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“Ambiguous aims”: a review of Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard [NSFW]

Author: • Mar 12th, 2010 •

Category: America, Andy Warhol, celebrity culture, Lead Story, media landscape, nuclear war, reviews, Salvador Dali, speed & violence, visual art, WWII

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Adam McEwen. Honda Teen Facial, 2010. Boeing 747 undercarriage. Approximately: 137 13/16 x 118 1/8 x 71 11/16 inches (350 x 300 x 182 cm).

JG Ballard’s writing has a strong connection to visual art, from surrealism to Pop. It informed his work and led to him befriending some of the leading artists of his time, while in turn his work has been an influence on today’s crop. The Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard at the London Gagosian attempts to represent these diverse strands. It’s a timely exhibition, organised in the wake of Ballard’s death but a long time coming given his growing influence over the last few years. Works have been sourced to the best abilities of a private if respected gallery, explaining a haphazard exhibition that, although at times stretching the definition of its remit, always holds interest.

The first item on entrance is Adam McEwen’s “Honda Teen Facial”, an imposing Boeing 747 undercarriage that summons half-remembered, grainy footage of the Lockerbie bombing, or more appropriately Ballard’s short story The Air Disaster. McEwen’s aims are ambiguous. In an aerospace museum, this piece would mean something quite different, but in connection with Ballard it can only mean violence and death. This simple juxtaposition, summoning connections that aren’t necessarily there, is reminiscent of some of Ballard’s earlier writing and was also a mainstay of the surrealists, some of whose work is in an easily-missed room to the left.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Hans Bellmer. Story of the Eye, 1946. Etching, red ink and pencil on paper. 12 x 9 3/4 inches (30.5 x 24.8 cm).

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

John Currin. Rotterdam, 2006. Oil on canvas. 28 x 36 inches (71.1 x 91.4 cm).

Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Hans Bellmer are represented, each with rather underwhelming works that belie the Gagosian’s limited pulling power. Dali’s pencil drawing of a head with a lobster holding a sewing machine on top is self-derivative as only Dali can be. Unsurprisingly, Bellmer’s drawings exhibit a twisted sexuality that is cringeworthy yet fascinating. His illustration for Bataille’s The Story of the Eye (itself a work of displaced sexuality with obvious Ballardian resonances) depicts the pucker of a lady’s anus, acting like a magnet to the eye. While Ballard’s love of surrealism excuses Bellmer, John Currin’s “Rotterdam”, a contemporary painting of a sex act copied from a pornographic magazine, is not only irrelevant but misrepresentative, suggesting the curators have taken inspiration from false media imagery surrounding the author.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Detail from Ballard’s “Project for a new novel” (1958).

There is a suggestion that this odd little room is meant to be a look into Ballard’s psyche, and one of the most interesting works is the writer’s own “Project for a New Novel”, a collage of photocopies from the pages of Chemistry and Industry magazine, where Ballard worked briefly after leaving Cambridge University. The yellowed pieces of text deserve academic scrutiny but fall short compared to the more rounded works around them. They feel unfinished, a prototype for later work, which in a way, of course, they are. Next to them is a simple Man Ray photograph of a woman, different from his more famous manipulated precursors of filmic special effects. The photo is uncanny in its similarity to an often reproduced photo of Ballard’s dead wife Helen. Perhaps I’m also making unnecessary juxtapositions, but it is an otherwise baffling edition to the exhibition, though quite possibly the only Man Ray the curator could get hold of.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

LEFT: Chris Foss’s artwork for the cover of Ballard’s Crash (Panther, 1975). RIGHT: Dinos & Jake Chapman. Bang, Wallop. By J and D Ballard, 2010. Book: 7 3/4 x 5 x 3/4 inches (19.4 x 12.8 x 2.2 cm.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition LEFT: Louis Gréaud. The Future, 2009. Oil on canvas. 57 x 41 inches framed (145 x 104 cm).

