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Rick McGrath's Letter from Barcelona: The Exquisite Corpse, An Autopsy of the New MillenniumAuthor: Rick McGrath • Jul 29th, 2008 •
Category: alternate worlds, autobiography, Barcelona, David Cronenberg, deep time, dystopia, enviro-disaster, features, gated communities, inner space, Lead Story, medical procedure, Salvador Dali, Shanghai, surrealism, visual art
Rick McGrath’s Letter from Barcelona:
THE EXQUISITE CORPSE: AN AUTOPSY OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM
by Rick McGrath
ABOVE: Rick talking to CCCB Director-General Josep Ramoneda on opening night. Photo by Christian Mauri from Spain’s El Mundo newspaper.
Hola, Simon, and buenos dias from Barcelona.
I’m currently standing in the Carrer de Montalegre, a narrow street deep in the university section of Barcelona. Behind me is the university’s Dept of Philosophy, and I’m standing in the overbright sunlight, looking at an imposing 18th century building which is currently the home of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB)… and even more currently the home of the very first museum exhibition ever dedicated to the life and work of JG Ballard.
It’s a great place to be…
I’ve been here two days now, and have toured the show three times in different guises – as it was being finished, once with the Press, and finally at the Grand Opening with Barcelona VIPs – and to tell you the truth, I’m feeling a little late with this report, as I’ve already read all the various and sundry exhibition press releases you and the rest of the world’s media have published. And besides, I was out each Barcelonian night with a short story of fellow Ballardians, and one must follow one’s obsessions. So I thought I wouldn’t cover that ground again. Instead, I’d like to treat you to an overall taste of the experience – a sort of old-fashioned slide show with commentary – a visual tour of what visitors to this extraordinary exhibition will see and experience.
OK, you ready? Visitor’s pass showing?
ABOVE: CCCB exterior.
The first bit of irony comes quickly when you discover this building was first constructed as a hospital. What better place to perform an Autopsy of the New Millennium? Crossing the street we enter the building thru an archway – to the left is the Museum’s administration offices, to the right the ubiquitous gift shop. Ahead is a huge courtyard, empty save for a few trees and student-filled lounge chairs. The building retains its ancient decorations on three sides, and these walls face an angled wall of glass, which rises and tips protectively over the courtyard.
ENTERING THE EXHIBITION
ABOVE: Spain’s longest escalator… a sort of Kingdom Come message to rise into the imaginary…
The trip into the exhibition itself is a Ballardian experience of corridors and obsessively angled floors. It’s a maze. You first walk along the left wall of the courtyard, noticing what must be medical slogans from the 1700s painted on the ornate tiles, then you’re suddenly at a hidden entrance. Turning right, you walk down a long, slow incline, mirrored on the right wall, to a set of hidden doors. Entering, you reverse direction and descend again down another long incline which empties into to a large auditorium with information booths, ticket sales, and a large screen showing the CCCB’s specially-made promotional video for the show.
You’ve already commented on this vid, Simon, so we’ll pass thru here and then climb a series of long, open stairs, which leads us into the new glass tower and onto Spain’s longest escalator – a three-story monster right out of Kingdom Come – which delivers us to the Exhibition’s entrance and a charming young lady who would like to see our passes, por favor.
ABOVE: Martin Amis pontificates; the media records.
We’re here. I’d suggest we put on our surgical masks and rubber gloves now. The first room we enter is actually not part of the Autopsy itself, but a sort of literary introduction to what follows. What we see is a video projection onto a wall that features a number of writers, English and Spanish, French and Catalan, extolling the influence and seductive qualities of Ballard’s work. John Clute, Martin Amis and Catherine Millet I recognized, and once your mind has been properly attuned and your Ballard glasses are in focus, it’s time to enter the Autopsy Rooms proper.
AUTOPSY #1: What I Believe
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
This section is called “Credo”, and it’s a multimedia effort with a wall of words and hidden, tiny mirrors, JGB’s dulcet tones, and three video screens repeating what JG says he believes in Spanish, Catalan and English. It’s a repetition of JG’s piece in the January 1984 issue of Science Fiction magazine, in which he summarises his obsessions and their often-disturbing logic.
If you stand in precisely the right spot, the words on the wall before you also reveal tiny mirrors reflecting the light from an electric candle. The words that appear on the TV screens also melt and fade, ebbing and flowing with the tidal resonance of Ballard’s musical speech. It’s a fascinating experience, and I noted both the press and VIPs were mesmerised by the incantory nature of this first cut into the body of our culture.
AUTOPSY #2: From Shanghai to Shepperton
ABOVE: After the 1937 bombing.
I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.
From Credo we dip back in time to JG’s youth in Shanghai and Lunghua camp where the Japanese interned JG and his family for three years. This display begins with a loop from Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, where young Jimmy attempts to bring the young Japanese kamikaze pilot back to life, and then settles into the real thing in a cleverly-constructed room which shows scenes from the camp on one wall, and opposite, separated by prison-like planking, scenes from the destruction of Shanghai.
ABOVE: Watching Shanghai Jim.
