Painting with words – J. G. Ballard and Salvador Dali inspired text/art/poetry

Some time late last year I designed what you might categorise as a kind of text-art / concrete poem which emulates a painting by Salvador Dali (I thought I had already posted it here on my blog but was shocked to find it sat in a forgotten folder in my google drive gathering dust…). I designed this piece using a similar style to that used by the dystopian author J. G. Ballard, who created a series of unusual billboards in the 50s which were made up of only text. He aimed to have these giant, text-only billboards put up all around London, in amongst the many other billboard ads by the consumer giants. But his would be in stark contrast to the others with their highly visual, eye-catching ads bearing sleek new cars and big breasted women, and would instead turn the well-known methods of advertising on their head… his were more like a strange encrypted message for the masses, which would make people stop and think.. each person who viewed them would draw their own unique logic in deciphering these works, much in the same vein as the surrealists. In short, Ballard’s ads were working at empowering the consumer, which is very different to most every other ad, which has one overriding goal… MAKE. THEM. BUY. So in the first year of my literature PhD I came accross these billboards and wanted to try and work out what they were… I couldn’t simply go along with the vast majority of critics who, because they could not understand them, concluded that they must be meaningless. But the odd thing is, the words and terms that these billboards were made up of are clearly not meaningless, in fact they are very meticulously placed, planned and designed. They were characters and scenes and objects and memories and other fragments which could be found in a great many of his other works… it was almost as if he was providing us with clues… So one day, whilst researching Ballard’s influence by Dali, I started to think on what a Dali painting might look like if it were made purely of words… these fragmentary characters and scenes and dream-like dialogues… and so then what if.. what if Ballard was doing exactly that with his billboards? I did some more research and found that this was a method also used by Magritte in a small few of his paintings, Magritte being another key influence on Ballard, and so this did not seem too far a stretch.. in fact it made much sense. So I began scouring Dali’s work to see if there was any works which might fit the bill. I focused on the central ‘image’ in Ballard’s billboard, ‘mr f is mr f’ (below), and, as I knew ‘mr f is mr f’ is a surrealist story about a man who slowly devolves, and is absorbed back into his mother’s womb (weird: I know), I started to look for something similar in Dali’s images… and lo and behold, I found ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943), which similarly has this huge centralised image of Dali being absorbed into a globe-womb form.. it was just like Ballard’s image. When I placed the billboard and the painting next to each other, I saw that there was far more coinciding elements at play (see my previous blog post here and Guardian article here for more background / examples of crossovers). So, I thought, could this really be what the billboards were? Encoded Salvador Dali paintings? Well of course they are! What better way to undermine the consumer spectacle than to inundate it with surrealist paintings, paintings which work at reinvigorating the imagination! ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION! As the famed May’ 68 slogan went..

2000
one of J. G. Ballard’s billboards from the 1958 ‘Project for a New Novel’ series

Ballard hailed Dali as the greatest painter of the twentieth century and often expressed how his own literary work was heavily influenced by both the surrealist movement and especially Dali’s work and methods. He constantly repeated in interviews how he had always dreamed of being a painter rather than a writer, but never had the artistic skill to do so, which is probably why he decided to create a new method which would enable him to create art using the medium he knew best… the medium of words! So last year I decided that the best way to try to demonstrate Ballard’s process in creating these billboards was to do it for myself, to create my own billboard/artwork/poem using a Dali painting as the framework. So I of course decided to use my all time favourite Salvador Dali painting, ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937), as the underlying artwork. I was going to enjoy this…

Dali narcissus
Dali – ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937)

