London, May, 2014: Stuff, things, rubbish, detritus. We willingly bury ourselves in it. If the wild animals that live closest to man are most reviled for their proximity, then the useless and near-to-useless everyday objects we surround ourselves with must take a further pasting, even. And yet not. We all seem to carry on the most intimate of love affairs with the objects that surround us. A million, million fingers smear their grease onto the handles of habitual coffee mugs; teeth nibble absentmindedly at pen tops, as if at the nipples of so many illicit lovers.
For anyone familiar with JG Ballard beyond his writing, the formation of a mental picture is relatively easily constructed from scant basic elements: a silver palm tree, a "faked" Delvaux, a whiskey bottle, perhaps. Fay Ballard’s exhibition House Clearance leads us into more uncertain territory, presenting a collection of finely rendered "portraits" of everyday objects rescued from her father’s house after his death in 2009.
The show gains added meaning through the descriptions of these objects—where they were placed, what purpose they served. (The haunting, cowled figure on the show’s invitation reveals itself to be, on second glance, a sole flipper, obviously the worse for wear. The Drowned World? No, a makeshift doorstop from Fay and her sister’s childhood nursery.)
Without the descriptions these are great drawings of everyday objects; with them they are a beautifully poignant invitation into the relationship between a daughter and a father. Considering the added moiré of her father’s strange, complex, and brilliant inner world and artistic output, they are transformed utterly again.
I spoke to Fay about the process behind House Clearance, the real meaning of resonant objects, and the difficulty in staging such an open, intimately-themed exhibition.
Fay Ballard; Courtesy of the artist and Eleven Spitalfields Gallery
Thogdin Ripley: How did you come to select these objects to record, amidst all of your father’s possessions?
Fay Ballard: It’s so fascinating because you have to decide what the criteria is. To me it was about objects that evoke very strong memories, that have an emotional attachment to something. Therefore for me it was objects that have no monetary value like the dried-up lemon—those things, rather than some expensive Chinese vase which I had no relationship with whatsoever, and that was fascinating.
TR: And yet the process is necessary.
FB: It’s like a right of passage, and it happens to all of us—well, most of us. These things are all so personal and yet they’re universal. We all have to go through this process, and do some sort of clearance.
TR: You say in the catalogue that returning to the house felt like time had stopped still and as far as I can see you’ve created a sort of a time machine here...
FB: I think the question of time is something that really needs exploring. I’m not sure what the house became and why I feel so strongly about it, and what it meant, and I’m really fascinated by that. All I know is this: my father takes ownership of the house in late 1959. He moves in with his young wife and three tiny children, and has this intimate, very warm experience, which is the sort of experience that he never had when he grew up—with his distant parents, and nannies. My mother died suddenly on holiday in 1964. We come back and life continues. We all go to university in the late 1970s, and then he lives in that house right up until 2008. So for the last fifteen years I never went to that house—no one did. We always met in town: “Oh darling let’s meet in town, no no let’s just meet in town, I would have to clear up, let’s just meet in town.” In his last fifteen years particularly very few people went to the house. He didn’t like journalists going. He didn’t have writers there, I don’t think. He seems to have lived there on his own, and what was that house? Was it a sort of an extension of his skin? Was it a nest? Was it some three-dimensional manifestation of all his ideas? His ideas of time?
TR: Obviously for him that’s so central in much of his work.
FB: Yes. I mean what sort of time—is it frozen time, is it time-less? Is it the ratio of passed time? Is it present time? Or is it just future with the past—I mean it’s just so many things, and it’s so much of what he writes about too, in puzzles. They’re all about time in their way, and often about arresting time. I remember going to Cairo, to see the pyramids, in the early 1990s and he said, “The great thing about the pyramids is that they’ve outlived time.” And there was that feeling in the house, I felt that there was something going on like that. Then, of course, he loved the Surrealists, and—thinking about Dali at Cadaqués, that house there, with all its theatricality—I think maybe he thought, maybe there was some of this sort of surrealist joke going on. And then he was very visual, he loved paintings. So maybe he was creating a sort of visual landscape that he could look at.
TR: All our lives we imbue objects with our personality, we sort of pass on ourselves, in whatever way.
FB: I agree, I think we’re projecting. We’re projecting ourselves into these objects, aren’t we? I think there is something about these objects that they become extensions of us.
TR: Entirely, and inseparable as well, and then when it comes down to the removal of the person and you just have the objects—
FB: —they become the objects. Exactly. That memory box includes the watch that I stole from my mother’s room when she died. And that watch became my mother. And it still is my mother. That… that is my mother.
