24 January 2015

J. G. Ballard & Shanghai

I’ve come to realise that some cities are very special places. Certain cities connect with us in unconscious ways which we perhaps feel more precisely than we can fathom. For me Shanghai is one of these special places

My first visit to Shanghai put the city in direct contrast to the place from which I’d come – Beijing. It was winter, and even at the best of times, Beijing can be a stark and austere city. It is vast and cut by a grid of wide boulevards teeming with traffic. The kind of showy thoroughfares designed for parading Soviet-style, goose-stepping battalions of soldiers and enormous mobile missile launchers before the massed ranks of Party officials and four-star generals. Shanghai, by contrast, is a sprawling, closed-in kind of city. Both glitzy and shabby; towering skyscrapers, intimate nooks and corners; spiralling concrete flyovers and narrow alleyways where you can’t see the sky for the massed rows of laundry hung out overhead from windows on either side. 

In Beijing it seemed like you could walk its wide streets for miles without seeing another soul out on foot, let alone finding a place where you could safely cross. In Shanghai the traffic is just as unrelenting and perhaps even more quixotic; but rounding a corner, whilst out wandering on one of my first nights in the city, I recall unexpectedly finding a group of some twenty or more couples of varying ages all dancing in elegant, silent harmony in the dark; the low, almost imperceptible drifting melody of the music drowned out even at that near distance by the unconscious and unbroken whoosh of the flyover passing directly overhead. This was the Shanghai which I was only then coming to know for the first time. A city of gleaming neon and broken rubble. A city reminiscently familiar, yet simultaneously completely alien and ‘other’ to any place I’d been before. I can’t think how else to describe it. It was like discovering the familiarity of the unknown. There is a quote at the beginning of Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) by Eduardo Mallea which has always stuck in my mind: “Each man’s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his own memory.”* 

For me it felt like Shanghai was a city which was always meant to be a part of my life. It’s a place in which I instantly felt oddly at home. There was a disconnected sense of connection which makes the city one of the most constantly compelling place I’ve ever been. It’s a city to perceive and ponder at several simultaneously-occurring levels, from the intimately personal to the most disembodied abstract. It’s a city of both bricks and mortar, and of glass and mirrors.

It’s a city that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s been so many things to so many people, and it’s transformed itself so much throughout the many eras of its existence. It has been the “Paris of the East”, the Capital of Mammon, and unofficial colonial enclave; the secret seed ground of the CCP, subject to a brutal occupying army from overseas, then subsumed by revolutionary tides rising from within, to the futuristic showcase city of China’s newly opening economy – a "World City" – a home of Expos and Olympics; a dynamic, restless place, always hungry for change, yet never quite wholly throwing off the myriad remnants of its various pasts. Shanghai is a city which accrues time whilst also standing outside of time.

It is a city to absorb and be absorbed by. A city to record and reflect upon. And my friend James H. Bollen’s new book – Jim’s Terrible City: J. G. Ballard and Shanghaidoes just that. It connects with the Shanghai of J. G. Ballard and the Shanghai which we know and experience for ourselves today. It depicts a city which is both Shanghai and yet which is also every city. For Ballard’s Shanghai is perhaps in essence a meta-Shanghai, a meta-city, the Ur metropolis of the human psyche, a disconnected inhabitable dystopian manifestation of the Anthropocene era.

Ballard’s own experiences of life in Shanghai clearly spanned the complete spectrum of the possible. From the cosseted opulence of a life of wealth and privilege to the raw, dehumanised brutality of a wartime prison camp. That knife edge of fortune which can flip an entire world on its head, topsy-turvy. Life, when looked at closely, can be completely surreal. Even the ‘normal’ is but a thin film veiling the ludicrously bizarre beneath the shallow surface. All you have to do is look for it and it’s there. 