The truly amazing thing about this painting is how it manages to contain the entire Narcissus myth as told by Ovid in a singular image… this by way of a mergence of mythic imagery and his own personal symbology which recurs throughout his work (Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, is a kind of codex for all of these symbols and images which appear and reappear in his paintings). The two central images of the figure and the hand clasping an egg essentially denote Narcissus’s changing psychology as he gazes into the water. The left figure image is Narcissus as he famously gazes on himself in the lake’s reflection, and on the right is a metaphorical rendition of what he finds lurking there… he finds self-love, and so the egg, which represents blossoming love and fertility in Dali’s work, symbolises how, as he gazes into the watery depths, he falls in love with his own image.. How he drowns in his own image. The mirror image being a gigantic hand is particularly pertinent in that it represents at once this idea of an aggrandisement of the self (i.e. narcissism) but at the same time this idea of how love denotes, in psychoanalytic terms, the ego-ideal; the perfect and grossly augmented rendition of self (see Lacan’s – the best known and most influential follower of Freud – definition of love here for more clarity). So through these 2 central mirrored image we have a depiction of both outer world and inner psychology. In the distance to the left of the image are the cliffs, the cliffs into which famously the nymph Echo would be transformed, cursed for all time to only mimic the voices of others… but now onto my own Ballard influenced billboard..

Screenshot 2018-11-28 at 15.31.33
a Ballard style version of Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’

So what was my method here and what do these words mean in relation to the Dali image? As Ballard does in his own billboards, I first limited myself to using only text, and then attempted to recreate Dali’s painting using allusive fragmentary headlines (many based on Ballard’s stories and characters) and scientific journal excerpts (in this case from a marine biology journal – i.e. ‘drowned world’ – as does Ballard), using the spacing and squared blocks of text to shape out the image. Let me begin to describe the various fragments of text and what they denote. In the top left appears ‘ravenous’ which is partially severed. There are multiple reasons for this and other truncated portions of text. Firstly, so as to urge the viewer to fill the linguistic or narrative void: the fact that the ‘R’ is partially cut-off suggests that there is part of the word missing, the full word being ‘intravenous’. The word itself contains, in homophonic terms, the word ‘ravine’, which is why it is situated in the same location as the ravine or gorge in Dali’s painting (the letter ‘V’ is dead centre within the word thus mirroring the shape of the ravine itself). It could also be seen to emulate the word ‘ravenous’ as in extreme huger, denoting the idea of either Narcissus’s hunger for himself of Echo’s hunger for Narcissus (as in Ovid’s classic myth). The use of truncated text in Ballard’s billboards often serves to emphasise the limitation in the viewer’s visual field and so is emulated here. The purpose of this is to imitate the effect when one views a painting, whereby the viewer, though limited to the framed image before them, nevertheless assumes the depicted image to go beyond this frame of reference (e.g. when a distant mountain range continues off the edge of a landscape painting). The jarring severance of text here also serves to emulate the overarching theme of mirrors, reflection and self-absorption.

So here like Ballard I’m able to generate a multitude of overlapping concepts through a single word, when I acknowledge it as one which stands in the void between language and image. A little down and to the right of where ‘RAVENOUS’, appears ‘The Drowned’ which could refer to The Drowned World or Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ (note the serif text – Ballard uses serif text when he’s alluding to specific short stories). I liked the idea of leaving the final word empty so that the specification of the story is ‘drowned’ in a sense. You’ll notice further down I use the word ‘giant’, this clearly referencing the story, which has been flipped upside down so as to emulate the reflection of the surface of the water. What this achieves is to recreate the duality rendered in Dali’s painting, in which we at once see a giant humanoid (Narcissus) hunched over the water and the hand of a giant figure underwater (i.e. why i use ‘the drowned giant’). The sense of scale in the painting is constantly shifting, in flux, much in the same way that I use text (‘THE DROWNED giant’), using capitalisation and rescaling. You might expect ‘THE DROWNED’ to be situated beneath the water, and ‘giant’ to be located above, but as we know from Dali’s work, the true ‘giant’ is located exactly where expected; beneath the water, exposing, in Freudian logic, the grossly aggrandised ego, or as Lacan would have it, the ego-ideal, the self-obsession which goes far beyond the scale of the painting itself.

