Public Works features Tom Alberts’s Crash
Tom Alberts, Crash (1996). The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth. The Ruby Rose Maller Fine Arts Acquisition Fund, 1996. On display.
WHEN British author JG Ballard submitted his manuscript for publication an editor wrote on it: ‘‘ This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.’’ Despite the editor’s plea, the book was published in 1973 and Crash became a cult classic.
A controversial novel, it is a grotesque tale about a group of misfits who find car accidents sexually arousing. They organise their own car crashes specifically to cause injuries and deaths, and they also re-enact famous car crashes, such as those that killed James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. The main character’s ultimate erotic fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with movie star Elizabeth Taylor.
Although Ballard has said he saw Crash as cautionary, as a warning against the role of violence and sex in the entertainment industry, the novel gained him instant notoriety.
Crash was adapted into a 1996 film by David Cronenberg, which was just as divisive as the novel and was banned by London’s Westminster Council. The novel has also been referenced in music and the visual arts. One such painting is Crash by Tom Alberts, now on show at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, at Perth’s University of Western Australia.
Alberts’s Crash is an enigmatic picture that features an accident in which a bright red car has plunged into a tree. There are two victims; one collapsed through an open car door, the other, a satyr sprawled on the road. And while Ballard’s novel and Cronenberg’s film are full of violence, this scene is disconcertingly calm.
The image even can be described as dreamlike, with no overt evidence of suffering or injury, says Sally Quin, curator at the gallery, when she shows me the painting, along with Ted Snell, University of Western Australia Museums director and Perth-based art critic for The Australian.
‘‘ The emphasis is on the carnal nature of the listless figures, whose extended arms and arched backs open their bodies up to scrutiny by the viewer,’’ Quin explains. ‘‘ In concert with these cascading forms, the crushed exterior of the vehicle alludes to the sexual fetishism of the car in the 20th century explored in JG Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash.’’
As in Ballard’s novel, Alberts’s car crash reveals the destructive potential of technology. The most intriguing element is the inclusion of the satyr, the half man-half goat spirit from Greek mythology, who bases his life on the pursuit of sensual pleasure. According to Quin, the painting captures the confrontation between nature, as represented in the form of the satyr in his wooded surrounds, and technological culture connected to the car.
‘‘ When highways cut through the land to ensure direct and comfortable travel, nature is inevitably harmed,’’ Quin says. ‘‘ The satyr is an alluring and subversive anti-hero who occupies a space beyond the conventions of a civilised culture. The cataclysmic moment of the crash conjoins these two figures on the road verge, the luminal space between forest and bitumen.’’
Snell has been familiar with Alberts’s work since the artist, who was born in 1962 in Hobart, studied at the WA Institute of Technology in the 1980s. Alberts now lives and works in Melbourne.
‘‘ Crash has this slightly gloomy, nightmarish feeling about it and this sense of the young man falling victim to the licentiousness of the satyr,’’ Snell says. ‘‘ And just when you think you have grasped the meaning in the painting, there’s another interesting element. There is often something happening which is quite personal to the artist.
‘‘ When looking at Tom’s work there is a sense of confidence that the painting is incredibly technically competent, that the drawing is going to be terrific, so you can absolutely engage with the story, and while the story isn’t absolutely clear, there is always this room to expand and elaborate.’’
Oil on linen, 65.5cm x 71.5cm