James Bollen’s photos capture this Ballardian idea for me perfectly. His photos matched or juxtaposed with short excerpts from Ballard’s novels are genuinely thought-provoking pointers to the absurdity of certain scenes of everyday cityscapes. The book is a marvellous meditation on Ballard’s fictional realms, all of which are clearly deeply rooted in the surreal experiences of his childhood self (as well as Jim, his fictional alter-ego) in wartime Shanghai. In this sense James Bollen avoids a stale, standard historical catalogue retracing Ballard’s old haunts, but instead traces an inspirational Shanghai which is both past and future. As James says in the Introduction to his book: “Ballard is a writer noted for his prescience, particularly in relation to technology and the environment. Moreover his concept of Inner Space remains relevant to our lives today in areas such as politics and advertising, where distinctions between fiction and reality constantly blur.”

We are given an image of a seagull standing hunched on a rock inside a cage on the bars of which is an ideogram sign warning us against the temptation to “tease” the animals within; a real Chinese fighter pilot’s helmet and khaki jump-suit propped against a wall of painted sky; another image of that wallpapered sky slashed through; the cut gently curved and peeling open; preceded by the observation that: “Flight and time, Mallory, they’re bound together. The birds have always known that. To get out of time, we first need to learn to fly.” – Hinton, Memories of the Space Age. 

A weird-faced laughing clothes mannequin standing in a shop window with arms outstretched: In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.” – Wilder Penrose, Super-Cannes.

James Bollen’s beautifully crafted book – Jim’s Terrible Citywith a very personal foreword by J. G. Ballard’s daughter, Fay Ballard, may well introduce you to a city you never knew you already knew …

For more info visit James H. Bollen’s website & for more on my own explorations in search of J. G. Ballard and others in Shanghai, see Retracing Old Shanghai. Read an interview in the L.A. Review of Books in which Paul French and James Bollen discuss Ballard, Shanghai, and the inspiration for ‘Jim’s Terrible City.’ For more information about J. G. Ballard's works, see his publisher, Harper Collins website.

 My thanks to James Bollen, and to Duncan Hewitt, who set all this in motion.

* … and, for the record, I suspect that not a few women can similarly relate to Eduardo Mallea’s assertion about personal destinies and memory too.

6 January 2015

Kurt Jackson - River

I first came across Kurt Jackson’s work at Newlyn Art Gallery in 1999. I think he is one of the most fascinating of contemporary artists. He is primarily a landscape painter, although he works in other media too, such as ceramics and sculpture. What first fixed my interest most about his paintings was the way in which he manages to capture the reflection of light on the surface of water. It is an element which recurs in many of his paintings, but the one which really caught me and had me hooked was a painting titled High tide. St. Mary’s from St. Martin’s, Scilly, 1.11.98. It is a watercolour (11 x 11 inches). The top portion of the painting shows a luminous bank of dappled cloud, beneath which, on the line of the horizon, is a low headland with a bar of rock or two islands in front. Part way down the painting, still in the upper quarter of the scene, is a thick horizontal bar of shadow on the water cast from somewhere unseen overhead by a bank of cloud. The rest of the foreground is essentially a shimmering seascape of white, but the focus of the painting is the warm, dazzling patch of light radiating out between the two rocky silhouettes before the headland on the horizon. It’s an intense reflection of sunlight from somewhere overhead or behind the viewer, which draws the eye in, travelling across the water. It’s the kind of scene which draws and calls you inwards; it makes to want to cross the water and see what’s on that island. As in life, when looking out from a Cornish cliff, so too with this painting – it’s a call to journey on, and I defy anyone looking at it not to feel that pull, the urge to go and see what lies beyond the bar of sunlight, across the shimmering glints of the always moving sea.

