Tacita Dean’s film JG, opening today at the Frith Street Gallery, was inspired by a correspondence with J.G. Ballard shortly before his death from cancer in 2009. Dean was interested in the connections between Ballard’s short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s masterpiece, Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500 ft earthwork built into the Salt Lake in Utah. Ballard urged Dean to ‘treat [Spiral Jetty] as a mystery that your film will solve.’ I’ve not been able to make it in to see the film yet but Ballard’s papers are archived at the British Library so I spent some of yesterday nosing around in them.
I’m attempting to hawk around paying print outlets a piece based on that archival cratedigging, so won’t post it here until next week, but here’s some useful contextualising material. Ballard sent Dean the text of his short piece ‘Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist’ (printed on the back of a proof page from Millennium People). This is published in Conley, Brian, and Joe Amrhein, Robert Smithson: A Collection of Writings on Robert Smithson on the Occasion of the Installation of ‘Dead Tree’ at Pierogi 2000 (Brooklyn, NY: Pierogi 2000, 1997) but is nowhere online, so with apologies to the publishers, here it is:
What cargo might have berthed at the Spiral Jetty? And what strange caravel could have emerged from the saline mists of this remote lake and chosen to dock at this mysterious harbour? One can only imagine the craft captained by a rare navigator, a minotaur obsessed by inexplicable geometries, who had commissioned Smithson to serve as his architect and devise this labyrinth in the guise of a cargo terminal.
But what was the cargo? Time appears to have stopped in Utah, during a geological ellipsis that has lasted for hundreds of millions of years. I assume that that cargo was a clock, though one of a very special kind. So many of Smithson’s monuments seem to be a patent amalgam of clock, labyrinth and cargo terminal. What time was about to be told, and what even stranger cargo would have landed here?
The Amarillo Ramp I take to be both jetty and runway, a proto-labyrinth that Smithson hoped would launch him from the cramping limits of time and space into a richer and more complex realm.
Fifty thousands years from now our descendants will be mystified by the empty swimming pools of an abandoned southern California and Cote d’Azur, lying in the dust like primitive time machines or the altar of some geometry obsessed religion. I see Smithson’s monuments belonging in the same category, artefacts intended to serve as machines that will suddenly switch themselves on and begin to generate a more complex time and space. All his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves.
Reading Smithson’s vivid writings, I feel he sensed all this. As he stands on the Spiral Jetty he resembles Daedalus inspecting the ground plan of the labyrinth, working out the freight capacity of his cargo terminal, to be measured in the units of a neurological deep time. He seems unsure whether the cargo has been delivered.
His last flight fits into the myth, though for reasons of his own he chose the wrong runway, meeting the fate intended for his son. But his monuments endure in our minds, the ground plans of heroic psychological edifices that will one day erect themselves and whose shadows we can already see from the corners of our eyes.
I’d also like to draw attention to Eric Saxon’s MA thesis which is a nice piece of scholarship on precisely this relationship; and Smithson’s essay ‘Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space’ (1966, sadly a bit difficult to read in this form). There’s also a really solid article by Andrew Frost at ballardian.com. Suffice to say there is much to be read and thought around this relationship.
The media line is that she was “divisive”, and that seems to remain the case, as folk disagree about whether to respect her or to celebrate her death, or even whether to respect the rights of those who want to respect her or the rights of those who want to celebrate her death. Greater agreement is to be found among politicians, who recognise the politically numinous and, by-and-large, respect that, if nothing else. The irony is that one of the few distinct classes left after Thatcher – apart from the ‘underclass’ of her direct creation – is the political class, an isolated cadre of intellectually lithe control-freaks, ego-maniacs and affect-engineers.
