I have previously highlighted the influence of the Surrealists and Pop Artists upon J.G. Ballard, one of the few modern writers whose name is now an adjective; the word Ballardian conjures up visions of dystopian modernity, denuded man-made landscapes, the all-consuming nature of mass media, entropy, psychological withdrawal and anomie.
This most visual of writers has been a source of inspiration to artists in his turn, either directly referencing his work or by touching upon Ballardian themes.
I have taken liberties with this selection of ‘Ballardian’ imagery. Obviously Rousseau pre-dates The Drowned World and Warhol is directly stated by Ballard as an influence in The Atrocity Exhibition, but in some sense they seem to me Ballardian. The unconscious forms its own connections, there are no accidents and there are no coincidences.
Between 1967 and 1970 J.G. Ballard placed five ‘advertiser’s announcements’ in Ambit, New Worlds and various continental alternative magazines. Although he was the editor at Ambit and heavily involved in New Worlds he paid the going rates out of his own pocket. Ballard stated that he wanted to eventually place them in Vogue, Paris-Match and Life magazines and even applied for an Arts Council grant to provide the necessary funding, but the idea was summarily rejected by the council. Ballard believed that the refusal was occasioned by their sniffy attitude towards advertising as an art-form: still the hesitancy to pony up public funds is understandable on several counts. Would those august publications have published the adverts considering their bizarre and controversial nature? Is advertising a suitable area for an Arts Council grant? And most pertinently of all, what exactly is Ballard selling?
The adverts feature a black and white image of a woman; the first and final photographs are of his partner Claire Churchill, later Walsh, the second is a still from Steven Dworkin’s film Alone about a woman masturbating, the third is a photograph of a woman in bondage gear that his friend the British Pop Artist Eduardo Paolozzi took and the fourth is by Les Krims; with accompanying text taken and on occasion somewhat re-worked from various chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition. As always with Ballard the motivation and effect is ambiguous. The use of the Situationist International technique of détournement would appear to place them as satires, but Ballard always had a tendency to embrace what was commonly held in contempt by the establishment. Regardless of their overt meaning we can be sure that their latent manifestation is of a deeply subversive nature.
J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.
This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.
In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.
Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.
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.