Are we our things? Are they us? If you made a heap, not of a man’s conspicuously consumed stuff—his status totems, his unconvincing midlife-crisis bids for a second adolescence—but of all the mass-produced talismans and throwaway keepsakes that give shape to his memories, hopes, affinities, obsessions, would they give us a portrait of the man? When we’re gone, do we live on in the bleached-out photos and the hairbrush on the bureau, the one with a few hairs still snagged in its bristles, and in the secrets hidden at the bottom of the underwear drawer? Do the things we charged with psychic energy lie waiting for just the right hand to pick them up so they can deliver the jolt stored up over a lifetime?
“House Clearance,” Fay Ballard’s exhibition of pencil sketches and watercolors at the London gallery Eleven Spitalfields (May 2, 2014—June 27, 2014), was inspired by the daunting chore of cleaning out her father’s house after his death, a rite of passage for more and more baby boomers. Ballard, who studied fine art at Central Saint Martin’s and botanical painting at the Chelsea Physic Garden, is known for her delicately limned “plant portraits,” as she calls them, which have been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and are included in the collections of The Queen and The Prince of Wales. Her father, who died of prostate cancer in 2009, was J.G. Ballard, a writer of drily perverse science fictions written in the present tense, in the world brought to you by Charlie Manson, Madison Avenue, My Lai, Cape Canaveral, Zapruder frame 313, Bikini Atoll, Ronald Reagan, gated communities, self-help, S&M, augmentation mammoplasty, ubiquitous surveillance, reality TV, and terrorist “franchises” with media strategies.
But more perverse than any of his novels was his fervent embrace of the role of single father—and mother—to his three young children, Jim, Fay, and Beatrice, a role thrust on him when his wife Mary died suddenly, in 1964, from “galloping pneumonia” during a family holiday in Spain. Giving the lie to Cyril Connolly’s quoted-to-death observation that “there is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” Ballard wrote, amid the happy pandemonium of family life, novels like The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)—sample chapter title: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”—and Crash (1973), a piece of posthuman porn that explores the fetishistic possibilities of the car crash. In rapid succession—1975, ’76, and ’77—the children were off to college, leaving him suddenly alone in a modest little semi-detached in the London suburb of Shepperton, its empty rooms still echoing with the comings and goings of family life. Ballard had married young and thus had had kids underfoot for much of his adult life; his children brought him up, he liked to say. When Jim, Fay, and Bea packed their bags for college, they left “a vacuum in my life that would never be filled,” he confided, in his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women. “The house in Shepperton was like a warehouse discarded by the film studios. The old toys and model aircraft that crammed the cupboards were the props of a long-running family sitcom which the sponsors, despite its high ratings and loyal audience, had decided to drop…I missed our shared childhood that had once seemed to go on forever. When they came home on their brief visits—eerily like cast reunions—I knew I was the last of us to grow up.”
In May 2008, severely weakened by the cancer he would succumb to the following year, Ballard moved permanently to the Shepherd’s Bush flat of his longtime companion Claire Walsh. Fay, who had seen her father during his frequent trips to London but hadn’t been back to the “family nest” in Shepperton for years, came to collect him, “a couple of bags of belongings,” and, poignantly, his typewriter. In her catalog essay for “House Clearance,” the artist sets the scene:
Opening the door with the key I’d kept all those years, the home had not changed since my childhood; the holiday flipper was holding the nursery door open, the dried lemon was sitting on the nursery mantelpiece, the plastic flower ornament was lying on my old bedroom window sill and our family hairbrush, still full of strands, was there on the bathroom ledge. Time had stopped still.
After her father’s death, Fay embarked on the melancholy, sometimes overwhelming task of cleaning out what had been her childhood home, not to mention her father’s for some 50 years. “As we make our way through the myriad of stuff which remains–the familiar, forgotten, and unfamiliar—we discover and rewrite the past,” she writes, “calibrating our memories and thoughts, shifting the sense of ourselves and our life story.” Even a generic object can cast a Proustian spell, making the tumblers of memory click into place and the vault of the past swing open: the rubber flipper returned Fay to that summer day on the Costa Brava when Jim swam across the bay while she and her father watched from their apartment balcony, terrified that “the tiny dot moving across the horizon” would be swept out to sea by the fast-moving current. Other discoveries were more unsettling, exposing hidden compartments in the mind: “My father didn’t talk about my mother to me after her death in 1964, and we didn’t have any photographs of her on display at home,” Fay recalls, in her essay. “She became invisible, almost erased. … Like an archaeologist looking for clues to the past, I found a golden Stratton powder compact on my father’s writing desk after his death and researched its design to the early 1960s. It must have been my mother’s because I recall that she powdered her nose with a gold compact.”