Other rooms aren’t as themed, revealing an eclectic and extensive exhibition that can be hard to take in, with its almost random sensory overload. Some of the least successful works are the ones most obviously inspired by Ballard. Loris Gréaud’s “The Future” is a canvas displaying painted text of Ballard’s famous equation “sex x technology = the future”, along with a reproduction of his signature. It is an uninteresting work that buys into Ballard’s cachet with little effort. Another piece of text painted onto a canvas, Ed Ruscha’s “Fountain of Crystal”, which reads “A Fountain of Spraying Crystal Erupted Around Them” vies with it for blandness. The Chapman Brothers’ manipulated Ballard texts, “Bang, Wallop. By J&D Ballard”, a stack of fake paperback books on sale for a tempting but ultimately mercenary 25 quid, at least inject a bit of disrespectful humour, despite a familiar shallowness of thought. Who knows, though — maybe there is something hidden in their exhausting pages of random sentences.

Of the famous contemporary British artists on display, the divisive Damien Hirst is most successful. “When Logics Die”, a metal table covered in surgical instruments overlooked by glossy photographs of medical procedures, is both a nod to Ballard’s experiences as a medical student and a simplified expression of the connection between technology and flesh that Ballard found so philosophically interesting and that Hirst finds so rewarding visually. Turner Prize runner up Roger Hiorn is represented by an engine coated in his trademark copper sulphate crystals, which inevitably reminds of the more famous “Seizure”, an entire council flat given the same treatment.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Paul McCarthy. Mechanical Pig, 2003-2005. Silicone, platinum, fiberglass, metal and electrical components 40 x 58 x 62 inches (101.6 x 147.3 x 157.5 cm).

Works with an, at-best, tangential connection to Ballard stand out, foremost being Paul McCarthy’s “Mechanical Pig”, an astonishingly life-like plastic sow cruelly wired up to machinery, twitching and heaving in a tortured coma. This freakshow attraction goes beyond sensationalism to bring us face to face with our mechanised use of livestock, and is a great example of contemporary art’s relationship with impact advertising. I was mesmerised by its laboured breaths, each one threatening to be its last. In the same room, a strange, ramshackle structure of untreated timber and plywood juts from a wall. Accessed through an innocuous but incongruously aged door in the adjacent room, Mike Nelson’s “Preface to the 2004 Edition (Triple Bluff Canyon)” is a replica of a public room, a theatre lobby perhaps, its expert, dusty detail indistinguishable from the forgotten spaces it draws inspiration from. Like German artist Gregor Schneider, who creates replicas of the anonymous cellars of his suburban childhood, Nelson’s installation is eerie and unsettling. The familiar is made unfamiliar and we are inevitably reminded of fiction, ghost stories and horror films, finishing Nelson’s artwork ourselves.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Mike Nelson. Preface to the 2004 Edition (Triple Bluff Canyon), 2004. Film booth. Dimensions variable.

These two works are the most immediate in the exhibition and rightly stand out, but Crash’s real triumph is the handful of pieces that marry both a deep, unequivocal connection with Ballard and artistic brilliance. Inevitably some are by well-known names, but there are a couple of surprises. Easily missed is Malcolm Morley’s “The Age of Catastrophe”, an oil painting of a sunny, Mediterranean harbour overlaid by a plummeting aeroplane and a submarine suspended from an abstract frame. Chaotic and complex, the painting’s creation date of 1976 is important, suggesting a fascination with WWII’s long-lasting, violent psychological presence — familiar to any reader of Ballard.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Tacita Dean. Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac (Ballard), 1999. Color photograph. 44 1/8 x 51 3/16 inches framed (112 x 130 cm).

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Dan Holdsworth. Untitled (Autopia), 1998. Chromogenic print. Diptych: 41 7/8 x 52 3/16 inches each (106.5 x 132.6 cm).

