Art and JG Ballard: Geologic Time and Lucid Dreaming

Writer JG Ballard, the great dystopian visionary, said in an interview back in 1975, ‘I think I always was a frustrated painter.’ He went on to say: ‘They are all paintings, really, my novels and stories… I approach many of these stories of mine, like the Vermilion Sands stories – even the novels like Crash – as a sort of visual experience.’ This comment appears in Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008, in which he frequently declares his love affair with visual art.

And, in 2003, in an interview with art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ballard said, ‘I think the surrealist painters had the biggest influence on me – De Chirico, Ernst, Dali and Delvaux. These are all painters of mysterious and disconnected landscapes, through which the few human beings drift in a state of dream-like trance, which had a direct and powerful appeal for me.’

Art’s science fictional turn

Ballard’s enchantment with art has been reciprocated over the decades as artists have taken inspiration from science fiction, and there’s no sign of abatement. Two exhibitions in London this month present solo shows by artists who specifically respond to Ballard. I rushed to both exhibitions clutching my copy of Extreme Metaphors.

Frith St Gallery in Golden Square, presents Tacita Dean’s JG, 2013, which is directly inspired by her correspondence with Ballard. They met at the opening of Tate Modern and their correspondence explored connections between his short story The Voices of Time (1960) and Robert Smithson’s iconic environmental artwork and film Spiral Jetty (1970). The main character in Ballard’s story builds a mandala in a dried saline landscape.

Ballard set Dean a challenge shortly before he died — she should treat Spiral Jetty as a mystery and solve that mystery through film. She accepted the challenge and the result is a captivating 35mm anamorphic film shot in the saline landscapes of Utah and California using Dean’s system of aperture gate masking. In other words, the film is made entirely on location within the camera and, as such, sites her methods closer to the human realm as opposed to the world of digital postproduction, referred to by Dean as the ‘the end of risk’.

Tacita Dean

Above and Below: Tacita Dean, Installation Views. Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery Paris/New York and Frith Street Gallery, London.

The film is both hypnotic and gorgeous despite the barrenness of the landscape. And, of course, any landscape that appears devoid of human habitation, or at least at the margins of human habitation, speaks immediately of geologic time, and takes us into an imaginative realm of science fiction; the Earth wiped clean of human life. But then we catch a glimpse of a goods train and vehicles crossing this landscape in the far distance. An earthmover digs a trench in direct reference to Spiral Jetty. And we see a low-lying industrial complex, and a rickety shed by an outflow. But still no people. Just occasional shots of an armadillo scratching in the ground and coiling itself into an impregnable ball. A clock face appears periodically and I’m sure Ballard would have approved, given his love of Salvador Dali’s art.

Tacita Dean

Across town at Carslaw St*Lukes, Fiona Curran’s first London solo exhibition Beach Fatigue takes its title from a phrase in Ballard’s Vermilion Sands. Curran presents 3-D assemblages of paintings and found objects. Worn oriental rugs are included in several works, and palm trees are a recurring motif.

Fiona Curran

Fiona Curran: Waiting For The Perfect View, 2012. Tapestry, Persian carpets, clay, etched metal, feathers, cardboard tubes, sand, wooden plinth, (tapestry 125 x 180cm) Credit: Peter Hope and Carslaw St* Lukes.

In Waiting for the Perfect View, Curran places one worn rug on the gallery floor and uses three rolled rugs as plinths on which she places miniature palm trees fixed into lumps of clay. And as a backdrop, we see what appears to be an aerial photograph of a road lined by palm trees. On closer inspection we discover that the image is a photorealist tapestry. It’s a seductive but unsettling image depicting a depopulated landscape – one that chimes with Ballard’s fascination with the ‘disconnected landscapes’ of the surrealists.

Kit Hammonds writes in an essay accompanying the exhibition:

It’s no coincidence that the black and white aerial photograph from which Curran sources the road lined with palm trees appears to be of military origin. The survey of bikini atoll before and after the nuclear tests comes to mind. Within it the strange linguistic accident of nuclear tests and the raciest of beach-wear come together in one ultramodern hit that marks the end of history, the end of convention, and potentially, at least, the end of everything.

He sees this assemblage as ‘some kind of postcard from the future. Everything natural has receded in this dystopic SF vision, artifice after a mass ecological extinction’.

Fiona Curran

Fiona Curran: Those Lights We Call Stars, Detail, 2013. Embroidery on found rug. Credit: Peter Hope.

For Curran, the day-by-day wear and tear evident in her oriental rugs stands as a metaphor for the incremental degradation of our planet. She refers to the concept of ‘slow violence’. And, according to Hammonds, these rugs – ham-fistedly restored, in ill-suited threads – are ‘meditative boredoms’ executed while ‘waiting for the inevitable.’

I delved once again into Ballard’s interviews when I came away from these two exhibitions and I found a phrase that rang true. Although made in another context, he talked about ‘lucid dreaming’. It’s the perfect expression for the sensation created by both Dean and Curran.

Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967 – 2008, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (2012).

Fiona Curran – Beach Fatigue, 11 – 23 November 2013, Carslaw St*Lukes, 137 Whitecross Street, London EC1Y 8JL.

Tacita Dean, 13 September – 26 October 2013, Frith Street Gallery, 17-18 Golden Square, London W1F 9JJ.

I have also posted this review on the UK edition of The Huffington Post.

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