The Prospect of Immortality

Operating room, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Scottsdale, Ari

Operating Room, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA. October 2006

In a world without search engines, Murray Ballard’s series The Prospect of Immortality (as curated for Impressions Gallery, Bradford, England 2011) might leave the viewer with a pervasive but uncertain sense of having entered an elaborately created construct. A cast of Lynchian characters, a selection of suburban locations, industrial storage containers and homespun props seem to spring from the imagination of a meticulous geek, a constructor, a story-teller with a sense of the absurd. The dimensionality of the vision, its curious particularities, and even the name “Ballard”, induce the notion that this world of cryonics, of freezing human bodies after death, is the sole agency of an artist of fertile mind and science fiction leanings.

But this is the Age of Google, so we can instantly ascertain that Ballard’s work, far from being a conceptual construct, is in fact the result of uniquely intimate access to the “real thing”. Ballard has become the documenter of a group of people who follow the beliefs of Robert Ettinger – the high school physics teacher, proponent of cryonic preservation and author of the text from which Ballard takes his title –  who call themselves cryonicists.

Ballard’s name is now coupled with this world.  His subjects are not “characters” but people who have made living wills for their bodies (and sometimes just their heads) to be frozen after death in liquid nitrogen for reanimation at some unspecified time in the future when science has evolved to the task. The “locations” are often their homes (installed with temporary freezing equipment) before transportation can be arranged to the main centres for body storage in America. And the “props” are the necessary training dolls, death monitoring devices and domestic freezing gadgets that enable the bodies to be frozen as near to the moment as death as possible.

Ballard’s account of his journey into this world is still tinged with marvel – perhaps not quite an example of Jungian syncronicity, yet having a sense of  “meaningful coincidence” where something other than the probability of chance may be involved. A student of photography at the University of Brighton, Ballard’s juvenilia was heavily influenced by film and by the work of artists like Gregory Crewdson. He spent his scarce resources hiring crashed cars, staging the aftermath of action and accident on some scale (and Ballardian in allusion). He was searching to understand the specific attributes of the medium of photography, pondering Sontag’s celebrated reflection: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

Playing an association game with himself around the words “time” and “preservation”, Ballard wrote down :

Egyptian mummies

Taxidermists

Embalmers

Archives

Seed Banks

And, as an afterthought :

Cryogenic preservation

The Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton was Ballard’s first stop for inspiration but the resulting experiments were banal. “It’s a great place but I came away thinking ‘this work is no good’. I’d spent all this time making the world what I wanted it to be. Now all I wanted was to go out and explore it.”

Ballard continues:  “The same day, I like to think, though perhaps it was the day after or even the day after that, I read an article in the Guardian”. It was about a French doctor, Raymond Martinot, who had kept the body of his deceased wife in the freezer of his chateau and whose own body joined hers upon death. The freezer had then malfunctioned and the couple were hastily cremated, their dream of immortality curtailed by a power cut.

The date of the article was 17 March 2006 and this was the moment that lit the taper. Ballard threw himself into researching the world of cryonics, pondering how to fund the necessary trip to visit the American facilities, the “action” a universe away, it seemed. But the artist had found his subject.

Meanwhile, as chance would have it, Alan Sinclair was living twenty minutes down the road in Peacehaven from Ballard in Brighton. Sinclair also had a connection to the Martinot story which he’d first heard about in a 1987 television programme called ‘She Travels In Time’, which was made after Raymond Martinot first preserved his wife in 1984.  It was hearing this story that inspired his interest in cryonics. Sinclair had been an engineer for Grundig working on the VCR (a time shift device of sorts) and later had a business in retirement homes. He became a fervent Ettinger apostle and had even converted his double garage into a “freezing facility” for eventual like-minded followers.

Frank, prospective patient, standby team training, Peacehaven, E

Frank, standby team training. Alan and Sylvia’s house, Peacehaven, East Sussex, UK. May 2007

So when Ballard stumbled upon a “training weekend” for fellow cryonicists, with Sinclair’s phone number as contact, he dialled certain of rebuff by this closed community.  But Ballard is an artist who doesn’t parade his ego and presents a non-judgemental front to the world. Sinclair and his wife Sylvia were welcoming, and shared their plans for immortality with Ballard over a cup of tea. The garage facility had been moth-balled through lack of demand, but the training sessions – a small group of eight or ten devotees – meeting to practise CPR on dummies and ice-packing techniques, continued.  Sinclair, his life  “surrounded by imminent death”, gave Ballard licence to document his world.

