The Exquisite Corpse: An Autopsy of the New Millennium
Originally published as "Letter From Barcelona" on Ballardian.
By Rick McGrath
Hola, and buenos dias from Barcelona. It's 24 July 2008 and I’m currently standing in the Carrer de Montalegre, a narrow street deep in the university section of Barcelona. Behind me is the university’s faculty of philosophy building, and I’m standing in the overbright sunlight, looking at an imposing 18th century building which is currently the home of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), and even more currently the home of the very first museum exhibition dedicated to the life and work of JG Ballard.
It’s a great place to be…
I’ve been here two days now, and have toured the show three times in different guises as it was being finished, once with the Press, and finally at the Grand Opening with Barcelona VIPs and I thought I’d like to treat you to an overall taste of the experience a sort of old-fashioned slide show with commentary a visual tour of what visitors to this extraordinary exhibition will experience.
OK, you ready? Visitor’s pass showing?
The CCCB Building -- Once A Hospital!
The first bit of irony comes quickly when you discover this building was first constructed as a hospital. What better place to perform an Autopsy of the New Millennium? Crossing the street we enter the building thru an archway to the left is the Museum’s administration offices, to the right the ubiquitous gift shop. Ahead is a huge courtyard, empty save for a few trees and student-filled lounge chairs. The building retains its ancient decorations on three sides, and these walls face an angled wall of glass, which rises and tips protectively over the courtyard.
Entering The Exhibition
The trip into the exhibition itself is a Ballardian experience of corridors and obsessively angled floors. You first walk along the wall of the courtyard, turn sharp right and saunter down a long incline, deceptively mirrored on the right, to the end of the walkway and a set of hidden doors. Entering, you reverse direction and descend again along another incline which empties sharp left into to a large auditorium with information booths, ticket sales, and a large screen showing the CCCB’s specially-made promotional video for the show. We pass thru and then climb a series of long, open stairs, which leads us into the new glass tower and onto Spain’s longest escalator a three-story monster right out of Kingdom Come which delivers us to the Exhibition’s entrance and a charming young lady who would like to see our passes, por favor. We’re here. I’d suggest we now put on our surgical masks and rubber gloves.
The first room we enter is actually not part of the Autopsy itself, but a sort of literary introduction to what follows. We see a video projection onto a wall, and docu-style a number of writers, English and Spanish, French and Catalan, extol the influence and seductive qualities of Ballard’s work. John Clute and Martin Amis feature prominently, and once your mind has been properly attuned and your Ballard glasses are in focus, it’s time to enter the Exhibition proper.
Autopsy Room #1: What I Believe
This opening section is called “Credo”, and it’s a multi-media effort with a wall of words and mirrors, the bars of JGB’s dulcet tones, and three videoscreens repeating what JG says in Spanish, Catalan and English. It’s a repetition of JG’s "What I Believe" piece in the January 1984 issue of Science Fiction magazine, in which he summarizes his obsessions and its often-disturbing logic. If you stand in precisely the right spot the words on the wall before you also reveal tiny mirrors reflecting the light from an electric candle. Psycho-delic. The words that appear on the screens also melt and fade, ebbing and flowing with the tidal resonance of Ballard’s musical speech. It’s a fascinating experience, and I noted both the press and VIPs were mesmerized by the incantory nature of this first cut into the body of our culture.
Autopsy Room #2: From Shanghai to Shepperton
From Credo we dip back in time to JG’s youth in Shanghai and Lunghua camp where the Japanese interned JG and his family for three years. This display begins with a loop from Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, where young Jimmy attempts to bring the young Japanese kamikaze pilot back to life, and then settles into the real thing in a cleverly-constructed room which shows scenes from the camp on one wall, and opposite, separated by prison-like planking, scenes from the destruction of Shanghai. Against the far wall runs a continuous vid of JG’s BBC-produced return to Shanghai and Lunghua in 1991.
The CCCB organizers (I’ll laud them later) have done a terrific job of assembling period photographs of Shanghai under siege, and many of these photos I’ve not seen before… but have unconsciously experienced in JG’s work. The camp is represented by a series of soft watercolours, in stark opposition to the black and white photographs of war, and I was pleased and surprised to see the image of Lunghua camp survivor Irene Duguid in two of the photos I had the pleasure of sitting and talking with her at her home in Surrey just four days earlier.
