We always try to deliver a unique look into a variety of art forms, cultures and mediums across the creative world, and it is with that in mind that we bring this completely one of a kind exhibition from Stanley Donwood, key cover artist for Radiohead. The Lawrence Alkin gallery has brought together the extensive project known as Dream Cargo, three years in the making, covering the entire works of apocalyptic sci-fi writer, J. G. Ballard. Donwood has carefully re-rendered the cover art for each and every Ballard story and had a lot of fun doing it too.
So what is the first step when approached to recreate the cover art for one of the greatest dystopian writers of British birth? You read the books of course, all 21 of them. It was no hardship for Donwood admittedly, who talks excitedly about the writer as if Christmas came early the moment he was approached by his publishers, 4th Estate; “Ballard is one of my favourite writers, a genuinely modern artist who was able to describe the twentieth century and beyond with the fascination of an obsessed surgeon opening up a nervous system.”
The second step is to contact every university within reach and ask to take a look into their laboratories, Cambridge, Plymouth and Bath. Donwood stepped into the threshold of some of the best science labs in England with a strong vision in mind yet no idea how to achieve it. “I didn’t do an O level or a CSE in chemistry, but I had a memory of holding some copper oxide, a kind of brownish-grey powder, in my bare hand. I held the powder under the drips from the school laboratory tap and the stuff transformed into bright blue copper sulphate in my hand, and it fucking hurt. I also remembered setting fire to stuff, explosions and lighting the gas from the gas taps – all fun stuff.” It was these memories of curiosity and explosive change that stuck with Donwood from his school days. “I was pretty keen to wangle my way into chemistry labs, put on a white coat and relive my errant youth.”
Paired with the scientific know-how of the experts which surrounded him, Donwood explored different chemical processes, burning, explosion, oxidation, hydration and more, all documented deeply in notebooks. Snapping the ideal moment of interchange between one substance and another. He was full of praise for his academic assistants, making a point to mention; “They are seriously interesting. Your time is better spent talking to a scientist than to a know-nothing artist, that’s for sure.” He admitted, however, that it was never his intention to create each cover as a separate piece, keeping all 21 freshly read books in mind constantly as he worked, compiling an expansive database of sketches, photographs and fragments which he would later arrange. “It wasn’t in the lab that each cover was decided, that was later on, when I was assembling my infernal ingredients.” The full rundown of processes, explosions and experiments can be found, along with credit to the scientists and photographers involved, on the back of each book.
To create works in a method such as this requires a certain ability to surrender control of his work to the elements at play, a prospect which would terrify many an artist yet Donwood relished the opportunity to let chance take the wheel a little. “There’s a point when lack of control and control meet, and that’s the place for me.” His role became one of preparation, “You have to create the conditions – construct the experiment, in other words – and then the elements begin to interplay. but the thing with it is that it’s always the human hand that brings the elements together. In some cases I’ll need gloves, or to use tongs, but in other cases it’s just me with a saucepan filled with molten wax, pouring it over pools of water-based ink… So often it might look, or even feel quite abandoned and elemental, but the trick is knowing when to stop… I fucking love it.”
During the opening nights of Dream Cargo each work will be available for one time only as Lambda printed, aluminium mounted, high gloss versions without the initial cover typography. In their own right each piece remains as strong as ever even without the written elements, Donwood himself expressing his satisfaction about their finished effect. “I’m actually surprised how well these large-format pieces work without the text, with no author or title, no ‘introduction by -‘ line or quote. Though to cover all the bases, as well as the diasec-mounted lambda prints with no text, I’ve made small edition giclée prints at a smaller size, with Ballard’s name and the titles retained. And anyone who wants the whole shebang can buy the book…”
And what would J.G Ballard himself think if he were here today? The iconic writer sadly passed in April 2009, Donwood unfortunately missing out on an opportunity to meet his inspiration during his lifetime. “Not long before he died I passed on the chance to meet him – I was really intimidated and I thought he’d just find me out to be the stuttering, tongue-tied blushing embarrassment that I actually am. It’s a great regret, and a mistake that I’ve hopefully learned from.” It is perhaps for this reason that he was so uncertain when predicting what the late writers reaction would have been. “I honestly don’t know. Ballard was a great fan of surrealist art – I’ve tried to move slightly away from figurative styles, and personally am more interested in the jarring juxtaposition than the surreal coupling, but, like I say, I don’t know. I’d like to think we’d at least have been able to agree on a pleasing single malt.”
The exhibition will be taking place at the Lawrence Alkin gallery between the 27th of March and 25th of April 2015, if you are in the area and fancy seeing a unique collection of iconic graphic work it is certainly worth a visit.