It’s an often-seen characteristic of the light on the waters around the Cornish coast (something which in part has drawn many artists, such as Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley, Samuel John 'Lamorna' Birch, Ella and Charles Naper, Dame Laura Knight, Doris 'Dod' Procter and many others, to the region). I’ve managed to catch it in some of my photographs. But the joy of watching it for real is that its stillness and serenity isn’t static, it’s ever changing. And it is reinforced by the elements and their effects on all your other senses. The smell of gorse, ferns, lichen covered granite, and rich earth mixing on the sea breeze; the salty tang which you can taste as well as smell, and feel smarting on your cheeks, heightened by the strength of the sunshine, whether in cold or warm weather, the same but different in each season. Kurt Jackson captures all of this in his paintings, and incorporates it, either by ripping up a tuft of dried grass with which to move the wet paint around on the sheet itself or by scribbling a spare, elemental poetic note in the corner or along the bottom of the painting – describing the scents in the air, or what was happening around him whilst he was painting. It’s a way of characterising and recording a part of the world which I love that I can really relate to and understand. For me it embodies that elemental feeling of being immersed in the landscape around you when you set out to lose yourself within it; simply exploring the natural world, letting it pervade your senses and your perceptions as you ramble ever deeper into the clefts and folds of the coast, its cliffs, valleys, and tree sheltered streams, or the exposed rocky outcrops, and the wide open vistas of the moorlands.


Last weekend I spent a couple of hours immersed in Kurt Jackson’s latest exhibition, currently on show at the Horniman Museum in London (on until January 25th 2015). The exhibition is titled Kurt Jackson: Riverand, as the title suggests, it looks at the artist’s long-running fascination with following rivers, often from source to sea. A number of different river projects are showcased in the exhibition, documenting not only rivers in Britain but rivers right across the world – in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, from the artist’s earliest studies in the 1980s up to 2014, in sketchbooks, drawings, and etchings; from small and deftly spare watercolours up to vast, dense and thickly frenetic oil paintings on canvas. There are also two films which show how Kurt Jackson works, often en plein air – outdoors, working directly from nature in all weathers, in sun and snow, fair weather and biting frost; painting with brushes, flicking and dripping the colours; using his fingernails, his barefeet, or the soles of his boots; painting is a messy and strenuous business, standing upright but bent double over his canvases spread out on the ground, his clothes often stained and smeared with as much paint as the surfaces of his paintings.

One of the exhibition panels quotes Kurt Jackson as saying: “Natural history and art have been the two passions throughout my life and now come together in informing my art practice. I have concerns and interests in environmental dynamics; how habitats are maintained or lost, the survival of our wildlife in an increasingly busy world, but really it’s just what’s out there, what’s living in a particular river, lurking beneath the water? I accompany fishermen, scientists, or walk the banks or just sit and stare, anything to get a glimpse and ultimately see and paint what shares this amazing place with us.”


The idea of following rivers is another one which speaks to me too. As a child growing up, there was a stream flowing past the end of our garden which I’d often explore, wading along in my wellies, hunting for sticklebacks, even finding leeches living in the mud of the riverbank – I did an unexciting study of its water quality for a GCSE Biology project; the water quality was found to be quite good and healthy, despite the fact it sometimes stank like an open drain. The project was perhaps (from my point of view at the time) ‘unexciting’ because I looked at too short a stretch of the river. I imagine other parts of the river – where it was culverted under the centre of our town – may have been more stagnantly acrid and polluted. I eventually ended up doing my final A-level Geography coursework project on the local government management of this little river and its impact on the lives of local residents along its course as it occasionally swelled in exceptionally heavy rain to flood the lower half of our back garden as well as other parts of the town. This early enjoyment of exploring river courses didn’t end here though, I later went on to wade up and down similarly narrow channelled streams while jungle-trekking on the remote island of Guam in the midst of the Pacific. I’ve also found myself following the courses of other, more substantial, rivers – such as the Thames; the Rhine; the Seine; the Tiber; the Nile; the Mekong; the Yellow River; the Huangpu in Shanghai; the Tamsui in Taipei; the Sumida in Tokyo; the Yodo in Osaka; the Han in Seoul; and several fast raging rivers in the mountains of Sichuan.