The most interesting piece I’ve read came from Russell Brand, of all people, someone I’m not accustomed to much enjoying. Describing a sighting of the late Thatcher in her late-period dotage and loneliness tending the plants in Temple, he comes across as some deviant, near-future naturalist, a spotter of almost-extinct species. His story reminded me of Gordon Burn’s encounter with Thatcher in Battersea Park at the beginning of Born Yesterday (if I leant my copy to anyone reading this I’d love it back!):
Where does she go in between all the times she is not being ‘Margaret Thatcher’? The answer, sometimes, it seems, is here, where the short, purposeful steps of her performance self are allowed to dwindle into the short, tentative steps of pensionerdom and widowhood and she is allowed time away from the big emphatic colours she uses to identify herself for the cameras – her blazons. (Faber and Faber (2008) pp. 17-18)
Burn, in his fiction and hybrid writing, was something of a geologist of morbidity, digging down into the cultural weirdness surrounding death through the strata of celebrity. His nearly-dead Thatcher was a suspended premonition of what we now have. He recognised Thatcher as exerting a powerful pull in the imaginary realm, the social unconscious that finds coprolalic vent in the tabloid press. So too did Iain Sinclair, whose portrayal of the Widow in Downriver routes into fever-dream to find appropriate voice:
One morning … the newspapers loud with her praise, the Sun in its heaven, banked television monitors floating a cerulean image-wash, soothing and silent, streamlets of broken Wedgwood crockery, satellite bin lids flinging back some small reflection of the blue virtue she had copyrighted, filmy underwear of sky goddesses, clouds of unknowing … the Widow rose from her stiff pillows – bald as Mussolini – and felt the twitch start in her left eyelid. She ordained the immediate extermination of this muscular anarchy, this palace revolt: but without success. She buzzed for the valet of the bedchamber, a smiler in hornrims. He entered the presence with a deferential smirk, hands behind back (like a defeated Argie conscript), bowing from the hip: he was half a stone overweight, creaking with starch and greedy for preferment. He disconnected the ‘sleep-learning’ gizmo, the tapes that fed the Widow her Japanese humour, taught the finer points of cheating atstud poker, and provided an adequate form forecast to the current camel-racing season. She was a brand leader, she did not sleep. ‘A’ brand leader? The leader, the longest-serving politico-spiritual Papa Boss not yet given the wax treatment, and planted in a glass box to receive the mercifully filtered kisses of a grateful populace. (Penguin (2004) p. 285; Paladin (1991))
Wax treatment, yes: but there’s to be no glass box. Sinclair’s vision has the feel of detournement, the blighted writer reclaiming his psychic territory and wreaking satiric revenge: he, too, has her defined by death; steeped in sleep; producer of skies. Thatcher summons this visionary mode, her powerful psychic pull requiring something far more lucid than realism. A response of this order closes David Peace’s GB84, a single-page prose poem equal parts Blake and Marx:
Here where she stands at the gates at the head of her tribe and waits – Triumphant on the mountains of our skulls. Up to her hems in the rivers of our blood – A wreath in one hand. The other between her legs – Her two little princes dancing by their necks from her apron strings, and she looks down at the long march of labour halted here before her and says, Awake! Awake! This is England, Your England – and the Year is Zero. (Faber and Faber (2004) p. 462)
Note that hand between the legs. There have been any number of quotes remembering Thatcher’s sexual power, and doubtless this is astonishing to the young and repulsive to those who self-identify as left-wing. John Snow recalled her rustling tights, a particularly fetishistic response; all and sundry have quote Francois Mitterand’s remark that she had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula; Ian McEwan trotted out some Christopher Hitchens anecdote, which is all the McEwan crowd are good for these days.
There’s a stand-out source to turn to for the good juice on Thatcher’s powerful sexual allure: as Iain Sinclair remarked in interview to Tim Chapman, “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”
‘What I Believe’, first published in French in Science Fiction #1 in January 1984 (French readers, famously, got Crash-era Ballard rather more readily than we Brits), and later republished in Interzone that summer, places her firmly in the Ballard pantheon, posing her in various frames and snapshots, as if a character in The Atrocity Exhibition:
I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel, in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel, watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
(If you’re unsure about the confusion the sexuality of Thatcher causes among younger readers, check out this piece on Dazed Digital that reads ‘What I Believe’ as tongue-in-cheek and lists it as an ‘anti-Thatcher moment’)
Ballard has been asked to expand on this in interview a number of times. Survival Research’s Mark Pauline procured a particularly rich response in 1986:
JGB: I’ve always admired her enormously. I always found her extremely mysterious and attractive at the same time. I think she exerts a powerful sexual spell, and I’m not alone. I think there are a lot of men who find themselves driven to distraction by the mystery of Margaret Thatcher. She’s remarkable. I think she taps all sorts of extreme responses on the part of, certainly, men in the population at large.
MP: How do you think she fits in with the whole English historical tendency to have female rulers?
