Like all obsessions, Ballard's novel is occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous. The invariance of its intensity is not something the reviewer can easily suggest. Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different - a disused - part of the reader's brain. You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then sit around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.It’s been twenty-four hours since I saw Crash, the Gagosian Gallery's 'homage' to the man in question, and I’m still waiting for the haunting to start.
There are undoubtedly works in this exhibition that disgust, titillate, please, impress, amuse – but haunt? There’s some kind of essential lack of affect going on at the Gagosian: a lack which is not one of Ballard’s faults as a writer. Even when the environments and the people he creates are sterile or alienating, the books produce some sort of feeling. They are always unsettling. And they don’t go away; their power to unsettle grows quietly over time.
There's a frisson of Ballard when you arrive; the fragment of Boeing 747 undercarriage which sits immediately inside the gallery entrance has a quasi-erotic charge simply because it’s so REAL and so BIG and so DIRTY. The size of the tyres! The giant grinding bits of metal! The fragility of the human body in comparison! (And not just the especially fragile human bodies which hang around surreptitiously adjusting their fringes at exhibitions like this.)
However, the only artwork which seems to share Ballard's power to 'come back and haunt you' is Mike Nelson’s installation ‘Preface to the 2004 Edition (Triple Bluff Canyon)’. This constructed space, placed between two of the gallery rooms, is almost nothing-y, almost evades description. You enter it through double doors and find yourself, incongruously, in a carpeted, octagonal room, something like a small lobby perhaps, with red lamps shining from the walls and numbers over the doors.
It’s utterly normal, mundane, and at the same time disconcerting in the extreme, because what the hell is it doing here? And what are you doing in it? The half-mirrored doors, through which you can see people moving around the main gallery rooms, like ghosts overlaid on your own misty-startled reflection, the overwhelming heat and stuffiness of it, the difficulty of pushing open the heavy wooden doors (some are locked), all contribute to the sense of panic and wanting to escape.
Despite being one of the least ‘Ballardian’ works in the exhibition in terms of its subject matter, the feeling it provokes is properly Ballard-like: both boring and haunting, quotidian and frightening.
By contrast, many of the other pieces on display are superficially Ballardian, explicitly portraying sex, death, gore, cities, machines, the distortion of the human animal in the inhuman built environment. But these are the general preoccupations of much modern art, and it definitely seems a stretch to claim that some of these works have any particular connections to Ballard. What, for example, is the relevance of the incest drawings of Hans Bellmer, or the similarly unpleasant painting by John Currin? If ‘perverted sex’ – or in Currin’s case, just ‘yuk sex’ – is sufficient to include it as a ‘homage to Ballard’, then pretty much anything in the world could be shoehorned in here.
The weakness of the links to Ballard means that the exhibition itself is close to incoherent, with no narrative to lead you from room to room, and no particular unifying idea within any of the rooms. This doesn't destroy the value of individually excellent works. The inclusion of Paul Delvaux, Dalí, and de Chirico is justified as they are known to have influenced Ballard, while paintings by Jenny Saville, Edward Hopper, and the brilliant young Northerner George Shaw are of such quality that you don’t mind the tenuousness - or downright absence - of any Ballard connection.
Many of the Big Names here are not represented by anything much worth seeing: the pieces by Rauschenberg, Warhol, Bacon, and Basquiat, for example, are very far from their best. You can’t help feeling that the Gagosian just wanted to get the most impressive list of names possible for their press release.
There are a couple of good visual jokes, like Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Proposed Giant Monument of Concrete Inscribed with the Names of War Heroes, in the Intersection of Canal Street and Broadway I’, and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s limited-edition ‘Bang. Wallop’ book (a messed-up pastiche of Crash).
One’s inclined to suspect, however, in a gallery which includes an installation of ‘235 clear contact lenses’ scattered on the floor – and then reprimands its visitors for treading on them – that any lulz are probably more luck than judgement.
In a nutshell, the Gagosian has cleverly put together an exhibition that packs several powerful punches to bring in the punters: lots of Big Names, explicit sex and gore, attached to an intellectually-respectable, recently-dead writer. It’s no wonder that even on a grey Thursday lunchtime, the gallery was packed. But that’s precisely what’s wrong with it: no wonder.
Crash: Homage to JG Ballard, Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia St, WC1X 9JD. 11 February – 1 April 2010