The works in “House Clearance” are divided into three suites, each a “Memory Box”: close studies of things found in the house in Shepperton (“Drawn from Life”); objects lost to time yet preserved, unchanged, in the Cornell box of the artist’s mind (“Drawn from Memory”); and a mental drawer full of mementoes, culled from both, that relate to J.G., “About My Father.” Fay works in a realistic, though far from photorealistic, style, reminiscent of the fastidiously accurate studies of Victorian naturalists; they remind this writer, at least, of Beatrix Potter’s watercolors of fossils, fungi, mosses, and lichens. Her flowing, organic line is true to nature, but also to the spontaneity implied by the Paul Klee comment, which Fay likes to quote, that “a drawing is simply a line going for a walk.”
Her work is sensitive, yet unsentimental. Among the most quietly affecting of the loose-lined, subtly shaded pencil sketches in “House Clearance” are her drawings of a girdle, an oxygen tank, and a pericon (the wide, baroquely decorated fan used by flamenco dancers). In an explanatory placard, the artist decrypts their coded meanings: the girdle is tethered to her memory of “reaching up to touch mother’s Playtex girdle”; the tank recalls the “doctor’s attempt to keep her mother alive in bedroom apartment, Campello, Alicante”; the fan—Fay’s reportorial tone only heightens the unbearable sadness of the thing—“the artist’s memory of her Spanish fan, used by mother to cool her fever before she died.” What did it feel like to dredge up these fragments of the past? “It was a powerful act to voice these objects, which were part of my ‘invisible’ mother,” says Fay. “I never talked to my father about my mother after her death in 1964.”
“House Clearance” isn’t all memento mori, though. Some of the recollected objects are hilariously weird, such as the jar of kidney stones Ballard kept on his bedroom mantelpiece. (Why? Because Ballard, as they say.) Others, such as Fay’s drawing of “father’s carpet sweeper,” offer a droll glimpse of the private life of the man who dreamed of drowned worlds; dead astronauts mummifying in their space capsule, trapped in a decaying orbit; a deranged President Manson ruling the ruins of Las Vegas. Why a carpet sweeper, I wondered, recalling, on one hand, Iggy Pop’s confession, in Gimme Danger: The Story of Iggy Pop, “When some problem has peaked, and my thinking isn’t getting me anywhere, I like to pull out the vacuum cleaner and vacuum the house,” and on the other the inevitable clucking, in magazine profiles of Ballard, about the Great Man’s dust, to the point where he pleaded, somewhat desperately, with an interviewer from the Daily Telegraph, “Please! Don’t ask me about the dust! Everyone is fascinated by my dust. There must be more interesting things to talk about.” Fay likes the Iggy Pop angle. “He used the carpet sweeper as an important moment or device to reflect on his work, in the same way that I might go and make a cup of tea,” she says. “The sweeper lived in the hall outside his study. The two sounds I remember so well are Daddy’s typewriter keys and the sweeping to and fro of the carpet sweeper.” She bristles at the imputation that her father was a slovenly housekeeper: “The house wasn’t dusty. He didn’t go in for DIY and he wasn’t ‘house-proud’ but it was clean.”
The back yard, on the other hand, was undeniably a jungle; Fay’s marvelous, magical-realist watercolor of her father, included in “House Clearance,” shows him gazing out a French window flung wide, into a suburban yard that had devolved into its Triassic forebear. A riot of blossoms and foliage frame him; his expression is complicated, somewhere between beatific, quizzical, and pensive. We see him lost in the moment of leave-taking, not just from a house reverberating with memories but from this life.
“The portrait is based on a photo I took of my father in May 2008 looking out over his garden from his study window,” says Fay, “looking at the view which had filled his imagination for nearly 50 years. It was an extraordinary moment because I’d gone down to Shepperton in order to drive my father to Shepherd’s Bush to live with his partner Claire. This was the first time I’d visited my old home in about 15 years. But it was also the last time my father would live in his house. So he was saying goodbye to a huge part of himself. By then his prostate cancer was so advanced that he could no longer look after himself, and he died in April the following year. The work is called ‘Farewell’ because it’s his farewell to Shepperton, his own farewell to the living world, as well as my farewell to him and to life lived in that house. I wanted to suggest the richness of The Unlimited Dream Company [Ballard’s hallucinogenic valentine to Shepperton] in his garden. He’d wanted parrots to find Shepperton long before parakeets were spotted living on Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park.”