Autopsy Room #3: Landscapes Of Dream
This is one of my favourite autopsy rooms. It begins with a short quote from Miracles of Life printed just inches from the floor on a black wall: “At the age of 16, I discovered Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross.” This room contains just three exhibits, but powerful ones they are: a photo of JG in his home at Shepperton in front of his Delvaux painting, a new version of the painting specially done for this show by Brigid Marlin (it’s dated 2008), and the piece de resistance, an incredible surreal image generator!
As the CCCB press release says: “His writings not only recreates the many of the visions of Surrealism, it also reproduces some of its aesthetic strategies superimpositions, mirroring, false perspectives, mutations in order to explain the profound structure of the real.” These strategies are all visualized in this very clever display: ten or so sheets of muslin cloth have been suspended from the ceiling, approximate three feet apart. At each end a projector illuminates a slowly changing series of images from famous surrealist paintings onto the cloth. Walking back and forth and up and down between the sheets reveals an endlessly-changing collage of images from the likes of Dali and Ernst, Magritte and Delvaux, spinning endlessly thru impositions and mutations. I spent a lot of time in this room.
Autopsy Room #4: Inner Space
Now we’re moving into more familiar territory this section deals with the ramifications of JG’s 1962 New Worlds editorial, “Which Way To Inner Space?” Visitors are treated to wall-projected vids of JG’s favourite SF movies (Alien, Alphaville, Barbarella, Close Encounters, Dark Star, Dr Strangelove, Forbidden Planet, Silent Running, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Road Warrior) and opposite these imaginary images we move to the real with vids from Cape Canaveral space program projected upon the opposite wall but in reverse… then you note the large central display case is mirrored and the visuals magically right themselves. In this display case are souvenirs of JG’s 1969 trip to Rio for the International Festival of Cinema, and, oh look some items from my collection have made an appearance early SF pulps from the 1950s, various magazines, such as Interzone, and literary newspapers such as Bananas. The only new thing I here I had not seen is a rather Hollywood-inspired photo of JG, looking young, round-cheeked and rather smug in his pressed white shirt and cool shades.
Autopsy Room #5: Disaster Area
This exhibit begins with a series of small exhibits of clever homages to The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World (a diver’s brass helmet) and The Crystal World, and leads ultimately to one of the exhibition’s strongest images: a huge room filled with sand, out of which protrudes the top of a sun- and rust-ravaged car. The effect is enhanced with off-centre lighting, and this startling image of The Drought is one you’ll remember, and think about, long after you leave.
Autopsy Room #6: Technology and Pornography
Now we move into another of my fave pieces of the dismembered millennium… very cleverly organized with each mini-exhibit separated by the white sheets of medical privacy screens. The original use of the building as a hospital is reflected in the ancient arches overhead, and the visuals are pumped up with the addition of a heartbeat-like bass drum slowly thumping in the background. Half of this exhibit is literary, with displays of JG’s “Advertiser’s Announcements”, a copy of the Doubleday Atrocity Exhibition, a facsimile of the “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” handout distributed at the Republican Convention, copies of the Warren Commission Report and the book of car crash injuries.
The most fascinating object in this section is the original two-page spreads JG made in 1958 or 1959 which he called “Project for a New Novel”. JG gave it to Ambit editor Dr Martin Bax, who had it framed in two sections, and as far as I know this is the very first time the complete piece has been shown outside the Bax home. As you know, parts of it have been reprinted by RE/Search and New Worlds, but this is the only time all of it has been made available for public viewing. What was startling, however, was the emergence for the first time of two previously-unknown section of "Project" now called Beach Fatigue. Precisely 50 years since it was created we now know "Project" was comprised of not four double-page spreads, but five such layouts. The newfound spread is reproduced below:
The rest is video, showing excerpts from Cronenberg’s Crash, a fragment of Jonathan Weiss' movie, The Atrocity Exhibition with real footage of victims if Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and, finally, a huge room showing multi-vids on two walls, with all reflected on a third wall. The effect is startling and cumulative, and on both times I visited both the press & VIPs just stood there, captured by the strength and variety and perversity of the visuals…
Autopsy Room #7: Asepsis and Neobarbarism
Here the exhibition features the final stages of JG’s realist writings, starting with Running Wild and ending with Kingdom Come. The visuals are split into two, with a long corridor, mirrored at both ends, revealing overhead text generators which feature copy from Millennium People. On the wall are four TV screens, set at child-height level, and they display a series of incredible visuals, such as adverts for gated communities in Dubai, and Disney’s fake town of Celebration, Florida. The whole thing is drenched in a dark blue light, and the mirrors reflect all to infinity in both directions. Very cool.
