Bleached Tones and Bright Lights

“A sense of the uncanny also appears in the voyeuristic angles and subtle compositional discord. An eeriness therefore lingers in the atmosphere of the exhibition, with its associations with JG Ballard, David Lynch, surveillance, and even Lana Del Rey. This is a city, Ruscha’s photographs and paintings seem to say, where bad things happen, and where secrets are kept. The bleached tones and bright lights give the impression of concealment; the surfaces are too clean to be real, and the scenes too empty to be lifelike.  This Hollywood is so reduced and abstracted that a sense of death permeates, in the two-dimensional, impossible landscapes and the sidewalks without footprints.


“Ruscha pays homage to JG Ballard in particular, quoting from his novel High-Rise (1975) in the largescale work, The Music from the Balconies (1984). In Ballard’s dystopian novel, the inhabitants of a high-rise apartment block descend into chaos and primal urges, communicating a rather bleak vision of human nature. In Ruscha’s painting, a quote from High-Rise overlays an otherwise serene landscape, creating discord in that act itself, and so reinforcing the meaning of the words: “The music from the balconies nearby was overlaid by the noise of sporadic acts of violence.” With this careful, deadpanexecution, Ruscha’s work also recalls the writing of Bret Easton Ellis, particularly his Los Angeles-based debut Less Than Zero, which was written at around the same time this work was created and was itself inspired by Andy Warhol’s experimental 1968 novel A: A Novel. Both Ruscha and Ellis, in the tradition of Ballard and Warhol, seem to have captured a similar atmosphere, and zeitgeist even, in their observations of LA in the mid-80s…”

Text: Music From The Balconies – Ed Ruscha and Los Angeles, Studio International.

Pic: Ed Ruscha, Nine swimming pools and a broken glass, 1968.


From Outer Space to Inner Space

“The mise-en-scène of the picnic with which Powers of Ten begins is of importance, for it presents us with an image that we might locate in a very specific thematic tradition. Certainly the care with which the picnic tableau was constructed is well documented. When we look down, what do we see? The recumbent figure of the man, his hand—which we will shortly plunge into—resting across his chest, some plates, some fruit, a book, and some magazines. Then we see what appears to be an oddly oversized clock (perhaps it is the cover of another book), sliding out from below the volume that sits upon it. Once we notice this, clock faces begin to proliferate: the wristwatch that now seems intentionally turned toward us, and then the plates, with the knives playing the role of chronometer needles […]. The reading matter is suggestive as well. At the top of the frame, to the left of the man’s head, are positioned issues of Scientific American and Science, which—together with the sleeping figure—indicate that we might connect this image to others in which sleeping men are slumped over documents of the work of reason, most obviously “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the forty-third plate of Goya’s Los Caprichos.

“Turning to the book on which the man’s left hand rests we find that it is not, as we might expect, Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View, but rather The Voices of Time, a 1966 collection of essays edited by the Hungarian-American physicist and social scientist Julius Thomas Fraser. And here we perhaps detect an echo of a book that was published in the US four years earlier, namely J. G. Ballard’s The Voices of Time and Other Stories. The title story in Ballard’s collection tells of a scientist (curiously named Powers) who is slowly going to sleep, victim of a “narcoma syndrome” to which increasing numbers are succumbing. There is not space to describe the story in detail here, or—in Powers’s words—the “monstrous surrealist” future it envisages, save to say that it concludes with the scientist lying in the center of a mandala that he has obsessively constructed, perhaps indeed a mandala like the one reproduced on the cover of Fraser’s book, upon which the hand of our sleeping picnicker rests. As Powers falls asleep, his consciousness dissolves into the universe’s great stream of radiation: “Above him he could hear the stars, a million cosmic voices … Like jostling radio beacons … To Powers the sky seemed an endless babel, the time-song of a thousand galaxies overlaying each other in his mind.” Notably, when the story was published in Britain in 1963, it appeared in a collection titled The 4-Dimensional Nightmare.”

Text: Mark Dorrian, Adventure on the Vertical Cabinet, Issue 44 24 Hours Winter 2011/12.

All clocks are labyrinths

“My relationship to JG Ballard had begun […] with our mutual interest in the work of the US artist Robert Smithson. In 1997, I tried to find Smithson’s famous 1970 earthwork, Spiral Jetty, in the Great Salt Lake of Utah. I had directions faxed to me from the Utah Arts Council, which I supposed had been written by Smithson himself. I only knew what I was looking for from what I could remember of art school lectures: the iconic aerial photograph of the basalt spiral formation unfurling into a lake. In the end, I never found it; it was either submerged at the time, or I wasn’t looking in the right place. But the journey had a marked impact on me, and I made a sound work about my attempt to find it. Ballard must have read about it, because he sent me a short text he had written on Smithson, for an exhibition catalogue…

“It was the writer, curator and artist Jeremy Millar who became convinced Smithson knew of Ballard’s short story, The Voices of Time, before building his jetty. All Smithson’s books had been listed after his death in a plane crash in 1973 – and The Voices of Time was among them. The story ends with the scientist Powers building a cement mandala or “gigantic cipher” in the dried-up bed of a salt lake in a place that feels, by description, to be on the very borders of civilisation: a cosmic clock counting down our human time. It is no surprise that it is a copy of The Voices of Time that lies beneath the hand of the sleeping man on the picnic rug in the opening scenes of Powers of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames’ classic 1977 film about the relative size of things in the universe.

