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“Ambiguous aims”: a review of Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard [NSFW]Author: Ben Austwick • Mar 12th, 2010 •
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tacita Dean. Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac (Ballard), 1999. Color photograph. 44 1/8 x 51 3/16 inches framed (112 x 130 cm).
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”.
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.
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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