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February 19, 2010 11:14 pm
“This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” was the manuscript reader’s famous report on JG Ballard’s Crash. The novel, about car accident sexual fetishism, made Ballard’s name on publication in 1973. David Cronenberg’s 1996 film version sparked renewed controversy; so did accusations, in 1997, that Ballard had somehow anticipated the death of Princess Diana in Paris.
As the Gagosian Gallery’s compelling yet flawed exhibition CRASH, Homage to JG Ballard suggests, Ballard was a prophet whose futuristic nightmares – from car crash celebrity to high-rise dysfunction – came so uncannily true that his novels ended up looking like social reportage. Since he conveyed his great theme, “sex + technology = the future”, in very graphic rather than theoretical terms, he was from the start an artist’s writer. His modern dystopias echo or predict strains in 20th- and 21st-century visual culture from surrealism and the darker side of pop to the Young British Artists and today’s bleak artificial landscapes in film or Fibreglass or silicone.
Adored by contemporaries such as Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville, Ballard is the Gagosian’s dream theme: an intellectual heavyweight connected to classic modernism who, safely dead, can also be manoeuvred into underwriting the wares on offer at this vigorously commercial gallery.
The show begins brilliantly. Stumble past a Boeing 747 undercarriage that looms as you enter, and you face Richard Hamilton’s car-as-woman metallic collage “Hers Is A Lush Situation” and the violent bliss of Warhol’s double silkscreen “Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice)”: two paintings that play out the imagery of Crash so perfectly that you laugh out loud. “The crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a being of free and perverse sexuality, releasing within its dying chromium and leaking engine parts, all the deviant possibilities of her sex,” Ballard wrote.
Engaging with cars, supermarkets, airports and tower blocks at a time when few writers touched these subjects, Ballard was instinctively in tune with the way pop art exposed what he called “the eerie banality of the world that modern communications have created”.
Like many novelists who depend, as painters do, on long, close looking – Marcel Proust, John Updike, Alan Hollinghurst – Ballard was an insightful art critic. The Gagosian’s choices illuminate, with occasional surprises, how his taste reflected his own aesthetic. His favourite American artist, Edward Hopper, represented here by “Intermission”, a lone figure staring “out of one nothingness into the larger nothingness beyond”, is like him a poet of metropolitan anguish. He admires Ed Ruscha as the Vermeer of the 20th century, a sober observer who telescopes outdoor America into a private domestic space, his petrol stations on the dusty road the equivalent of the Dutch painter’s virginals in the drawing room.
Then, next to Ruscha’s “Fountain of Crystal” – and ruining its quiet, ironic effect – hangs Helmut Newton’s photographic series of hotel rooms containing Hans Bellmer-like doll women waiting to be manipulated or unzipped: “Suzy Dyson, Quai d’Orsay, Paris”, “Jenny Capitain, Pension Dorian, Berlin”. They have, approves Ballard, “the calm light of a lucid dream, glimpsed through a connecting door that links [them] to the interior space of the Surrealists”.
The terrain where science fiction and surrealism meet was Ballard’s heartland. “I didn’t see exhibitions of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí as displays of paintings,” he wrote. “I saw them as among the most radical statements of human imagination ever made, on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics.”
Here, in Bacon’s “Still Life, Broken Statue and Shadow”, a single lightbulb hangs over a marble torso whose shadow drips across a pastel-pink ground: “an airless interior”, according to Ballard, “like a television hospitality room where the guests have been left alone too long. One senses that they are frightened to leave, aware that the headless man with a machine-gun is waiting for them ... Francis Bacon is, for me, the greatest British painter of the last century, unflinching in the way he returned the Gorgon’s stare.” This surely reflects the aims of Ballard’s own art.
The Gagosian explores the theme with an empty de Chirico piazza, a pair of icy Delvaux nudes in a film-noir stage set, and a piquantly nasty little Dalí drawing from 1933, “Bureaucrat and Sewing Machine”, whose disturbances include not only the threat of skull, piercing needle and enlarged lobster but the dislocation of the commonplace – hard transformed to soft as the crustacean droops over the father-figure’s head, feeding perhaps on his brains. Loyal through all the dips in Dalí’s reputation, Ballard saw in his “voyeurism, self-disgust, biomorphic horror, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings ... a prophecy about ourselves unequalled in accuracy since Freud ... an extreme metaphor at a time when only the extreme will do”.
The best works here evoke a delirium of painterly-literary parallels, cumulatively building up a Ballardian visual landscape spanning roughly the decades of the writer’s career – from Gerhard Richter’s vanishing grey-black metropolis “Stadtbild” (1969) to Rachel Whiteread’s elegant photographs “Demolished” (1996), choreographing the destruction of a tower block and, with it, urban Utopianism.
But much of the rest is jumbled window-dressing, with the “only the extreme will do” umbrella sheltering any piece of fashionable conceptual outrage that the Gagosian wants to sell, or any gallery artist it needs to showcase. Glenn Brown’s “The Pornography of Death”, Jeff Koons’ idiotic outsize dot-covered canvas “Couple (Dots) Landscape”, Carsten Holler’s resin-styrofoam “Giant Triple Mushroom”, all from 2009-10, are among many that look like slick, upmarket brand-named objects in department stores.
Or is this one further ironic, Ballardian twist? “Illuminated arrays glowed through the night, like the perimeter lights of a colony of prison camps, a new gulag of penal settlements where the forced labour was shopping and spending,” was Ballard’s description of 21st-century society in his final novel Kingdom Come.
The Gagosian has always attempted to bolster its living artists by juxtaposition with the dead – Hirst’s feeble painting “Suicide Bomber”, hung next to Bacon’s canvas, is as embarassingly dwarfed as when the two artists had complementary shows in this gallery in 2006. Nevertheless, we should be grateful: only a commercial gallery of this pulling power could manage the loans to flesh out Ballard’s text so grandiloquently; no museum could have responded so quickly, or quirkily, to the novelist’s death last year. The idea of a visual tribute to a writer is so marvellous and generous that one wishes it was as standard as a memorial service or an obituary.
‘CRASH, Homage to JG Ballard’, Gagosian Gallery, London, until April 1 www.gagosian.com
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