Ballard of the motorway (Quintessentially)

There’s an elephant in the room, hiding behind a sacred cow: JG Ballard wasn’t a particularly great writer. There were landmark novels but then there were airport thrillers let down by clunky prose and clumsy deus ex machina endings. What made him such a genius was a bold, glacial, prophetic style that had little to do with turns of phrase. Ballard was the urban soothsayer, armed with ideas that continue to manifest themselves in, and shape, the worlds of art and design. He is gone, but all around us.

Like ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Warholian’ and ‘Jarmanesque’, ‘Ballardian’ has quickly passed into the lexicon of popular culture, describing a particularly modern dystopia of industrial landscapes and the effects on their inhabitants of technological, social or environmental depredations. Like Warhol, Ballard had a heightened awareness of the effects on British post-war society of developing technologies and media. He was also very conscious of Brand Ballard.  Like Jarman, he mapped out his physical territory with precision. Instead of Dungeness and burning Union Flags, he had Shepperton and car wrecks.  His imagery was potent, pernicious and miraculously ahead of the curve. He was punk before punk existed. Think of the Seditionaries period at McLaren and Westwood’s World’s End, with its intimidating frosted glass frontage, bombed out ceiling and civil unrest propoganda. ‘Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’ are chapter titles from The Atrocity Exhibition from 1970, but could just as easily have been World’s End T-shirt slogans six years later.

When Kingdom Come was published in 2006, it was easy to raise an eyebrow at the central conceit: society enslaved by consumerism and the shopping mall as fascist cathedral. It felt over-familiar, something revisited ad nauseum ever since George Romero set his slow-walking zombies loose in Dawn of the Dead in 1978. Two years later, in 2008, Westfield opened in London to a curiously hysterical press and public, in defiance of the implosion of global finance. The culture vacuum of Westfield is classic Ballard, from the LVMH and Gucci luxury stores at the Village, never troubled by more than a couple of bemused visitors a day, to its identikit All Saints and its multiplex cinema. Shoppers sleepwalk towards it, reassured by its shiny surfaces, distracted from shootings in the local Nandos. Across the Atlantic, the insular 1111 Lincoln Road development in Miami, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, is gloriously Ballardian – effectively one big multi storey car park that also happens to be an apartment and retail complex. 1111 Lincoln Road is a place for cars rather than people.

Architecture is key to Ballardian philosophy, and he was one of the most high-profile members – along with Ian Sinclair and Will Self – of a loose collective of British literary psychogeographers. His perspective on urban planning and the motorways of the hinterland was contrary and radical. ‘He touched the imaginations of architects as diverse as Nigel Coates and Rem Koolhaas,’ says the Design Museum’s Deyan Sudjic. ‘They shared his interest in dystopia.’ Dystopia for Ballard wasn’t the traditional ghetto, defined by socioeconomic conditioning, it was the Costa del Gated Community and the ‘new town’ and how it altered the state of mind. He would have been enthralled by the Olympic developments, destined to become immense white elephants. Likewise the sleek overground trains which now run through a reinvented Dalston full of new build apartments with floor to ceiling glass and balconies, sterile and halfway to ethnic cleansing – Ballardian, all of it. It is the architecture of wealth, disenfranchising to the last brick.

The flipside of all of this can be found in the brutalism of Trellick Tower in W11 – once reviled, but now adored without much sense of irony by lovers of modernist design, its walkways reduced to a Margo Selby textile print used on luggage, ties and furniture. Meanwhile, Paramount, on the top floor of Richard Seifert’s rehabilitated 1960s Centre Point, has become one of the most desirable destination dining rooms – and sumptuous Ballardian experiences – in London.

Ballard was in love with roads and runways – transient zones. He believed the Westway should have extended right through NW1 and Hampstead. He embraced an unsettling future, and hungered for change. His favourite building in London was the Heathrow Hilton, designed by Michael Manser, which, he said, ‘resembles a cross between a brain surgery hospital and a space station. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to.’ He wanted all of London to look like this, as if ‘everybody was getting ready to leave for Mars’.

Ballard’s attitude towards architectural design was wilfully anarchic and nihilistic: windows broken, swimming pools drained. We are so used to the cosy and preordained nature of interiors and architecture that dereliction and the ability to explore a space unintended for lingering has a dangerous frisson to it. It’s popular subject matter for contemporary art photographers. Dan Holdsworth – whose work will be appearing in this year’s Out of Focus: Photography Now show at the Saatchi Gallery in London –  creates gloriously light-saturated imagery of abandoned motorways, shot at slow speeds so that they take on a hyperreal quality. The light-sensitive materials in the camera work in a way that the eye cannot, creating a visual opera of yellow-striped concrete and starbursting streetlights. Troy Paiva, who documents crumbling, vacant American landscapes, shoots in a similar style, and has been profiled by the Ballardian.com website as a particularly Ballardian photographer. ‘There is that sense of desolation and isolation,’ Paiva says, ‘the fetishism of decay.’

The artist Roger Hiorns created what must surely be the most Ballardian piece of art in recent years. His Seizure installation, filling an abandoned council flat in Elephant & Castle with dazzling blue, alien-like crystals, was the very essence of The Crystal World (1966). There were layers and layers of Ballardian ideas present in a space that was as unsettling as it was beautiful. Hiorns has spoken of ‘the desire to capture the building, to impregnate it – introducing strangeness into a functional utilitarian space’, as well as a ‘pscyho-sexual element’ in the installation. ‘… introducing a liquid in the building so that the host environment is seeded, and then the crystal grows out… an aggressive process.’ The project strikes an amplified chord with the cinema of perennially Ballardian director David Cronenberg, the perfect choice of filmmaker for the 1996 big screen adaptation of Crash. His mid-70s film Rabid dealt with residents of a suburban high rise who turn into sex-crazed fiends when exposed to a fast-spreading virus, with obvious parallels to Ballard’s High Rise (1975). Cronenberg’s 1983 Videodrome created a world where pornography carries a deadly virus which causes its users to hallucinate and mutate. The latter film, along with much of Ballard’s more sexually aggressive work, predicts today’s world in which the internet has sexualised the media, and a whole generation, to a degree that would have been seen as science fiction in the 1970s: a world of Grindr casual-encounter iPhone applications and DIY suburban-pornstars getting their 15 minutes of fame on Xtube.com.

The Ballardian style was celebrated in the Crash show at the Kings Cross Gagosian gallery earlier this year, an exhibition which captured his aesthetic perfectly. Adam McEwen’s Honda Teen Facial – the undercarriage of a 747 –echoed Ballard’s self-staged Crash exhibition of car wrecks at the New Art Laboratory in 1970, while Chris Burden’s L.A.P.D. Uniform, an 88 inch high policeman’s boilersuit, loomed with menace and implicit violence. Plans are now afoot for a more underground – and literally subterranean – show in London, planned by Ballard’s partner Clare Walsh and artist Gee Vaucher, while Ballard continues to be namechecked by cultural commentators and artists dealing with subjects as diverse as postmodern architecture and reality TV.

Ballard’s vast body of work is a national treasure (his archive, which takes up 12 metres of shelf space, made its way into the British Library in June), but the Ballardian style was most succinctly nailed down by his poem What I Believe. ‘I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.’ From whorish media celebrity and legal highs to 9/11 TV footage, BP oil slicks, Cumbrian massacres and imploding, brutalist council estates, Warm Leatherette to Madonna’s Drowned World, road rage and beyond, his influence will continue to be seen and heard for decades to come.

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