To the left of ‘giant’ appears the words ‘SALINE: UTERINE’ which at once represents the location of the pool of water, but also tackles the Freudian implications of Dali’s painting: a narcissist gazes into the uterine depths longingly, this representing the dislocation of the self-obsessive’s ‘lack’. The ‘uterine’ thus designates the mother, the womb, which has been replaced with the self, this leading to a narcissistic self-love. But it also reinforces this presiding duality within Dali’s painting, especially between the inner and outer world, and the distortion between the gaze of the self and other. Above water, externality, otherness – below water, the self, the uterine truths. On the opposite side of the billboard, mirroring saline/uterine, is ‘canine’, situated in the same location as the dog in Dali’s painting, emulating Ballard’s method of locating certain objects and structures to create an overarching sense of the image. To the right of the centre, rotated 90 degrees clockwise, are the words ‘metacarpal antimatter’ denoting the fragmentation of the pieces of the hand in Dali’s image, in a similar vein to the many atomic themed images by Dali, created at a time when particle physics was a hot topic in scientific circles. The ‘0’ in ‘0.314…’ represents the egg, whilst the incorporation of pi is meant to represent the sense of inconsistent repetition which we see in Dali’s painting; note that in the distance of Dali’s painting, between the snow-capped mountains can be seen the image of another hand clasping an egg in an ‘echo’ of the central hand. The incorporation of pi here was also because I not only got a strong sense of the mathematical from the image, particular by way of the repetitions and the chess-board, but also the Greek statue on the right in front of the mountains, which I saw as harking back to Pythagorean devotion in some sense. As I explored with this method of creating art using using words, exploring this point of intersection between words and images, it became apparent just how many endless possibilities there were… It’s a method I’ll come back to some day, perhaps one day there might be a novel length series of them.. all based on paintings.. stories/poetry fashioned from great artworks, every one of them hidden and waiting to be deciphered by those who are the most inquisitive……….. thanks for reading x

 

The surreal graffiti-poetry of Jean-Michel Basquiat

SAMO, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early alter ego, once wrote ‘graffiti is a poem the city writes to itself’. Though he’s best known for his iconic grafitti art – which sort of blends 80 neon, cave/wall art and tiki masks – his origin you might say was words. SAMOs words plastered and invigorated the New York city streets of the late 70s. Dwindling democracy, rife racial discrimination, violent capitalism and rampant poverty.. these topics were the rocket fuel to his booming creative engine. His words, like his art, were simple and yet pierced to the bone, they grappled with the deeper, underlying truths which were not to be found anywhere else. They made the unspoken not only visible, but beautiful. though already well on his way to the history books and stardom, in 1980 he was befriended by Andy Warhol who immediately saw his artistic genius and even bought some of his work.. Basquiat was made. Later he would collaborate with Warhol, though Warhol himself, one of the most iconic artists who ever lived, was disconcerted by just how easily his own work became lost, drowned out and utterly overshadowed when put anywhere near the sheer aesthetic immensity, originality and gravitational pull of Basquiat’s art. Jean-Michel died tragically of a drug overdose at just 27, but he was prolific, and created thousands of sketches, and hundreds of larger paintings which continue to hold great power and significance.

Below is a series of fragments taken from Basquiat’s early notebooks (ed. Larry Warsh), which I’ve rearranged to make a series of poems. Many of the words and phrases appear again and again in his grafitti/art/poetry – a hoard of words and images that he cut and pasted here and there, not unlike that method used by William Burroughs, an author who he greatly admired. Many of the phrases in the books are crossed out, and it is not known for certain why.. It could have been that he did not like these fragments, or maybe because he had already used them out on the streets. If the latter is true he’d have been something like an 80s NY version of Wordsworth: wandering about with his notepad and spraycans, jotting down ideas and poetic fancies as he went about on his odyssey, through streets thrumming and overflowing with energy and vibrancy. A sense-blitz, in which his creative mind was set alight by the scenes all around him. Many of these fragments, as you’ll see, are so vivid and poetic they could easily have come straight out of the pages of the Beat poets. They’re simple, raw and cut to the core. Here is

 

((___POEMZ“__by____Basquiat©____))

***

THE DREAM WILL NEVER DIE

ACCEPT THE REALITY OF LIVING

RUSHED INTO A LIMO BY SECRET SERVICE

IN A FRONTAL ATTACK

***

MILLING IN THE CROWD

TODAY HE ADMITTED TO BEING FOOLISH

RAN INTO THE TRAIN TO BEAT OUT THE FLAMES

THEY HAD TO

THEY FALLEN ASLEEP AND WERE INHALING THE SMOKE

SLIGHT CRACK IN THE GAS LINE

***

EMPTY AND MISRABLE

THIS LIFE IS AN OPEN SORE FESTERING

BRICK RUINS

TOMB HOLLOW MORTURARIES

VOICES OF AUTHORITY MAKE MAJOR CLAIMS

OTHERS   FROM THE EAST

GATHER AROUND THEM

SHO…

***

THE BAR WAS REALLY RED WITH CHINESE PAPER CUTOUTS

AND WOOD PANELING

THERE WAS A GLASS ARGUMENT AT THE POOL TABLE

IN THE BACK

“THAT’LL BE EIGHTY CENTS POP”