Against the far wall runs a continuous vid of Shanghai Jim, JG’s BBC-produced return to Lunghua in 1991. The CCCB organizers (I’ll laud them later) have done a terrific job of assembling period photographs of Shanghai under siege, and many of these photos I’ve not seen before… but have unconsciously experienced in JG’s work. The camp is represented by a series of soft watercolours, in stark opposition to the black and white photographs of war, and I was pleased and surprised to see the image of Lunghua camp survivor Irene Duguid in two of the photos – I had the pleasure of sitting and talking with her at her home in Surrey just four days earlier.
AUTOPSY #3: Landscapes of Dream
ABOVE: From the surreal image “machine”.
I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Duerer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.
This is one of my favourite autopsy rooms. It begins with a short quote from Miracles of Life printed just inches from the floor on a black wall: “At the age of 16, I discovered Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross.”
This room contains just three exhibits, but powerful ones they are: a photo of JG in his home at Shepperton in front of his Delvaux painting, a new version of the painting specially done for this show by Brigid Marlin (it’s dated 2008), and the piece de resistance, an incredible surreal image generator! As the CCCB press release says: “His writings not only recreates many of the visions of Surrealism, it also reproduces some of its aesthetic strategies – superimpositions, mirroring, false perspectives, mutations – in order to explain the profound structure of the real.”
ABOVE: From the surreal image “machine”.
These strategies are all visualised in this very clever display: ten or so sheets of thin, white muslin cloth have been suspended from the ceiling, approximate three feet apart. At each end a projector illuminates a slowly changing series of images from famous surrealist paintings onto the cloth. Walking back and forth and up and down between the sheets reveals an endlessly-changing collage of images from the likes of Dali, Ernst and Delvaux, spinning endlessly thru impositions and mutations. I spent a lot of time in this room. You will, too.
AUTOPSY #4: Inner Space
ABOVE: Pixelated Ballard.
I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.
Now we’re moving into more familiar territory – this section deals with the ramifications of JG’s 1962 New Worlds editorial, “Which Way To Inner Space?” Visitors are treated to wall-projected vids of JG’s favourite SF movies (Alien, Alphaville, Barbarella, Close Encounters, Dark Star, Dr Strangelove, Forbidden Planet, Silent Running, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Road Warrior) and opposite these imaginary images we move to the real with vids from Cape Canaveral space program projected upon the opposite wall – but in reverse… then you note the large central display case is mirrored and the visuals magically right themselves.
ABOVE: From Rick’s JGB collection.
In this display case are souvenirs of JG’s 1969 trip to Rio for the International Festival of Cinema, and, oh look – some items from my collection have made an appearance: early SF pulps from the 1950s, various magazines, such as Interzone, and literary newspapers such as Bananas. The only thing here I had not seen is a rather Hollywood-inspired photo of JG, looking young, round-cheeked and rather smug in his pressed white shirt and cool shades.
AUTOPSY #5: Disaster Area
ABOVE: Drought car in sand.
I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.
This exhibit begins with a series of small exhibits of clever homages to The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World and The Crystal World, and leads ultimately to one of the exhibition’s strongest images: a huge room filled with sand, out of which protrudes the top of a sun- and rust-ravaged car. The effect is enhanced with off-centre lighting, and this startling image of The Drought is one you’ll remember, and think about, long after you leave.
AUTOPSY #6: Technology and Pornography
ABOVE: Cronenberg’s Crash.
I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness or ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.
Now we move into another of my fave pieces of the dismembered millennium… very cleverly organized with each mini-exhibit separated by the white sheets of medical privacy screens. The original use of the building as a hospital is reflected in the ancient arches overhead, and the visuals are pumped up with the addition of a heartbeat-like bass drum slowly thumping in the background. Half of this exhibit is literary, with displays of JG’s “Advertiser’s Announcements”, a copy of the Doubleday Atrocity Exhibition, a facsimile of the “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” handout distributed at the Republican Convention, copies of the Warren Commission Report and the book of car crash injuries (which I must get).
ABOVE: Rick in front of the ‘Project for a New Novel’ (photo: Joanne Murray).
The most fascinating object in this section is the original two-page spreads JG made in 1958 or 1959 which he called “Project for a New Novel”. JG gave it to Ambit editor Dr Martin Bax, who had it framed in two sections, and as far as I know this is the very first time the complete piece has been shown outside the Bax home. As you know, parts of it have been reprinted by RE/Search and New Worlds, but this is the only time all of it has been made available for public viewing. Interestingly enough, they have the pieces in the wrong order.
ABOVE: The big visual wall display.
The rest is video, with each examination room showing excerpts from Cronenberg’s Crash, a fragment of Jonathan Weiss’s movie of The Atrocity Exhibition, with real footage of victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and finally, a huge room showing multi-vids on two walls, with all reflected on a third wall. The effect is startling and cumulative, and on both times I visited both the press & VIPs just stood there, captured by the strength and variety and perversity of the visuals…
AUTOPSY #7: Asepsis and Neobarbarism
ABOVE: Infinity drenched in blue.
I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.