TR: I think perhaps the idea of collecting is like an inverse reflection of the unpacking, so instead of taking out the energy from these things when you find them afterwards, collecting is ensuring that you put all of yourself into objects.
FB: So let’s think about that—so somebody’s collected all this stuff over the years and there it is, and then we come along, and what do we do with it? I draw it, I make it real. I appropriate it. I take it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m taking it and I’m saying "by drawing it becomes mine." But what do we do with them? I mean are we acting as museum curators in a way? Deciding what to catalogue? Or archeologists? We have to decide which are important and those that are not, and then there is this process where we chuck everything else out, and that is the actual opposite of collecting them all.
TR: These drawings could almost be as if you’ve presented the actual objects, with that sense of being a curator: you could have a room with all of these things in, and what would be the importance of them to anyone else?
FB: I know, the carpet sweeper… and yet with the carpet sweeper, there are two strong sound memories really. One is a typewriter, and the other is the carpet sweeper, going back and forth, because he needed time to reflect. I’d go downstairs and make a cup of tea, he’d go out of his room, the carpet sweeper would be lying on the side and he’d stand in the hallway using it. But I understand, if you’re writing you need to clear your head: think about what you’ve been writing, reflect. So that became a really important device. This humble object.
TR: I’ve been thinking that in a world where people don’t have a way of expressing an artistic freedom, that this impulse is channeled into the idea of owning things; I wonder whether there’s not some kind of a invisible process there that hasn’t been registered. That they’re expressions of the same basic thing. The ownership of something is now almost using the same mental process as the making of something. So the "making" and the "having" have become almost interchangeable for some people.
FB: Isn’t that merchandising? I mean there’s a culture that people feel they’ve achieved something if they’ve gone shopping to buy something. Or they’ve achieved something if they’ve had their kitchen made over, or you get the art collector, who achieves something by buying trophy art, so through the act of merchandise—of purchasing an object—those collectors, they feel they become better people, more cultured people.
TR: Maybe people are looking for that sense of personality in things? In Henry James’ short story The Jolly Corner features a man who revisits a tremendous brownstone apartment in New York that he grew up in, and is having renovated. He spends one final night there and he can’t sleep for wandering around thinking there’s a presence in the house—pushing open doors that he thought were shut, maybe following something. You can’t tell which parts are real. It ends up with him going downstairs and being confronted by this perhaps supernatural manifestation, but it’s in fact very definitely himself. This idea that he meets himself amongst the emptiness of his house, that he grew up in. It’s the idea again of things being reflected back through their surroundings.
FB: So the objects are him.
TR: But in this sense it’s quite terrifying—the idea it’s an empty house and there’s nothing but him.
FB: Well it’s funny, I think that’s how I feel about my father’s house. The house became him, all of it became him.
Fay Ballard, Memory Box Drawn from Memory, 2012; Photo: Patrick Gorman; Courtesy of the artist
TR: There’s something in reflections, too.
FB: I think this is really important. It was pointed out to me recently about the two sphinx drawings that the baby in those photos is me, and here I am drawing myself, and drawing my mother to see if I look like her, and I’m drawing myself into her face, and I’m drawing myself into my father’s face to some degree because that’s the nature of drawing, projecting myself in some way, and yet they were taking each other’s photographs so there’s layering in a similar way.
TR: Obviously the drawings of your mother, they’re extraordinary; I think that’s a whole different thing.
FB: More psychological.
TR: Yes, and the rest of the drawings stand apart but are encircled by them as well. It’s really interesting that those two are on either side of the door as you walk in, like a portal. Like Egyptian statues themselves—or that you have the two Roman gods of the house.
FB: The sphinx, the man eating beast, and Oedipus solves the riddle of the sphinx. And then you’re into Freud and then a whole other world!
TR: How do you think your father would react if he could see the show here?
FB: [laughs] … I think he would be blown away by the memory boxes. I think he would love them because he’d know that they were a labour of love, and also that I’m commemorating a life well lived, and my life. I don’t know how he’d respond to the drawings I made of my mother, because we never discussed my mother when he was alive. But I hope he’d understand that you can’t suppress these things forever and one has to find a voice to bring out. And I stopped having nightmares. I used to have this terrible nightmare but I don’t seem to have had it since the show opened.
TR: So there’s catharsis to it as well?
FB: Yes. There was a nightmare where I’m desperate for a swim, and I climb into a pool and I take one turn of my arm and I’m at the other side—the swimming pool’s as big as a bath. Or the water’s so shallow I can’t swim; or I’m in the water and it’s not water, it’s shit, or it’s garbage. And this was a recurrent dream and when I wake I think immediately "I’m in a straightjacket, I need to voice my feelings that I have a mother"—this is my mother and here she is.
