News from the Sun: Introduction

Photography is ever present in J.G. Ballard’s fiction. Vaughan photographs car crashes as case studies for a new psychopathology in Crash (1973), the tower block’s inhabitants document the social chaos they succumb to in High Rise (1975), while Super-Cannes (2000) chronicles a modern world where surveillance cameras hang ‘like gargoyles’.[1] In The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Dr Nathan flicks through a series of photographs—including a spectroheliograph of the sun—before admiring how ‘the element of time is visible’ in an Étienne-Jules Marey motion study.[2] Ballard is drawn to photography’s capacity to hold and bend the experience of time and space, even drawing on a nineteenth-century pioneer of the medium to make his point. Ballard grappled with photography in his art reviewing too. One Guardian piece turned on David Hockney’s new ‘joiner’ photo-collages, as though they had somehow broken photography’s pact with the world—an odd criticism considering the ambitions of Ballard’s own writing.[3]

The ambiguous, contested place that photography holds in Ballard’s writing parallels or anticipates the current status of the medium, which to some is facing a crisis, or even its endgame. That has been brought on by a very Ballardian set of conditions. Rapid social, political, and technological acceleration has opened new possibilities for photography, but severed our traditional relationship to it. Many of the medium’s foundational tenets have imploded—especially ties to notions of reality, truth, and self (all themselves now equally in flux). Contemporary photographers have variously led, celebrated, or lamented those shifts.

News from the Sun takes its title from a Ballard short story—a form he described as snapshot-like[4]—which is strongly photographic. The clue is in the title, which connects to photography’s basic generative element—the presence or absence of light on a prepared surface. In Ballard’s story, it is humans that are exposed by the sun, inducing a temporary catatonic fugue state that, like a photograph, slips them momentarily in and out of the world. Some die from overexposure. Photography is explored as the solution to the problem of its own making.

This exhibition features three Antipodean artists who work with both the medium and the idea of photography. They make photographs in different ways with different agendas, yet all circle back to photography itself. Each presents a single body of work that starts with a classic photographic motif or cliché: the seascape, the window, and the still life. In each case, the motif is abstracted, serialised, and transformed through formal manipulations and conceptual strategies that push it beyond the cliché. Each artist looks backwards to test the possibilities for photography now.

Ballard’s short story Cry Hope! Cry Fury! (1971) imagines a futuristic artists colony in the desert resort Vermilion Sands, where all medium and genre rules are broken.[5] Paintings are made with photosensitive pigments, which allow its subjects and objects to expose themselves over a period of days, liberated from the hand of the artist. It is this shapeshifting, transformative potential of photography to reach beyond its conventional boundaries, to take other forms, and to act in and on the world that connects the work of the artists in this exhibition to each other, and, more obliquely, to Ballard. In different ways, they each seek to bring us the news from the sun.

Published in News from the Sun (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington and Bad News Books, 2020), 1-2.

[1] J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes (London: Flamingo, 2000), 133.

[2] J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (London: Flamingo, 2001), 6.

[3] J.G. Ballard, ‘Escape into the Seraglio’, in A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews, (London: Picador, 1997), 62–4.

[4] J.G. Ballard, ‘Introduction’, in J.G. Ballard: The Complete Short Stories’ (New York, W.W. Norton, 2001), 4.

[5] J.G. Ballard, ‘Cry Hope! Cry Fury’, in Vermilion Sands (London: Granada, 1971) 91–100.