In a year like 2017, it can be difficult to determine whose dystopia we’re living in, that of Philip K. Dick or J.G. Ballard. If art plays as much of a role in interpreting an era as it does creating an era, then Jean-Pascal Flavien’s Ballardian House at Esther Schipper Gallery can be seen as a component of this pseudo-literary, pseudo-literal dilemma. Flavien’s work is more installation than sculpture, occupying the main gallery of the space, it includes precision-cut stones, a large sculpture of a house that, given the right circumstances, could actually be a dwelling, an expansive, smooth carpeting of sand, and a set of more conventional sculptures distributed around the space made from plastic, foil and velcro. The “house” at the centre of the exhibition can be entered, and, moving through its narrow, clinical rooms, it was impossible not to think of the role of temporary structures in contemporary life. Living in Berlin, one cannot help but think of the vanished encampment of asylum applicants and refugees who set up a community on the grounds of Oranienplatz, a small green space in the heart of Kreuzberg. Having lived in London as well, the spectre of Boxpark, a horrifying shopping centre constructed from shipping containers at the heart of Shoreditch, also came to mind. These two forms of temporary housing seemed to fuse when the Calais encampment known as “The Jungle” was invaded and destroyed by police. The residents of the camp were subsequently forced to move into dwellings made from shipping containers; thus rendering the brutalities of authoritarian capitalism as an aesthetic singularity: Victims of global capitalism being forced into containers for the commodities they are underpaid to produce, as if Philip K. Dick’s ideas were being transported through a Ballardian logistics network. Though these ideas seem inscribed in the cultural context in which the work enters, Flavien’s sculpture is nothing like any of these structures in itself. This said, it does evoke the ephemeral, ersatz quality that is increasingly becoming an aesthetic in contemporary architecture. Individuals and capital flows are expected to be on the move, to not become too attached to any specific site in the event that events move them. Digital nomads still need analogue nomad-ability and the methodologies of production and logics of Falvien’s work provide a reminder of the ways in which such needs are filled.
Beyond mere architectural reference points, the structure also seeks to directly engage Ballard’s writings. Exiting the house, the viewer finds a clear PVC, wood and glass sculpture hung on the gallery’s western wall which reads “I tried to leave by this last door of the horizon the same queasy perspectives would unravel in front of me…”. The lines, taken from Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), evoke both the dread and incongruous desire engendered by spaces like the Ballardian House. On one level, Flavien’s work has the kind of jaunty, post-war style chromatic palate familiar in cities like Rotterdam, but the depth of colour intensity and the disjoint feng shui infuses any familiarity with an undercurrent of alienation and suspicion. I should say I began by wanting to dislike this show for some reason, but I came around to it by the dynamics its space and placement created. Rather like Boxpark which is now a brand in and of itself seeking to expand throughout the UK and Europe, merely being hateable is not a predictive factor for whether something will end up being hated. As the platform economy and its attendant attention economy become more intrenched in our daily lives, one gets the sense that even if we may not yet be living in Philip K. Dick’s dystopia, we will almost certainly pass through Ballard’s on the way there. We may even enjoy it.