The Pomposity Exhibition
Like William Blake, JG Ballard is a writer who can mean, by now, anything you want him to mean. Given the capaciousness of the dictionary definition of 'Ballardian', practically any bit of 20th century art can be corralled into it, and this is exactly the effect of the Gagosian's Crash - Homage to JG Ballard, a really very large exhibition currently on in London. It would be fairly pointless to get proprietorial about the great man here, given said vastness; like most people influenced by him, I take only what I like or want - the descriptions of vivid new spaces and architectures, the implosive geometries, the creation of a surreal new language out of bureaucratic and medical verbiage, the abstraction of suburban England into a hypermodern, erotic international zone, the extremely rare serious analysis and confrontation of exurbia - and am less inclined to embrace the evident belief in eternal human verities (particularly with reference to 'woman'), the cthonic roots of war and 20th century irrationality, or the opinions that a working class barely exists and the London congestion charge is totalitarian. Similarly, someone like Iain Sinclair passes as 'Ballardian' despite an antiquarian instinct that represents exactly the traces Ballard would have joyously erased. Nobody, not even John Foxx circa 1980, can be all Ballard all the time. But even granting how easy it is to be just a bit 'Ballardian', some of the choices in this exhibition manage to fall outside of the category.
Jenny Saville? The NYC hipsterism of Basquiat? Paul McCarthy? Council estate photos by Rachel Whiteread and Cyprien Gaillard (the latter of which I like a lot, but could someone please read High-Rise - it's not a novel about council tower blocks)? The paintings of Damien Hirst? The space opera borrowings of Glenn Brown? Some hoovers in a vitrine by Jeff Koons? SF cities by Mike Kelley? The first notable thing about that otherwise inexplicable list is that they're almost all terribly big names, to which can be added the more justifiable Warhol, Dali, Man Ray or Rauschenberg. Regardless, the main point of the whole affair is a sort of proclamation of the Gagosian Gallery, the relatively new Kings' Cross branch of the tax evading art empire - look! We've got simply everyone here! The relevance of each individual work tended to fall by the wayside. So there's a gap between the obvious (Helmut Newton, 30s surrealists, some cars; a 'book' by Jake and Dinos Chapman called Bangwallop where they adopt Crash as their own, giving it a new cover and assembling a text out of various fragments interrupted by typographical errata - as ever, it's less funny the second time) and the simply irrelevant. Into this gap falls some fascinating work, mainly either by those Ballard was influenced by or by his contemporaries - the still jarring, obsessive English pop of Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The pieces by younger artists, when they genuinely do seem an engagement with or correspondent to Ballard, fall comparatively flat. Some sex, some violence, some technology, hopefully if not always all happening at once - but so studious, so ponderous, lacking the malevolent wit of the author and his contemporaries.
Given the exhibition of atrocity films that provides the ostensible pretext for Ballard's finest novel, and the constant preoccupation with the speedy normalisation of anything remotely shocking which runs through his work, I was amused to find, among the painfully thin wandering through the white rooms looking at these (unlabelled) artworks, someone who had on his arm a little blond boy. You expect the yummy mummies at Tate Modern (the 'middle class disco', as Ballard once called it), but to see a child and his father pottering unperturbed around exhibits like Hans Bellmer's Story of the Eye illustrations was impressive evidence of the death of affect, evidence that the idea that this is anything more alarming than Alma-Tadema is now outmoded. What is interesting, though is a hypothetical comparison of this to, say, a hypothetical season of Ballardian film or TV, which would be tremendous - or even more so, the prospect of a compilation of all the records influenced by JGB. How much more dramatic, convulsive and exciting than these pallid rooms. Contemporary art can appear horribly bloodless and elitist by comparison with these genuinely 20th century artforms, and the most Ballardian thing about the Gagosian Crash is its clinical, medical nature - a shifting group of affluent people perambulating around an entirely sterile space. Even then, it's all too metropolitan. It'd be so much more appropriate in the Heathrow Hilton, Shepperton, a business park somewhere on the edges of the M25...