The Atrocity Exhibition. Entering the exhibition, Travis sees the atrocities of Vietnam and the Congo mimetized in the ‘alternate’ death of Elizabeth Taylor; he tends the dying film star, eroticizing her punctured bronchus in the over-ventilated veranda of the London Hilton, he dreams of Max Ernst, superior of the birds; ‘Europe after the Rain’; the human race-Caliban asleep across a mirror smeared with vomit.
J.G Ballard-The Atrocity Exhibition 1966
Elizabeth Taylor , the last of the old-style Hollywood actress, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book…A unique collision of private and public fantasies took place in the 1960’s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60’s TV viewer…our perception of the famous has changed-I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatchter’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.
J. G Ballard’s 1970 collection of interlinked ‘condensed’ novels, The Atrocity Exhibition had been the cause of considerable controversy. One of the short stories, Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan was issued as a separate booklet that had resulted in the prosecution for obscenity of the publisher. The American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition had been printed by Doubleday & Co when the company’s president Nelson Doubleday, Jr. ordered the entire run pulped as he feared potential legal action from the many celebrities featured within its pages.
Undeterred Ballard wrote Crash, a novel even more controversial and transgressive. One publisher’s reader verdict was simply, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” As Ballard express intention in writing Crash was to, “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror” and considering its extreme and disturbing content, the reader’s comment is understandable.
The narrator of Crash is an advertising executive named James Ballard (a bold, daring move: no authorial distancing to be seen here) who after being involved in a serious traffic accident that causes the death of the driver of the other vehicle, becomes obsessed with the sexual possibilities inherent in car crashes. He meets Vaughan, a rogue scientist and former television presenter, the ‘nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the leader of a clique of similarly affectless crash devotees. Vaughan has one over-riding ambition: to stage the ultimate sex death with the actress Elizabeth Taylor.
The style of Crash is hypnotically detached. As I noted in my previous post on J. G Ballard Living The High Life its hallucinatory cadences render it a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns, as can be seen from the following quote. It is also, without doubt, spectacularly deranged.
I think now of the other crashes we visualised, absurd deaths of the wounded, maimed and distraught. I think of the crashes of psychopaths, implausible accidents carried out with venom and disgust, vicious multiple collisions contrived in stolen cars on evening freeways among tired office workers. I think of the absurd crashes of neurasthenic housewives returning from their VD clinics, hitting parked cars in suburban streets. I think of the crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets: of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into brick walls at the ends of known cul-de-sacs; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted crashes on complicated interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageress burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together in roadside industrial canals.
The novel soon achieved cult status in France, unsurprisingly as the French have a long tradition of intellectual, transgressive pornography dating back to De Sade (see Philosophy in the Boudoir) and carrying on through Bataille to The Story of O. Most editions include the Introduction to the French Edition which carries Ballard’s spirited defence of pornography, as he notes “pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.”
Crash was later filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996 and was itself the subject of further controversy.
For all its influence on the visual arts and literature, advertising remains the field where Surrealism (or its techniques anyway, the question of aims answers itself) has had the largest impact. In J.G Ballard’s (who was a former advertising copy-writer himself) 1970 experimental novel on the media landscape, The Atrocity Exhibition, which features Marilyn Monroe, JFK and Elizabeth Taylor as characters (or at least people the protogantists fantasies) there are also numerous references to the works of Dali, Magritte, Ernst, Bellmer and others. The inference is clear, the media landscape had been shaped to a large extent by Surrealism.
The clearest example of applied Surrealist techniques is the ad campaigns for cigarette brands Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut in theUKin the 70’s through to the 90’s. Faced with severe restrictions on the marketing of cigarettes; they couldn’t be shown to indicate status, youthfulness or sexual appeal and all ads had to carry the mandatory health warnings, the ad firms Collett Dickinson Pearce for Benson & Hedges and Saatchi & Saatchi for Silk Cut had to get creative. The results are some of the most iconic images ever created in advertising. The Benson & Hedges ads made use of the distintive gold packaging while Silk Cut plays with the brand name and the purple lettering on the box; the swathes of slashed silk hint at possible sexual allusions . Ironically the health warning is sometimes the only thing that alerts you to the fact that it is cigarettes being marketed.