In 1970, before he started on Crash, J. G. Ballard staged an exhibition of totaled cars at London’s New Arts Laboratory—“three crashed cars in a formal gallery ambience,” he called it in his Art of Fiction interview:
The centerpiece was a crashed Pontiac from the last great tail-fin period … What I was doing was testing my own hypotheses about the ambiguities that surround the car crash … I hired a topless girl to interview people on closed-circuit TV. The violent and overexcited reaction of the guests at the opening party was a deliberate imaginative overload which I imposed upon them in order to test my own obsession. The subsequent damage inflicted on the cars during the month of the show—people splashed them with paint, tore off the wing mirrors—and at the opening party, where the topless girl was almost raped in the rear seat of the Pontiac (a scene straight from Crash itself), convinced me I should write Crash. The girl later wrote a damningly hostile review of the show in an underground paper.
As the opening night progressed, an increasingly drunk crowd peed on the seats and poured wine on the cars. In a handout for the exhibition, Ballard described a car crash as “the most dramatic event we are likely to experience in our entire lives apart from our own deaths.” This handout also saw the nascent form of an analogy he developed to disturbing effect in Crash, one that likens the potent, labile energies of a car crash to a kind of erotic bliss—an apotheosis, a violent orgasm. “A car crash,” he told Penthouse in 1970, “harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status—all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing).”
It’s hard not to think of Ballard, and of Crash, as you look at the series of flattened Fiat 500s that comprise Ron Arad’s In Reverse, showing through March 14 at Paul Kasmin Gallery. When the Israeli-born Arad was a child, he nearly lost his father to a car accident; his dad, driving a Fiat Topolino 500c Giardiniera, found himself plowed over by a garbage truck. The destroyed Fiats on display here are inspired by the fear and rupture of that incident—but these have been flattened, by a 500-ton press in the Netherlands, to a cartoonish perfection. There’s no crash that could’ve produced them. Where Ballard’s cars are snarls of glass and mangled steel, made to summon the stochastic terror of a good ten-car-pile-up, Arad’s are like squashed insects underfoot. Or like the pressed flowers they’re named after: acts of preservation by reduction. “The idea here is to allow them to stay cars,” Arad told Wallpaper, “yet show them from a new perspective.”
Cars, which Ballard called “our most potent consumer durable,” are in Arad’s sculptures demonstrably nondurable. The press—a bigger, better machine, an even greater terror—has crushed them like cans. (Arad, not coincidentally, once presented an exhibition of cans that had been crushed by cars. “It’s always nice to see things happen in front of you that you are not totally in charge of, that are not exactly the fulfilment of your blueprint,” he said.) And so objects made for motion are now still; objects built for the road now hang on a wall, their three dimensions compressed almost entirely to two. The exhibition title, In Reverse, invites us to imagine their slow-motion reconstruction—they’ve been destroyed so ably that you can work backward, undoing their collapse in your mind just as you can re-extend any crushed can.
Of course, there’s little of the “imaginative overload” that Ballard’s show created: these sculptures don’t put you in the atavistic, dystopian, rubble-ridden state of mind that would make you want to pee on them. But you can still read them as the latest in a tradition of car-as-pornography that others have traced from Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto (“a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”) to John Chamberlain, César Baldaccini, and Jim Dine. If Ballard’s most blatant precursor is Andy Warhol’s Car Crash prints, then Arad’s is Arman’s White Orchid, in which the artist dynamited an advertising exec’s white MG convertible and then hung it on a wall.
In an excellent piece for Slash Seconds, Simon Ford writes that Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibit “revealed cars as objects of both consecration and desecration, instant relics of a new but powerful anti-humanist force in society.” The same is true of In Reverse. It’s just that today, that force is cleaner, faster, and more ruthless than ever before.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.