I’ve often followed many small rivers over their winding, leaf shaded, rocky cascades, down the v-shaped river valleys to the sea along the Cornish coast too. I have vivid memories of reaching Penberth, having walked the coastal path all the way from Penzance, peeling off my walking boots and socks before plunging my bare, aching feet into a frigid fast-flowing stream and holding them there until they were comfortably numb – knowing I still had many more miles ahead of me to walk that day. And I’d seen some of Kurt Jackson’s paintings following the course of the Tregeseal-Kenidjack stream before, so it was wonderful to finally see some of his paintings from his many other river projects in this exhibition. Reading his words I found I could relate to his reflections on these works as much as I could to his motivations for pursuing them, as he says: “With all these projects I walked the banks, sat with my toes in cold waters, swam and canoed; to explore and discover for myself the river’s true identity, to capture and celebrate the beauty and changing moods through a variety of media – ranging from pocket size scribbles whilst walking, to sail-sized pieces of canvas laid out on the tidal beaches and in the fields flanking the banks.”


Henley festival at night, 2005
oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cms

I now live by the Thames in the heart of London. I love seeing the rise and fall of the river, how its moods shift and change with the weather, and how its direction of flow can even reverse with the tide. It’s often thought of as J.M.W. Turner’s Thames, and referred to as ‘Old Father Thames’ – yet Jackson calls the river ‘she’ (as he does the other rivers he paints), and his impressionistic renderings of the Thames feel very different to those of Turner. Our associations of the Thames and Turner are perhaps coloured by a sense of inherited nostalgia for a long-gone time we never knew – yet Jackson, like Turner, simply records the Thames he sees and as he knows it in his (and our own) here and now. In describing his Thames project, Jackson gives perhaps the best and most eloquent summing up of the Thames in our own time which I’ve yet heard (certainly on a par with Marlow’s opening speech at the start of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in my view), as he says: “The Thames is ‘the’ river in this country, she deserves your attention, she has shaped this country’s history, culture, wealth and maybe even had a hand in foreign policy. She has existed as a line of defence, a harbour, a major port for trade and has been an important route for transport. But more importantly she has been a litmus test – a canary for Britain’s ecological health; sitting in the midst of the world’s first major industrial city, she took the brunt of all that abuse.”


 The hanging gardens of Richmond at night, 2013 
oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cms

Rivers are a way of knowing our own world. They have been the mainstay of our lives for many generations. Most of the major cities of greatest longevity have been built at key points along the courses of major rivers, and for good reasons too. Rivers flow through our society like blood through our own veins. “How do you paint society’s attitude to rivers?” Kurt Jackson asks. And, as this exhibition shows, his paintings are aggregates of all these elemental aspects of rivers, both light and dark – where the smooth surface of the water is often the still but moving centre of the image; whether narrow-channelled and embanked, or wild, open and running free; skilfully incorporating the flotsam and jetsam influences of unseen people along the meanders and mud channels, the rubbish accumulated at the high tide line, or the lush, tangled vitality of verdant overgrown riverbanks teeming with foliage, brambles, or the stark, jagged silhouettes of bare leafless wintertime trees; the shiny mudbanks oozing life and light, all rendered in “splatterings, scumbles and smears” of paint upon a taut flat surface which has been brought to life like a passing moment pulled out of time and ever remembered thereafter.


A mouthful of wild damsons, a seal watches me ... on the mouth of the Thames, 2005
mixed media on canvas, 183 x 183 cm
 * * *

(November 29th 2014 – January 25th 2015, free entrance)

My special thanks to Kurt Jackson and Zinzi Tucker for kindly giving me permission to illustrate this review with images of Kurt’s paintings. All images are © copyright Kurt Jackson, 2015. See www.kurtjackson.com | @KurtJacksonArt for more information and updates on Kurt’s paintings and exhibitions.