Photography is well represented. Tacita Dean’s “Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac (Ballard)”, where an abandoned scientific concrete structure barely reveals itself through lush trees, provides a perfect visual accompaniment to Concrete Island or Rushing to Paradise. Dan Holdsworth’s photos of empty, night-time motorways directly and effectively channel one of Ballard’s most familiar obsessions. But it is the in moving image that Ballard’s vision really comes to life. Jane and Louise Wilson’s DVD installation, “Proton, Energy, Blizzard”, with its footage of a rusting and seemingly abandoned Soviet rocket installation that nevertheless clanks and hums with mechanical life, is an hypnotic film that posits an answer to the perplexing problem of translating Ballard’s work to film. Stripped of narrative, this purely visual film manages to convey the awesome majesty of failed, large-scale scientific endeavour, and the mundane machinery behind nuclear annihilation, as well as our pathetic attempts to explore the universe. It reminded me of the human insignificance and terrible entropy so beautifully explored in one of my favourite Ballard stories, “The Voices of Time”.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Eduardo Paolozzi. Two prints from the General Dynamic F.U.N. series (1970). 50 plates. 20 frames: approx. 12 x 18 1/8 inches each (30.5 x 46 cm).

Eduardo Paolozzi‘s two sets of screen prints, “General Dynamic F.U.N.” and “Zero Energy Experiment Pile (Z.E.E.P.)”, go further, dealing with the fundamental philosophical ideas behind Ballard’s work. Paolozzi was an influence on a youthful Ballard and later a mentor and friend, and his prints are both dazzlingly original and directly tuned to Ballard’s vision. In an overwhelming array of brightly coloured pop-culture images taken from space-exploration books, boys’ comics and Jane’s weaponry textbooks, images of missiles, bombs, rockets, tanks and submarines — along with diagrams, motifs and cutaway illustrations — are infused with a gaudy joy at odds with the often frightening technology they depict. The light-speed rate of change in the 60s, which Ballard cannily emphasised as technological and communications based, as opposed to more commonly referenced societal critiques, is expressed brilliantly by Paolozzi, who cleverly adds a sheen of psychedelic colour — the filter through which society saw, and dealt with, this technological future shock.

Ballardian: Gagosian exhibition

Andy Warhol. Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice), 1963. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas. 48 x 41 3/4 inches (121.9 x 106 cm).

A more familiar artist from this period is Andy Warhol, who Ballard believed was one of the few Pop artists to stand the test of time. Warhol’s “Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice)” is an almost perfect depiction of the changes in communication in the 60s – the immediacy, sensationalism and brutality. The rapid deployment of mass visual entertainment in television, coupled with existential attitudes to morality brought about by WWII, combined to produce a bloody but newly distanced fascination with death, tempered with the fetishisation of celebrity explored by Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition and, later, Crash. The piece is understated and easily overlooked. A green monochrome print featuring repeat images of a car crash complete with supine victim, it presents these ideas in their very simplest terms and is devastatingly effective. The celebrity side of the equation is of course represented by Warhol himself, the first artist to present himself as a product, churning out signed works in his Factory. This aspect of Warhol is often dismissed as egotistical, money grubbing, but that viewpoint ignores his nuanced reflection of the world he existed in. Ballard wrote about celebrity while being scared of it himself; Warhol embraced this new phenomenon, revelling in it.

It is Warhol’s brilliant translation of the changes around him that connects him to Ballard and makes “Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice)” the most important work in the exhibition. Both men represent a mature artistic culture that distanced itself from the political hectoring of pre-WWII art, and absorbed and translated a world of rapid change with cool detachment. The exhibition’s motorways, cars, aircraft and sexual imagery are only superficially Ballard. Tucked away on a back wall, in a small and at first insignificant-looking work, is where you find the essence of Ballard’s work presented succinctly by another twentieth-century great.

Many thanks to Mike Bonsall for his help with this review.

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17 Responses »

  1. Fair review, Ben. The whole exhibition seemed a little uneasy to me. Ballard constantly derided the literary establishment – is the arts establishment any better?

    Pedantic point – the text on the ‘New Novel’ is from Chemical & Engineering News, not C&I.

  2. Thanks for the critique, Ben. I think I would have picked out much the same exhibits as you’ve mentioned, especially the Paolozzi, the Warhol, Holdworth’s photographs, and the Wilsons’ DVD display. And, yes, some of the selections were obviously dictated by what the Gagosian could get hold of.

    I went back to the exhibition last week with Sheila, who was particularly taken by Hiorn’s copper sulphate engines, and by McCarthy’s mechanical pig. But others, such as Jeff Koons and the mushroom sculptures, were rather inexplicable … at least to us!