The untended backyard, which had seemingly never seen a lawnmower blade (although the cleanliness-and-godliness correspondent from the Daily Telegraph did note, with pursed-lipped disapproval, a mower in a “hall silted up with junk”); the Wedgewood ice bucket, used by the children for making mud pies, enshrined on top of the kitchen cupboard; the lemon that someone left on the nursery mantelpiece in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, which sat there, turning to stone, until Ballard’s death: what did it mean, this inexplicable pocket of stopped time in an innocuous London suburb? Had Ballard succumbed to the Miss Havisham Syndrome? Was this Proustian nostalgia taken to extremes? Or was his tendency to leave things as they were just the good-natured negligence of a bachelor “notably unkeen on housework, unaware that homes needed to cleaned now and then” as he puts it in Miracles of Life, or a bohemian flouting of suburban conventions, or something deeper? Had his surreal childhood experience in war-torn Shanghai, mythologized in Empire of the Sun, of seeing the British colony he lived in turned overnight into a ransacked, ghost-haunted ruin, left him subtly PTSD’d, holding tight to fixed things, domestic rituals, the reassuring persistence of memory symbolized by the lemon on the mantlepiece?
The theme of time paused or rewound recurs in Ballard’s fiction: the literal crystallization of time in The Crystal World; the “archaeopsychic” descent into deep time (in the geological as well as the depth-psychology sense) in The Drowned World; the time sickness that afflicts the characters in stories such as “News from the Sun” (1981), “Memories of the Space Age” (1982), and “Myths of the Near Future” (1982), a psychic disease of the Space Age in which time decelerates and finally comes to a stop in the timeless present of a suspended moment. Was Ballard’s dream of a flight out of time the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a man who’d lived through the casual horrors of wartime China and wanted to lift the skipping needle of traumatic memory out of its groove? Think of the Japanese soldiers slowly, lovingly garroting a gurgling Chinese prisoner, while the young Ballard looks on, in Empire of the Sun. Now think of Mallory in “Memories of the Space Age”: Thankfully, as time evaporated, so did memory. He looked at his few possessions, now almost meaningless … The minutes were beginning to stretch, urged on by this eventless universe… His memory faltered, he was forgetting his past, the clinic at Vancouver and its wounded children, his wife asleep in the hotel at Titusville, even his own identity. Or was the suspended animation of Ballard’s domestic world simply the desire to extend into eternity his time with Jim, Fay, and Bea, “days of wonder that I wish had lived forever” as he says in Miracles of Life?
Fay is thoughtful. “My father lived in the Shepperton house for nearly 50 years, with my mother until her death in 1964, and he brought up my brother, sister and me,” she says. “I’m trying to work out what the house became to my father and I have no clear, definitive answer. Most important, it was his private space where he could write everyday without any interruptions. Perhaps he didn’t have the time or inclination to remove the flipper, the lemon, or the hairbrush because he wanted to concentrate on his writing. However, that reading seems too easy to me because he took time to water the yucca [that Fay gave him for Christmas in 1976, and which lives on in the artist’s home], feeding it copious quantities of Baby Bio, and he kept the place tidy. I think the house was an extension of his creative imagination. He was a very visual person who loved the Surrealists; perhaps these objects formed part of his own Surrealist landscape in the home – the flipper acting as a doorstop for decades, the lemon on the mantelpiece there since the late 60s or early 70s, the overgrown yucca pressing its huge shoots against the window trying to find the sun. Think Magritte, Ernst, Dali.”
That makes sense: the flipper as a more helpful relative of Trébuchet, the coatrack Duchamp nailed to the floor of his studio to trip unsuspecting visitors. (Trébuchet is French for “trap.”) And the hydra-like yucca, a writhing mass of tentacular leaves, would fit right into Ernst’s “self-devouring phantasmagoric jungles,” as Ballard calls them in The Drowned World. Likewise, Ballard’s celebrated dust can easily be seen as a sly reference to Duchamp’s “dust breeding”—his wry decision to allow a year’s worth of dust to blanket his work-in-progress, The Large Glass, then wipe clean some parts of the image while cementing the accumulated dust to others, transforming the dark, fleecy stuff into a pigment of sorts.
But what of the wizened lemon? Like the mysterious green apples that float through Magritte’s paintings (the Surrealist fruit par excellence?), Ballard’s inscrutable lemon seems like something seen in our sleep that’s still there, petrifying on the mantelpiece, when we wake up. Is it a vanitas? The tongue-in-cheek conjunction of Dadaism and indifferent domesticity? Or a tool, forged in dreams, for stopping time in its tracks? Fay has no idea why it should have remained untouched for nearly 40 years, but she concedes its enigmatic presence. “Someone placed it on the nursery mantelpiece when I was about 12 years old, back in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, and it remained there until I removed it after my father’s death. I couldn’t bear to move it until the last moment when the house was sold a few years later. I somehow felt that I was disrupting a powerful, invisible force.”
I ask her if the act of re-embodying disembodied memories is a kind of conjuration, or a catharsis, or both? “It felt deeply cathartic to draw these objects which I had in my head for so long but never found a voice to express explicitly,” she says. “Once I drew them, they felt real. They became facts. In the act of drawing, you make real your thoughts.”