The Roger Ballen Strategies

by Walter Guadagnini

“I’ve always thought that a believable, genuinely realistic ambiguity constitutes the greatest form of expression. And for different reasons. Firstly, nobody likes the truth of what is going on to be explained to him. And what is perhaps even more important is that nobody actually knows what is real or what really is going on.” I don’t know whether Roger Ballen has ever read this statement by Stanley Kubrick, but it clearly comes across as an exemplary description of the work of the photographer (New York by birth and South African by adoption), striking at the very foundations of his poetics.

On the other hand, perhaps it is no coincidence that Ballen stated in a recent interview: “For me, my best and most challenging works are the ones that I don’t understand completely. It is quite important to me that the viewer can’t get to the core of this work.” Hence a specifically anti-documentary stance, a concept of photography as an ambiguous language, which exploits its presumption of reality in order to create a parallel world, which literally stages places and figures, inducing an uncertain, dubious gaze in the spectator, both with regard to what he sees, and to his own interpretation of it.

Such an approach is deeply rooted in the very history of photography: even without bringing up Bayard’s “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man”, suffice to think of the long series of images which, from the surrealist era, stretches right up to the “Family Album of Lucybell Crater” by Ralph Eugene Meatyard in order to understand how there exists a clearly identifiable line of research based on the very credibility of the photographic image, one which even mimics the manners and styles of documentary photography so as to subvert its principles from the inside. This subversion may be expressed through different tones: dramatic, ironic, at times even explicitly comical. This is also because it makes headway through a territory, that of the subconscious, which not only has an individual dimension but which also takes on a collective significance, a remise en question of the aesthetic, cultural and – to a certain extent – social values that underpin the creation and interpretation of images.

But while these elements denote Ballen’s forming part of a tradition, it is also right to identify what the aspects are that make his research so particular, dare we say unique on the contemporary photography scene; in other words, what strategies are adopted by the artist to bring his world to life. Strategies that all lie within the language, that rely on no form of extra-linguistic tool in order to be recognised, being entirely concentrated on the image, on its construction and formal motives. The best way to approach these photographs is to piece them together right from the building blocks of a visual grammar based on the definition of space, of time and the figures that make up the entire series, every single shot of the cycles gathered in Ballen’s three main books: “Outland”, “Shadow Chamber” and “Boarding House”.

That of Roger Ballen’s photographs is a claustrophobic space, closed within itself. If you browse through the pages of the three above-mentioned volumes, your first impression will undoubtedly be this: the wall is a decisive element, one which guides your viewing, forcing you to concentrate inside a space as closely identified as it is indefinite. Even though in one series we find the word “chamber” and in another that of the “house”, the sensation you have is always that of finding yourself inside a room, cut off not only from the outside, but also from any other spaces to be found in the same place. The walls serve a twofold purpose: on one hand they shut off the scene within a specific and impassable space, while on the other hand they constitute genuine backdrops against which a consistent part of the image is played out, offering the primary key to their interpretation. In fact, from “Outland” to “Boarding House”, we witness a process of progressive estrangement from reality, which fully corresponds to the progressive development of the visionary element of Ballen’s work.

The walls of “Outland” in many cases maintain an aspect that may also be defined as realistic, both when they appear as great white screens, and even more so when there are little pictures or photographs hanging on them, i.e. the only elements in these images reminiscent of a condition of domestic “normality”, one immediately questioned by the rest of the image. In the two following books, the neutral walls all but disappear, while the graffiti and the iron wire shapes increase proportionally, right up to their exasperated presence in “Boarding House”, in which drawings play a central role, dominating the entire surface, stressing the claustrophobic nature of the space, often making the human presence take a back seat, perhaps overwhelmed by such an excess of decoration.