  3. […] “Ambiguous aims”: a review of Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard (NSFW) [Ballardian] […]

  4. Excellent observations, Ben. Not had the chance to visit the Gagosian, so your perspective is of value. Green Disaster reminds me of how unsettled I felt by Warhol’s car crash prints on show at the Pop Art exhibition at the RA in the early 90s. Ballard’s and Warhol’s immersion in the technological now/near-future is strongly related to Futurism, a continuation of its mechanical aesthetic into the apocalyptic.

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  7. Thanks Ben! I’m sorry I can’t see the show myself, but it sounds as though my suspicions of it were justified. It all seemed a bit hasty after Ballard’s death, and yes, as Tim C suggests, an arts establishment happening. (If that’s not oxymoronic.) I like your comments about Warhol, and your observations of the illustrative nature of some of the works you describe. Homage is fine, but it should add critically to the object of homage, not depend on it.

  8. Thanks Pippa! I perhaps should have stressed what an interesting exhibition it is despite the sometimes tenuous connection to Ballard. It’s very enjoyable.

    And cheers Jim and Mike, I’m glad you share my observations about Warhol, he’s an artist that seems to rub a lot of people up the wrong way!

  9. A minor point, but Tacita Dean’s photo sent me a-Googlin’ for more about what looked to me like a dismasted catamaran, not, as Ben saw, a concrete building. The structure is, in fact, as the title declares, the Teignmouth Electron, the boat Donald Crowhurst built for his mystery ’round-the-world’ adventure. Plenty of Ballardian resonances in there, and thus worth pointing out.

  10. Thanks for this Ben. A thoughtful look at an exhibition that is confusing in its shotgun approach.

  11. A thoughtful look at an exhibition that is brutal, erotic in its shotgun approach.

  12. Jolly good, Henry. Have a biscuit.

  13. One thing I would point out is with regard to the Damian Hirst piece – “When Logics Die”; those weren’t photos of medical procedures but pictures of a boiled and molten pilot after a plane crash (I believe this was stated somewhere, perhaps in the notes or incorporated in the artwork) – it may seem pedantic to point out but I think it is an important point of the piece – alluded to in the name. To me the photo’s make the surgical equipment seem totally silly and redundant, the body has been completely devastated.

  14. The 747 gear strut & tyre assembly does it for me. The aircraft/Ballard nexus has been sadly overlooked, when it actually appears everywhere you turn, from his boyhood fascination at Lunghua to his RAF training in Canada to the inevitable appearance of a pilot or flying machine in almost all of his later work and shorter stories set at Canaveral, which is a centered parade of surreal aircraft and flight. As a very important theme found in the WHOLE ARC of his genius, I think it ranks up there up there with the motorways, technopsychopathology, and bodily mutilation, let alone the UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY, where everyone learns to fly in the climactic ending. Please let me re-offer these to think about, I made then ALL as homage to
    the Sage of Shepperton and his Mustangs, aerocycles, Harvards, his Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D. Forgive me- I first trod the Vermilion Sands at the age of 10. Since his death, I have been creatively blocked… is it mourning? JGB’s Spirit MUST go on – somehow!

    BITTERSWEET CRASHING
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czwp2QMVi7Q and

    WHITE BIRD
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtxXApO5rCA&feature=related

    and SWEET CRASH DREAMS
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aixfIcSm7U

    AMNESIA! (had to fight Universal Studios to keep this one up!)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihih_XqeJv0

    All of these are tributes…..to HIM. And NONE can ever be connected with me.
    They are his distorted, poor descendants, filtered through my stagnating mind and diluted
    in meaning, with weakened genes and spirit. Yet they owe their existence to him.
    Now, back to your regular programming, apologies for the interruption from America.

    But perhaps some of

    YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WRutKKd0fI&feature=related

  15. Astute observations. I liked ‘rather underwhelming’.

  16. “While Ballard’s love of surrealism excuses Bellmer, John Currin’s “Rotterdam”, a contemporary painting of a sex act copied from a pornographic magazine, is not only irrelevant but misrepresentative, suggesting the curators have taken inspiration from false media imagery surrounding the author.”
    Agreed.

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