Energy Experiment Pile (Z.E.E.P) (1969-70), also on show, constitute a visual correlation to Ballard’s most perplexing work, The Atrocity Exhibition. From pop culture, the cult of celebrity, and cybernetics to the mediation of violence and the death of affect, Ballard’s and Paolozzi’s shared preoccupations are accessible in shorthand through Paolozzi’s graphics.
The General Dynamic F.U.N. collaboration had its roots in Ambit magazine back in 1967, specifically with the appearance of Paolozzi’s “Moonstrips— General Dynamic F.U.N.” Described by Ballard as a “verbal collage,” it was created collectively by Paolozzi, Ballard, and Martin Bax. Ballard and Bax went through 300-400 pages of “invisible literatures” Paolozzi had collected, cutting and arranging them to create the final piece (Ballard, qtd. in Pringle 156). Methodologically comparable to The Atrocity Exhibition or Paolozzi’s graphics on show at the Gagosian, the resulting collage splices together fragments, including part of a commentary on psychiatric medical ethics and architectural plan details describing the contents of concrete bastions. It can be no coincidence that Ballard was contemporaneously publishing in Ambit and various sf magazines and underground publications the “condensed novels” that would make up The Atrocity Exhibition (Ballard, qtd. in Storm 5), with the collation as we now know it being published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 1970, the same year that Paolozzi’s graphic series General Dynamic F.U.N. also was completed.
Richard Hamilton, another Independent-Group affiliate and one-time acquaintance of Ballard’s, was represented in the exhibition by Hers Is a Lush Situation (1958) and People (1965-66). On initial encounter, Hers Is a Lush Situation may appear relevant to Ballard’s work through its Pop sensibilities and conflation of the female form with automobile styling; but on closer inspection, it is People that more subtly taps into Ballard’s aesthetic. On the one hand, People finds a literal visual counterpart in Ballard’s work in the short story “The Reptile Enclosure” (1963, originally entitled “The Sherrington Theory”), where the multiple bodies of sunbathers on a beach appear in an abstracted manner, seeming more reptilian than human. The use of the zoom effect to the point of abstraction in Hamilton’s work is anchored to an array of Ballardian themes, not least, as William Burroughs put it, through the “magnification of the image to the point of where it becomes unrecognizable” in The Atrocity Exhibition (vii). As Will Self says, Ballard used imagery both of aerial vision and microscopy familiar to him from his experiences of flying in the RAF and dissecting cadavers as a medical student. The moments of topological visual correlation between disparate forms that occur in The Atrocity Exhibition certainly owe something to such altered and contrary perspectives. Ballard often said that “The only truly alien planet is Earth” (“Which Way ...” 117). Like the character Pelham in “The Reptile Enclosure,” we need only to have our “eyes half-closed in the glare” (429) to see this; the applied dabs of white paint to the top left on Hamilton’s magnified beach dwellers do look uncannily alien.
In Ballard’s work, the human form, particularly the female body, often meets with violence, a trope represented in the exhibition by John Hilliard and Jemima Stehli’s Triple Exposure (1) (2001) and Double Up (2) (2003) and Cindy Sherman’s mannequins in Untitled # 253 and Untitled # 261 (1992). Although two years apart, Hilliard and Stehli’s prints are mounted side by side, almost offering a storyboard for Ballard’s short story “The 60 Minute Zoom” (1976) when viewed together. The photographer here may be depicted in the same room with the fated female, in contrast to Ballard’s story, in which the filming narrator zooms in from afar on the infidelities of his wife with his cine-camera. Yet the use of the camera’s lens to reconfigure the female form and associated anxieties into an abstracted fetish item seemingly invites the violence that occurs in all these works. In Ballard’s story, everything threatening about the narrator’s wife is sublimated into two dimensions, ultimately paving the way for her sanitized and affectless murder. Sherman’s contorted medical mannequins, like Ballard’s reconfiguration of the Karen Novotny character as a “sex kit” in The Atrocity Exhibition, can only exist because the “reality” of the human body is abstracted from the field of perception; this is particularly so in Sherman’s case, as these works constitute rare examples of portraits without the artist in the frame. The violence inflicted on women by the protagonist in The Atrocity Exhibition and by Sherman serves as a stark reminder of discourses and myths that sublimate the human body, whether theorized as in psychoanalysis, ossified into “image,” or diffused via affectless medical diction.