Autopsy Room #8: The Ballard Library
OK, here’s where the bulk of the books the CCCB borrowed from me reside, so I won’t go on at length. Suffice perhaps to say this is the first time they’ve been out in public, and I hope they behave themselves. As well as my collection, this area features a series of computer monitors that allows visitors to replay all the videos shown in the prior exhibits, and three tables contain softcover editions of JG’s work which have been translated into Spanish and Catalan. The public is encouraged to pick up and read a little JG for themselves. Good idea.
This section also contains filmmaker Solveig Nordlund’s very important interview with JG -- "Encontro con o escritor JG Ballard" and Simon Sellars' outstanding, exhaustive and brilliantly commented selection of Ballardian music. The end wall contains a fascinating series of photographs taken in 2006 by Donovan Wylie which were never published, and they reveal JG at home at approximately the same time he was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer.
The final part of this autopsy is the staggeringly honest “Answers Given By Patient J.G.B. To The Eyckman Personality Quotient Test” from The Unlimited Dream Company, a movie by sam Scoggins. In it JG quickly and steadfastly answers “yes” or “no” to a series of rapidfire questions while the camera slowly zooms in on his face, finally settling on an extreme closeup of his left eye. This video was very popular, and continually elicited grunts, titters and the odd chittering from its always-large audience.
Autopsy Room #9: Ballardian Art
The Exhibition ends, fittingly, with four rooms of art influenced by Ballard and the concept of “Ballardian”. We’re first treated to a wall of unsettling and disturbing photos by Anna Barrado, she of RE/Search publications fame, then a captivating video of sunlight changing the perspectives of a room by Ann Lislegaard, photos of Michelle Lord’s miniature models of stacked cars, TV sets, and washing machines… and finally, the winners of the Ballardian website's cellphone home videos contest, cleverly set up so you watch them on a cellphone.
And that, amigos, is the Exhibition. All in all, around 90,000 square feet of JG Ballard. We leave the same way as we arrived, by taking a long escalator ride back to the main floor, reminding me in a curious way that we have traveled “up” into the realm of the unbridled imagination, and are now returning “down” to the reality of convention and habit.
You can keep the surgical mask as a souvenir.
The Medical Team:
This is an excellent, thought-provoking, informative exhibition, and one I’m sure which would have pleased JG had he been well enough to attend. Can you give it greater praise? Yes, those responsible should be dragged out and severely congratulated:
Jordi Costa. The Curator.
And not your idea of a Curator hip, intense, knowledable, and an accomplished writer himself, Jordi’s vision and leadership has created the first, and most impressive overview of JGB, his work and influence. Super job, Jordi!
Marcial Souto: The Advisor.
Marceil is one of Spain’s best-known translators, having worked on over 100 SF classics, and 40 of JG’s novels and short stories.
Miquel Nogués. The Coordinator.
Here’s he man who tracked down and organized all the various elements of the Exhibition, including the original flats for “Project For A New Novel” from Dr Martin Bax, the news Delvaux painting by Brigid Marin, all the photographs and videos, and more. Basically, he’s responsible for the body that has been autopsied.
Dani Freixes & Pep Angli. The Designers & Assemblers.
These two gentlemen are responsible for the show’s brilliant visual appeal, the use of colour and music and light. It’s a retinal circus, and they deserve lots of credit.
Mariona Garcia. The Designer.
With the assistance of Anaïs Esmerado, she developed the textual look of the show, relying on understated, clean fonts and all the show’s peripheral print, such as the catalogue, posters and handouts.
Cristina Giribets. The A/V.
She is responsible for all the exhibition’s marvelous audio-visual work, and, it should also be noted that the Large Wall of compelling images found in the Technology and Pornography exhibit was created by Andres Hispano and La Chula Productions. Good eye, everyone!
All in all, a most excellent adventure into the mind of JGB… thank you, doctors, for all your hard work.
And that is just about it. From Barcelona, adios!
Click here to see over 100 photos of the Exhibition.
Click here to see the Exhibition's Press and Publicity packages.