JGB: I think she exemplifies that. She taps very deep levels of response. There are elements of La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the merciless muse, in her. Also the archetype of the–
JGB: Yes, the Medusa. She taps a large number of deep responses which people express in present-day terms. She’s the nanny, she’s the headmistress, and she’s school-marmy as well. I think her appeal goes far beyond . . . it’s a very ambiguous appeal. She represents all these sort of half-stages–half-conscious, primordial forces . . . that she certainly tapped.
As ever, Ballard is an expert analyst of the cultural condition. He is listening carefully to what the analysand has to say, and what’s coming through is that they want to be fucked by Thatcher.
The excellent Extreme Metaphors interviews book, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, reveals the extent of Ballard’s infatuation/interest and its maturation (go straight to the index, something we might have picked up from Jim himself). Thatcher is discussed on several pages from the 80s through to his final years (Ballard’s a fan of cruise missiles, a proponent of the Falklands action, and a supporter of her economic policies – this, despite being anti-monarchist, anti-Lords, anti-public school. Libertarians would like to claim him, but we might be more secure identifying him as a denier of political binaries. Certainly, he’s more interested in how politics works in the psychological register than in the ideological.)
For those whose livelihoods and communities were devastated by her political decisions, she might be the embodiment of evil, a single individual on whom to heap blame for destruction. If we join Ballard and analyse from a different perspective we might note that she embodied something that has remained more culturally potent than ideology: the adman’s understanding of the libidinal forces that really drive us. She had a domineering sexual hook. She fucked us and a great number of us asked her to do it again. And again.
Her most quoted phrase – her epitaph – is a piece of sexual advice, a coital warning. This lady’s not for turning. Quite. You’ll have to look into those eyes if you want congress. There’ll be no beast of two backs with Thatcher. In fact, perhaps you should be the one to turn.
In 2007 I was writing an MA thesis on JG Ballard and I posted him a nerdy letter about publishing history – specifically about the original annotated edition of The Atrocity Exhibition put out by San Franciscan industrial culture publisher Re/Search. This edition added four new Atrocity pieces and a wealth of annotations that maintained the explosive mobility of the text. It’s a fine piece of work and puts the staid UK Flamingo paperback edition including the same extras to shame. I love getting it out at the British Library. It wears its heart on its sleeve.
I’d read of Ballard’s habit of spending the first hour or so of the day dealing with correspondence but I didn’t really expect anything in reply to my speculative approach. (I’d also written to Re/Search publisher V. Vale and he hadn’t responded). When I received a couple of postcards answering my questions and offering some generous well wishes I was made up. I share these scans in the spirit of literary ephemeral interest: as I say, my questions are a bit nerdy and the textual history Ballard clarifies can probably be pieced together through other sources, but the cards he uses are worth a look, even if they were just what came to hand at his desk. I imagine he had a ready supply.
The first speaks to Ballard’s pop-art fascination and roots: all the covers of Italian pulp comics surrounding the man reading the real news. The world of the imagination is leaking out into reality through this news vendor’s stall. It gestures at the pulp history of Ballard’s own sci-fi beginnings. The photographer for this was Ugo Cozzi and it was taken in Firenze in 1940. The Second World War was year old. The young Jim was in Shanghai but probably not yet interned in Lunghua, where he would be isolated from news of the rest of the world.
The second is really the one, though: Etienne-Louis Boullee’s 1784 drawing for a Cenotaphe a Newton which was not built; a spherical funerary monument dedicated to a dead physicist; a possible pre-Modernist future that looks the epitome of the high Modern. Insert your own hauntological reading here and begin to imagine the world in which Boullee’s architecture had dominated the 19th century. The geometrical style of Boullee’s architecture speaks directly to Ballard’s geometrical obsession – it really can’t be read as anything other than obsessive – that finds its purest expression in Atrocity, and about which I was writing. This one was published by a German publisher but the copyright is owned by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d asked him more expansive questions. I didn’t know him so I was aware it was a bit of an intrusion, and that made me err on the side of caution. And of course I had no idea of how ill he was and probably entertained ideas of writing again. He died two years later on 19 April 2009. If you’ve not read it his autobiography is a model of concise modesty.
These cards represent something of a missed opportunity but they are in a box of things I’d save in the case of a house fire.