“Smithson understood the prehistory of his site. Beneath the Great Salt Lake was, for some, the centre of an ancient universe, and his jetty could have been an elaborate means to bore down to get to it. As if understanding this, Ballard wrote in the catalogue text: “What cargo might have berthed at the Spiral Jetty?” He elaborated later to me in a letter: “My guess is that the cargo was a clock, of a very special kind. In their way, all clocks are labyrinths, and can be risky to enter.” The two men had a lot in common, and Ballard believed him to be the most important and most mysterious of postwar US artists. My interest in time, cosmic and human, future and past, as well as the analogue spooling of the now, has Ballard at its core…”

Text: Tacita Dean: The cosmic clock with Ballard at its core

Image: Tacita Dean, Aerial View of Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac. 16th September 1998.

A city built for speed is a city built for success

“Tellingly, the cities that tourists most enjoy are those in long-term decline –Venice, Florence, Paris, London, New York. The last two are gigantic money-mills, churned by a Centurion-card elite who are retreating into gated communities in Surrey and the Upper East Side. Already their immense spending power has distorted social life in London and New York, freezing out the old blue-collar and middle classes, and validating the notion that the dreams that money can buy are a perfectly fit topic for the young painter, novelist and film-maker. It’s not their own ambition that corrupts today’s artists, but the subject matter facing them.

“So where to find a more astringent, a more challenging and a more real world? Le Corbusier, the greatest visionary architect of the twentieth century, remarked that “a city built for speed is a city built for success”. But almost no city in the world today is built for speed, in the sense that a rapid-access communications system is directly engineered into the asphalt of everyday life, visible from our front doors. Yet hundreds of virtual cities do exist at this very moment that embody Corbusier’s dictum. They surround London, Paris, Chicago and Tokyo, and, as it happens, I live in one of them. “Shepperton”, some of you will say, appalled by the thought. “My God, suburbia. We went to London to get away from that.”

“But Shepperton, for what it’s worth, is not suburbia. If it is a suburb of anywhere, it is of London Airport, not London. And that is the clue to my dislike of cities and my admiration for what most people think of as a faceless dead-land of inter-urban sprawl. Hurrying back from Heathrow or a West Country weekend to their ludicrously priced homes in Fulham or Muswell Hill, they carefully avert their gaze from this nightmare terrain of dual carriageways, police cameras, science parks and executive housing, an uncentred realm bereft of civic identity, tradition or human values, a zone fit only for the alienated and footloose, those without past or future.

“And that, of course, is exactly what we like about it. We like the fast dual carriageways, the easy access motorways, the limitless parking lots. We like the control-tower architecture, the absence of civic authority, the rapid turnover of friendships and the prosperity filtered through car and appliance purchases. We like roads that lead past airports, we like air-freight offices and rent-acar forecourts, we like impulse-buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. The triangle formed by the M3 and the M4, enclosing Heathrow and the River Thames, is our zone of possibility, far from the suffocating city politics and self-obsessions of the metropolis (transport, ugh, fares, rents, kerb-side vomit). We are the unenfranchised citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the internet and cable TV. And we’re in no hurry for you to join us.”

J.G. Ballard, “Welcome to the Virtual City”, Tate, Spring 2001. p 33.

Image: Ed Ruscha, Gasoline Stations, 1989.


The pivotal story that intensified Ballard’s divisive status [among SF authors] was the first of what he called his ‘concentrated novels’, ‘The Terminal Beach’. The text is presented in short, titled blocks of prose, which abandon linear sequence, and strip out the extraneous connective material of conventional narrative. The prose-blocks juxtapose imagistic evocation, found texts, gnomic dialogues and different technical registers. Ballard pursued this experimental style between 1966 and 1970, eventually publishing the texts as The Atrocity Exhibition. Merril immediately included ‘The Terminal Beach’ in her manifesto Year’s Best in 1966, and Moorcock editorialized in New Worlds in the same year under the headline ‘Ballard: The Voice’, proclaiming that these new experiments were ‘the first clear voice of a movement destined to consolidate the literary ideas – surrealism, stream-of-consciousness, symbolism, science fiction, etc. etc. – of the 20th century’.12Ballard delivered his own manifesto, ‘Notes from Nowhere’, in the same issue. It was full of puzzling juxtaposed assertions: ‘Neurology is a branch of fiction: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of brain and body. Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?” In a central passage, however, Ballard crisply explained his experiment:

Planes intersect: on one level, the world of public events, Cape Kennedy and Viet Nam mimetised on billboards. On another level, the immediate personal environment, the volume of space enclosed by my opposed hands, the geometry of my own postures, the time-values contained in this room, the motion-space of highways … On a third level, the inner world of the psyche. Where these planes intersect, images are born. With these co-ordinates, some kind of valid reality begins to clarify itself.

“This method was essentially one of Modernist collage reanimated by the 1960s avant-garde. Disregarding boundaries between discourses at the level of the sentence, Ballard’s experiments also moved between different media. He published a number of pieces in New Worlds but also in non-SF ‘little’ journals like Ambit and Transatlantic Review. He designed mock-advertisements, and sought funding from the Arts Council for billboard art (of the kind being done by Daniel Buren). He also organized an exhibition at the London Arts Lab to explore new psychopathologies. This was, needless to say, anathema to an American SF that Ballard characterized as ‘an extrovert, optimistic literature of technology’ compared to ‘introverted, possibly pessimistic’ new SF.” The first American print-run of The Atrocity Exhibition was pulped for fear of litigation; it eventually appeared in a Grove Press edition, the home of avant-garde fiction by Georges Bataille and William Burroughs.”

Roger Luckhurst, “Decade Studies: The 1960s”, Science Fiction. Cambridge: Polity. 2005. p 149-150.

Image: Stanley Donwoo, Teeth, 2006, via New Shelton