Ballard had not only found his subject but his medium. “I became obsessed with 5×4 cameras. It just seemed the best thing since sliced bread. It suited my method, my character. I was no longer photographing action.” This large format camera, cumbersome and difficult to use, emphatic in its rendering of detail and requiring a long moment to pass between subject and photographer, suited Ballard’s mise-en-scene:  the careful display of the materials, the dummy, the wheelchair, the freezer, the posed portrait – the bizarre incongruity of object and function.

Meanwhile, the dead Martinots and their chateau in the Loire were exercising some strange force of attraction upon Ballard. Setting off a year after reading the article, without address or compass and with parlous French, he zoned in on the village and tracked-down Remy, the son who had been tasked with freezing his father. Remy, a devotee of sci-fi and convinced of the cosmic connection between Ballard and JG, invited Ballard to stay at the chateau. Ballard’s  images of this mausoleum – with its empty freezer, residue of cryonic “protectants” and the troubled son haunted by the ghost of his father – have not yet been shown to the world. But in Ballard’s forthcoming art-book, a collaboration with  Impressions Gallery and Stuart Smith, the opening image may well be of the locked gates to the Chateau Martinot, shrouded in mist, a Gothic portal luring the Van Helsing of Crynonics into his own encounter with another (would-be) Immortal.

The Prospect of Immortality is in fact an umbrella title for a number of series in Ballard’s exploration of his subject which has spanned six years.  His investigation has sometimes been financed by commission (Geo Magazine in Germany), and he is happy to own the label of documentarian, acknowledging his special access to a very small , closed world and his purposefully “objective” images.  But he is not an advocate or apologist. “People will make of it according to what they bring to it”, he says.

What is clear is that whilst Ballard’s method is to document the processes and accoutrements, and even the frozen bodies of this group of people who believe in cryonics, ultimately his subject is faith.  And faith is, of its essence, not provable or showable.  Faith can only be depicted through its appurtenances and symbols – a Madonna, a rosary, a relic, a rose. But there is no more evidence of a Christian resurrection, or reincarnation as there is for the “scientific” basis of cryogenics. It’s a faux-science, based on hope and love and fear, and mankind’s struggle to come to terms with mortality.

In Ettinger’s locus classicus he speaks of being awakened “after a moment of sleep without dreams”, of being “rejuvenated while unconscious”.  It’s a vision of the Future as progress and enlightenment, when Mankind “will remould closer to the hearts desire” and where we can “play in the grand style”.

Ballard has crossed continents for his investigation and has documented the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Phoenix, Arizona; the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Detroit, Michigan – the facility founded by Robert Ettinger in 1976; Alan and Sylvia in Peacehaven; Remy Martinot in Saumur; preservations of dead dogs, transportations of frozen corpses in a frozen Russian winter. And he has recorded spoken testament as well as images.

But at the heart of it all are the departed and the living and the socially specific rituals and belief systems that mankind erects in the face of the unknowable to forestall despair.

Cryostats, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan. April

Cryostats, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan, USA. April 2010

There are two images in The Prospect of Immortality whose very banality is freighted with poignancy. Flower Box, as the name suggests, is a sectioned, numbered box containing two little floral bouquets, and a short message to “Rosie” – expressing the hope of meeting again one day. The flowers themselves are long since dead. The other, Patient Files, is of a row of grey filing cabinets. And concealed in each cabinet (we must assume) are the memento mori, the artefacts each dead person has selected to take into the Afterlife – or is it the Newlife?

Ballard’s searching enquiry into this world is viewed with an eye that is both detached and compassionate.  Alec Soth, a seminal influence on the young Ballard, urged the artist at the mid-point of his enquiry to “carry on” with his profound investigation into the hermetic and strange mysteries with which we surround our mortal end.

 

Sophie Balhetchet

March 2012