The Jet Age Compendium is a nimble book made up of a lot of false starts. Collecting together, for the first time, 13 years’ worth of collages, illustrated essays and pictorial fictions specially made by Eduardo Paolozzi for radical British magazine Ambit between 1967 and 1980, Paolozzi’s pages are intercut with successive magazine covers, poetry, advertisements and an essay by David Brittain, presenting us with a disorientating narrative experience, a nubile aggregate of different issues, viewpoints and forms.
Ambit was founded in 1959 in London, by paediatrician and novelist Martin Bax as an antidote to, as he saw it, the prevailing creative languor. Still successfully publishing today, Bax assembled a team of editors, including J.G. Ballard, who in turn drafted Paolozzi to help counter the counter-culture in magazine form, with an eye to exploring a subject which Ballard termed ‘inner space’. Revealing something of the concept’s methodology, Ballard wrote, ‘Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire.’ Below the masthead of each issue appeared its price: ‘two shillings and sixpence or two francs’. This was also a statement of the editorial team’s literary intent: pretentious perhaps, but nonetheless strongly directional in terms of identifying the desired readership.
Paolozzi’s ‘visual literature’ for the magazine combines the very best and the worst of his work. The workaday sexism is there: on one page, a naked female form escapes on foot from a horny (in both senses) satyr unfairly advantaged on a Yamaha motorbike. Alongside, visual essays are constructed from complex combinations of lingerie advertisements, weaponry and heavy industrial machinery. Whilst it might be asserted that this provocative imagery should be seen as critique, there’s an interpretive opacity to its surface that reads more like attitude.
However, the intelligently inventive and textually disorientating vision is there too. The features ‘Why We Are In Vietnam: A Novel’ (1969) and ‘The Unfilmed Scripts of Eduardo Paolozzi’ (1972) retain an effervescent formalism referring to the image-rich syntax of his own artist’s books, Metafiskal Translations (1962) and Moonstrips Empire News (1967), and to cinematic scenarios that will almost certainly never happen. ‘Things: A Novel’ is introduced as ‘the second volume of a long novel sequence Mr. Paolozzi is currently preparing’. Linking sotto voce to the Vietnam ‘novel’, the eight-page section reads as a politically engaged conglomeration of towering detritus, hospitalised war victims, domestic and military products, all divorced from their original functions yet still precociously available for use.
Artists’ interventions in magazines are now more common than ever. The release from the gallery box, the potential for bigger audiences, the swiftness of production and the portability of concept are all impressively tested in Paolozzi’s contributions to Ambit. In his own words, ‘a good reproduction is worth a thousand poor originals’.
First published in Issue 123