He loved me drawing, and he used to say to me “Always follow your obsessions. It doesn’t matter what other people think. Follow your obsessions,” and I think I’ve done that. So I think he’d approve. It’s interesting, I used to draw plants in meticulous detail and he loved them, and in his last year I sent him a happy father’s day letter which was a list, a little bit like the inventories, just short phrases of key memories that I have with him, and telling him how much I loved him, and we talked about this, and he said a couple of things. He said firstly "let’s get it published in The Guardian" [laughs] and I said no way, and then he said "why don’t you take plants—your cabbage leaves drawings—and put one of these memories next to it?" And I think what I’m doing is moving on from that. I’m combining the memory, but I’m not choosing to draw twenty cabbage leaves, I’m dealing with the real subject. So in a way I think he started the process.
TR: I mean there’s actually something quite Dadaist in that if you take away any of the connections in your mind, if you take away the explanations then this is the presentation of normal life, that everyone recognises and everyone knows.
FB: But things in real life are a little bit like Dada. I mean he certainly thought so, didn’t he? I mean he thought that’s real life—the surrealists got it right and the reality that he experienced wasn’t real, it was just a stage set that could be dismantled at any time, and that real life was surreal.
TR: I do tend to agree with him.
FB: And if these seem at all Dadaist or surreal, they are actual reality.
Fay Ballard; Courtesy of the artist and Eleven Spitalfields Gallery
TR: When I first got the invite for the show with the flipper on it, and I spent a good while thinking "is that a cowled figure?"
FB: People have said that to me! I know! And I I think well maybe that’s my mother? The faceless mother?
TR: And then after a while I saw it was a flipper and wondered—is it The Drowned World? Each of these pictures, from the perspective of Ballard’s fiction, have so much resonance as well. It’s like you’re unpacking a world that just existed in his head.
FB: Yes, and of course this world was the visible world around him in the house.
TR: That’s a wonderful idea—that something so expansive in the books can come out of something so everyday. Do you think, as you were saying that we choose our objects and then we jettison some of them, that your preservation of them was a goodbye to them at the same time?
FB: No I think it’s more a hello, actually! Hello, and who are you? And welcome back, I need to get to know you. I haven’t seen you for a very long time, or I’ve never seen you, and I need to get to know you, and therefore I need to scrutinise you, and I’m going to put my own emotions—I’m going to project them into the work. And then I end up with the complete object. Which is a mixture of my projected emotion and the forensic observation of the real object on the table. Then they’re completed: then they become complete objects. And that’s where appropriation happens, too—because then I own them.
TR: The rest of your work almost aims towards a very vivid realism with colour, but why no colour in these?
FB: I wanted to interrogate the object with a pencil. A sharp pencil. A little bit like a scalpel. I didn’t want the colour to detract, I don’t think from the—it sounds odd—but from the seriousness of the subject. I wanted that austerity. Take the cookbook. If I’d given the dirty cover browns and yellow ochres I think it would have become too beautiful. Too decorative. I needed the plainness. The directness.
TR: And where things have started to deteriorate, you’ve made drawing the dirt as important as the object itself.
FB: The dust which I draw—the dust on the flipper is a bit like fine lacework. And that’s what I draw, because I see beauty in that dust. It’s not dirty to me, or something to be ashamed of. It’s the accumulation of years and years of living—of a life lived. And therefore I suppose I’m trying to record it, but it’s more than recording. It’s more like commemorating it. And then I wonder, maybe the pictures are also tombstones, almost little monuments to my parents, monuments to my father, to my mother, where I’m carving out all these precious details. But the dust is the past. The dust equals the past of it. I mean I haven’t touched the dust on the lemon or the flipper.
TR: You still have the lemon?
FB: Oh yeah! [laughter]
FB: I know! The lemon is, I think, fourty-four years old! But what is the lemon? What is it really? I mean clearly it's a lemon. But what else is it? What is it? It’s so much more.
TR: Thinking about the idea of physical change, of deterioration, you have something that gets so small that it can’t get any smaller. It’s hardened into its final form—frozen.
FB: And day to day—you can’t monitor that change. It’s over this grand period of time… and then it becomes timeless. I’m thinking it’s not frozen in time, it’s timeless. In a timeless zone. He was doing what he said to me about the pyramids. He was beating time.
ArtSlant would like to thank Fay Ballard for her assistance in making this interview possible.