Here the exhibition features the realist phase of JG’s writings, starting with Running Wild and ending with Kingdom Come. The visuals are split into two – the main effect created by a long corridor, mirrored on one side and at both ends, with the symmetry punctuated by overhead text generators which feature copy from Millennium People. On the unmirrored wall are four TV screens, set at child-height level, and they display a series of looping visuals, such as adverts for gated communities in Dubai, and Disney’s fake town of Celebration, Florida. The whole thing is drenched in a dark blue light, and the mirrors reflect all to infinity in both directions. Very cool.
AUTOPSY #8: The Ballard Library
ABOVE: From my JGB collection.
I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.
OK, here’s where the bulk of the books the CCCB borrowed from me reside, so I won’t go on at length. Suffice perhaps to say this is the first time they’ve been out in public, and I hope they behave themselves. As well as these excerpts from my collection, this area features a series of computer monitors that allows visitors to replay all the videos shown in the prior exhibits, and three tables contain softcover editions of JG’s work which have been translated into Spanish and Catalan. The public is encouraged to pick up and read a little JG for themselves. Good idea. This section also contains filmmaker Solveig Nordlund’s very important interview with JG – “Encontro con o escritor JG Ballard” – and whoa, let’s not leave you out, Simon, as this is where your outstanding, exhaustive and brilliantly commented selection of Ballardian music can be heard. Great job!
ABOVE: Donovan Wylie’s photography.
The end wall contains a fascinating series of photographs taken in 2006 by Donovan Wylie, which were never published, and they reveal JG at home at approximately the same time he received his unfortunate diagnosis. The final part of this particular autopsy report is the staggeringly honest “Answers Given by Patient JGB to the Eyckman Personality Quotient Test”, from Sam Scoggin’s film The Unlimited Dream Company. In it JG quickly and steadfastly answers “yes” or “no” to a series of rapidfire questions while the camera slowly zooms in on his face, finally settling on an extreme closeup of his left eye. Sixty minute zoom, indeed. This video was very popular, and continually elicited grunts, titters and the odd chittering from its always-large audience.
AUTOPSY #9: Ballardian Art
ABOVE: Michelle Lord with her Ballard-inspired art.
I believe in nothing.
The Exhibition ends, fittingly, with four rooms of art influenced by Ballard and the concept of “Ballardian”. We’re first treated to a wall of unsettling and disturbing photos by Ana Barrado, she of RE/Search publications fame, then a captivating video of sunlight changing the perspectives of two rooms by Ann Lislegaard, photos of Michelle Lord’s miniature models of stacked cars, TV sets, and washing machines…
ABOVE: Mike Bonsall’s Ballardian home movie.
…and finally, Simon, the Ballardian cellphone home videos you commissioned last year, cleverly set up so you watch them on a cellphone.
And that, amigo, is the Exhibition. All in all, around 90,000 square feet of Ballardian bounty. We leave the same way as we arrived, by taking a long escalator ride back to the main floor, reminding me in a curious way that we have traveled “up” into the realm of the unbridled imagination, and are now returning “down” to the reality of convention and habit.
You can keep the surgical mask as a souvenir.
THE MEDICAL TEAM
This is an excellent, thought-provoking, informative exhibition, Simon, and one I’m sure which would have pleased JG had he been well enough to attend. Can you give it greater praise? Yes, those responsible should be dragged out and severely congratulated:
Jordi Costa: The Curator.
Hip, intense, knowledable, and an accomplished writer himself, Jordi’s vision and leadership has created the first, and most impressive overview of JGB, his work and influence. Super job, Jordi!
Marcial Souto: The Advisor.
Marcial has translated 10 of JG’s novels and short story collections, plus many other classic SF, outsider and popular writers. He’s an extremely pleasant and knowledgeable man, and is so interesting I’m going to interview him for you later.
Miquel Nogués: The Coordinator.
He’s the man who tracked down and organized all the various elements of the Exhibition, including the original flats for “Project For A New Novel” from Dr Martin Bax, the news Delvaux painting by Brigid Marlin, all the photographs and videos, and more. Basically, he’s responsible for the body that has been autopsied.
Dani Freixes & Pep Angli: The Designers & Assemblers.
These two gentlemen are responsible for the show’s brilliant visual appeal, the use of colour and music and light. It’s a retinal circus, and they deserve lots of credit.
Mariona Garcia: The Designer.
With the assistance of Anaïs Esmerado, she developed the textual look of the show, relying on understated, clean fonts and all the show’s peripheral print, such as the catalogue, posters and handouts.
Cristina Giribets: The A/V.
She is responsible for all the exhibition’s marvelous audio-visual work, and, it should also be noted that the Large Wall of compelling images found in the Technology and Pornography exhibit was created by Andres Hispano and La Chula Productions. Good eye, everyone!
All in all, a most excellent adventure into the mind of JGB… thank you, doctors, for all your hard work.
And that, Simon, is just about it.
From Barcelona, adios!
Rick McGrath 2008.
All quotes excerpted from ‘What I Believe’ by JG Ballard. All photography by Rick McGrath, except where noted.
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