6 OR 7 OLD PUGS IN FELT

SHE LOOKED LIKE A VILLAN FROM TERRY AND THE PIRATES

***

I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN

IT’S TIME TO GO AND

 

COME BACK A DRIFTER

***

LEAPSICKNESS

THE LAW OF LIQUIDS

THAT THORN IN MY HEAD NAGGING

MY FISTS CLOSED

VICTIMS OF EMBELLISHED HISTORY

THE SPORES FLOATED ON EVERTHIN

***

COLONIES OF BLACK RODENTS

FAKE SANDPAPER

SLEDGEHAMMER EYES

ROAD DINER

PLAY THE PART FOR HIS OWN REASONS

***

A MARBLE IN A SHOTGLASS

AFTER BREAKFAST HE STEALS A WALLET

FROM DAY OLD DRUNK ON SATURDAY MORNING—–

KERNELS OF CORN AS A FINAL OFFER FOR DEFECTIVE RIFLES

***

A YOUTH WITH “CROW” SYNDROME:

(AN ATRACTION TO SHINY OBJECTS)

SEES THE STONE AROUND HER NECK

FAT MONKEY

***

THE JIG IS UP

SO SAY GOODBYE TO THE NIGHTMARE

ON AUTOMATIC PILOT

***

FLICK OF THE WRISK

JAPANESE ARCHITECTS

AREA CODE OF ST. LOUIS

***

HE WAS PASTY WHITE

NO HE WAS SWARTHY, DARK AND SEXY—

NO HE WAS PASTY WHITE X—

***

A PRAYER

NICOTINE WALKS ON EGGSHELLS

MEDICATED

THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS VOID

DARKNESS

FACE OF THE DEEP

SPIRIT MOVED ACCROSS THE

WATER AND THERE WAS LIGHT

“IT WAS GOOD”©

BREATHING INTO HIS LUNGS

2000 YEARS OF ASBESTOS.

***

 

 

“such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide”

dottori-fire
Gerardo Dottori – Burning City (1926)

“Here is the great city: where you have nothing to seek and everything to lose… Here is the Hell for hermits’ thoughts: here great thoughts are boiled alive and cooked small. Here all great emotions decay… Do you not smell already the slaughterhouses and cook-shops of the spirit? Does this city not reek of the fumes of slaughtered spirit?… Woe to this great city! I wish I could see already the pillar of fire in which it will be consumed! For such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide… I offer you in farewell this precept: where one can no longer love, one should pass by…”

– Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

“a shining and swinging star wherein man lies buried”

Nova-Aurigae-Stanislaw-Ignacy-Witkiewicz-oil-painting
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, ‘Nova Aurigae’ (1918)

“Countless stars present conditions for the generation of life similar to those of earth – and yet these are but a handful in comparison with the endless number that have never known, or long been cured, of the eruption of life; life on each of these stars, measured by the period of its existence, has been but an instant, a flicker, with long, long intervals afterwards – and thus in no way the aim and final purpose of their existence… we are convinced in our imaginations (almost unconsciously) that the destruction of mankind involves the destruction of the world… Even to the eye of the most unbiassed astronomer a lifeless world can scarcely appear otherwise than as a shining and swinging star wherein man lies buried”

– Nietzsche, Human All too Human

art “striving for liberation” – quote from The Moon and Sixpence

“when I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to the understanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merely increased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at sea than ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me – and perhaps even this was fanciful – was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown to them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house”

W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence 

Continue reading “art “striving for liberation” – quote from The Moon and Sixpence”

“this most ancient and original form of frenzy”

Salvador Dalí – The Great Masturbator (1929) 

“If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this: above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy”

– Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols