At his literary genesis J. G. Ballard’s created a somewhat unusual series of billboards entitled Project for a New Novel (1958), and for many years Ballardian critics, scholars and fans alike have been puzzling over their meaning. It is only when you view Ballard’s literary work as a whole that many of these bizarre terms and phrases and names which are spread across the boards begin to take on some meaning. They originate from Ballard’s many short stories and even some of his novels, and many are terms which wouldn’t even be seen within his fictional work for years to come! This was a very subjective iconography of the psyche, an experimentation which attempts to move surrealist ideology into the realm of the literary. But upon further scrutiny, these billboards appear to represent encrypted Salvador Dali paintings. How so? Ballard uses the headlines, their size and situation, as well as the shaped blocks of text (which is taken from scientific journal articles) and even the whitespace in order to create an imaginary artwork which the viewer must visualize using the words as ‘imagination prompts’. He does this by providing certain objective surroundings such as mountains (‘volcano jungles’) or beaches or statues or monoliths etc., and then interweaving these with ‘narrative imagery’. So these narrative elements are much more abstract and harder to visualize as they require a knowledge of the stories themselves. For example with ‘Mr F is Mr F’ this term represents a short story about a man who degenerates into a foetal state, and so the central image requires us to imagine such a foetal regression in order to see the Dali image he’s mirroring.
The surrealists were hugely influential on Ballard, and especially Dali, and he was attempting to channel their doxa in his fiction, especially their want for reinvigorating the imagination, and unleashing the creative potential buried deep within the unconscious. What they were particularly set against, and attempting to destabalise at their peak, was the worrisome upsurgence of the consumer-capitalist spectacle, and rightly so too. And so Ballard’s Dali mimesis here is deeply ironic: he is placing surrealist images within the spectacle so as to expose the subconscious manipulation at play in the ad-culture world, in like with the many early English Pop Artists (Paolozzi and Hamilton) as well as prominent cultural commentators such as Vance Packard and Marshall McLuhan. We’re so used to subconscious bombardment by advertisements and mass media, which requires so little of the viewer, and only seeks to embed ‘hooks’ which make us want to purchase certain products, that we are made into something akin to automata. With Ballard’s boards however, we must conjure our own imaginary narrative, on the contrary to the archetypal ad, WE are in control, we choose the outcome and the arc of these seemingly unrelated excerpts of eclectic information. What’s more, he’s exploring the malleability of language here, and moreover the juxtaposition between image and language, in the vein of Magritte perhaps, another primary influence on Ballard’s artistic pathology. He’s asking, how can I create an image using the conventions and strictures of language? By using the layout, the size and situation of text, and even the individual meanings of the fragments of text. Here we’re seeing something remarkably experimental, it’s an exploration into the extraordinary potentiality opened when you combine language, and the symbolic, semiotic potentialities behind language with image. Below I’ve compiled a small selection of Ballard’s billboards and the Salvador Dali paintings which they appear to mirror:
- Ballard’s ‘mr f’ billboard and Dali’s ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943)
2. Ballard’s ‘T-12’ billboard and Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931)
3. Ballard’s ‘beach fatigue’ billboard and Dali’s ‘Mediumnistic Paranoiac Image’ (1935)
NB: Check out an expanded article on Ballard’s billboards here.