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.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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