It is a shame that the Gagosian exhibition contained no examples of Sherman’s more famous series of photographs, the Untitled Film Stills (late 1970s). The connections with Ballard’s work are less obvious, but those works, which feature Sherman in a variety of 1950s guises, tap into the fifties-starlet stereotype also found in Ballard’s fiction, particularly in Vermilion Sands (1971). The comparison of Sherman’s starlets to Ballard’s offers us yet another way to think through Ballard’s representation of women. The various “types” of women found in Vermilion Sands and in Sherman’s series serve as re-representations of stereotypes that “via a qualitative excess, or hyperbole” (Reilly 13) undercut the discourses constituting the woman as fetish object. The superfluous emphasis, for example, on Leonora Chanel’s dress code based upon deadly reptile imagery in “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D” (1967) works to parody the femme fatale stereotype, not to reinforce it.
Other artists included in the exhibition were either influenced by Ballard or played a role in the formation of Ballard’s sensibility. Among the latter are the Surrealists—Giorgio de Chirico, Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Salvador Dalí, and Delvaux—but curiously missing is Max Ernst, just as important to Ballard as any of the others. Other artists in the exhibit who shared Ballard’s obsession with abandoned structures and the ruins of modernity include Tacita Dean and Jane and Louise Wilson. Mike Nelson’s Preface to the 2004 Edition (Triple Bluff Canyon) (2004), a fabricated space resembling a cinema lobby of sorts, suggests a different sort of Ballardian space. Completely immersive and furnished with false doors, Nelson’s installation encourages us to consider the role of architecture in the formation of perception, even as it induces in viewers an overwhelming awareness of their own bodies (a friend visiting the Gagosian exhibition said that this installation constituted “panic attack material”).
Some works bore more tenuous links to Ballard. Apart from threats of censorship, the only real connection between Jenny Saville’s paintings and Ballard that I know of is through The Holy Bible, a Manic Street Preachers’ album from 1994 that featured Saville’s artwork on the cover and sampled Ballard’s voice on the track “Mausoleum.” Also music-related is the title of Glenn Brown’s painting, The Pornography of Death—Painting for Ian Curtis (copied from “Floating Cities” 1981 by Chris Foss) (1995), which presumably refers to the late lead singer of Joy Division: their 1980 album Closer opened with a track titled “Atrocity Exhibition.” Brown’s copy of Foss’s intergalactic space station also may have been included because Foss designed the cover sleeve for Panther’s 1975 edition of Crash. The aspect of Brown’s work most relevant to Ballard is that Brown’s is a copy of Foss’s original. Ballard famously commissioned the artist Brigid Marlin to reproduce two Delvaux paintings destroyed during the war, not only because he wanted to resurrect them but also because he did not want to pay for an original and approved of the process of reproduction itself.
Overall, it seemed fitting to experience the Ballardian world in entirely visual terms at the Gagosian show. The exhibition is difficult to sum up because it covered such an array of prescient angles, but it is clear that following suit after the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona’s expertly executed exhibition (J.G. Ballard: Autopsy of the New Millennium, 2008), the Gagosian offered a timely, much needed reevaluation of Ballard’s work.
Ballard, J.G. “Author’s Note.” The Atrocity Exhibition. London: HarperCollins, 2001. vi.
─────. Crash. 1973. London: Vintage, 1995.
─────. Miracles of Life: An Autobiography. London: Fourth Estate, 2008.
─────. The Kindness of Women. London: Grafton, 1992.
─────. “The Reptile Enclosure.” 1963. J.G. Ballard: The Complete Short Stories. London: HarperCollins, 2001. 426-34.
─────. “Which Way to Inner Space?” New Worlds 118 (1962): 2-3, 116-18.
─────. “Why London Needs to Disappear.” Time Out London. 25 Oct.–1 Nov. 2006: 24.
Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 1971. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001.
Burroughs, William. Preface. The Atrocity Exhibition. J.G. Ballard. 1970. London: HarperCollins, 2001. vii-viii.
Pringle, David, ed. “Quotations by Ballard.” RE/Search: J.G. Ballard. Ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications, 1984. 154-64.
Reilly, Maura. “Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills: Reproductive or Transgressive Mimicry?” Women Making Art: Women in the Visual, Literary and Performing Arts Since 1960. Ed. Deborah Johnson and Wendy Oliver. New York: Lang, 2001. 117-40.
Self, Will. “The Bounds of Inner Space.” Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard. Ed. Mark Francis and Kay Pallister. London: Gagosian Gallery, 2010. 25-29.
─────. Storm, Jannick. “An Interview with J.G. Ballard.” Speculation 21 (1969): 4-8.
Vidler, Anthony. “Introduction: City of the Immediate Future.” Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Reyner Banham. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001. xvii- xxxv.
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