At the same time, the presence of doors and windows also increases, apparent openings which in actual fact lead to nowhere. Paradoxically, they serve as the denial of any possible escape, further limiting the space within which the characters move in this ever more absurd theatrical piece (in this regard, the problematic reference made years ago by Peter Weiermair to the theatre of Samuel Beckett seems particularly accurate). In the walls’ progressive shift from empty to full we may also note Ballen’s ever greater desire to intervene in the constitution of the image, for the degree of realism in the photographs diminishes in a manner inversely proportional to the increase of scenic elements, to the point that we may now speak of theatrical stages created by the artist himself, genuine backdrops which contribute decisively to giving tone to the composition.

At the same time, a work like “Skin and Bones” confirms Ballen’s desire to confer sense to photography not only through what is seen, but also through how it is seen. The upside-down child’s head at the bottom of the shot wrongfoots our gaze, eliminating the sense of up and down, the very depth of the image thrown into doubt by this apparition which is absolutely surreal, albeit absolutely believable. As if that were not enough, the real head is mirrored in those drawn further up, here placed at the spectator’s eye level, in a sort of doubling (up) which is both one of sense and evocations, a sort of enigma that foresees no solution. It all takes place on the surface; the spaces at least hinted at in the previous photographs are deliberately reduced here to a clearly pictorial type of surface.

times Just as the space in which the scene takes place comes across as mysterious, the time in which it unfolds appears to be indefinable. Once again, the fact that we find ourselves faced with a series of photographs leads us to think of the contemporary world, of the fact that these images were created in this historic moment; in actual fact, there is no visible element that contributes to confirming this hypothesis. In a closed space, an indeterminate, suspended time is opened, one made of frozen gestures, of interrupted movements, of expectations more than of actions. The figures in “Outland” also belong to the moment of waiting: they look into the camera, relating to the photographer and – through him – to the spectator; they are living people placed in an extreme condition, and yet definable according to criteria which may still be referred to a real time.

On the other hand, that of “Shadow Chamber” and “Boarding House” is clearly a time of dreams, of haziness, in which everything is possible, in which reality blurs with fantasy, and it is certainly no coincidence that many of these figures are portrayed lying down, often with eyes shut, their faces covered by their hands, by objects, pieces of clothing. In these places, something has happened, or something is about to happen, but in the moment that Ballen takes the shot, nothing is happening. They are photographs that speak of a past and a future, but not of a present. A key example of this is “Twirling Wires” (2000), in whicfh a coil of barbed wire encumbers upon the figure as if it were the materialisation of a nightmare, and it is not clear whether it is about to squash the person or whether it is moving away from him, being suspended in what appears to be a rotating movement which might be never-ending.

This is the time of Ballen’s images, a continuous and relentless moment of waiting, broken only by a number of sudden gestures, like that of “Scurrying Mouse”: the arm reaching out towards the mouse, blocked behind the high edge of the table, yet there is nothing to suggest definitively whether the arm is about to grab it or whether indeed it has just let it go. If photography is a figure of time, Ballen is among those who have best managed to define its very nature.

figures There is no show without characters, and Ballen’s photographs are no exception to this rule. The oddballs featured in these images stand out first and foremost by virtue of their anomaly, and in this sense they are doubtlessly related to the freaks so loved by Diane Arbus. They perturb our very concept of normality, forcing us to put it in doubt. But Ballen takes one further step forward (or perhaps it would be better to say sideways, given the concept of time that emerges from these photographs is not one of evolution but of circularity), making his figures assume unnatural, forced positions, hiding them, turning them into actors, transferring them onto a level different from that of the portrait tradition which his own images originally adhered to.

This is the umpteenth short circuit – also in terms of the logic of genres – which the photographer sets up, insofar as it would not be entirely wrong to read these images as part of the “environmental portrait” tradition, if by this definition we mean a portrait in which the personality of the subject is compared with and illuminated by the environment in which s/he lives, by the objects surrounding him/her. But it is also just as clear that it’s this kind of reading that highlights how Ballen intervenes on the codes, forcing them to the point of making them implode: what do the flaking or painted walls say about these figures, their relationship with the animals, the objects with which they are surrounded if not of the impossibility of understanding the ultimate sense of these existences?

Once it is clear that there is no desire to embark on psychological or sociological analyses, the figures remain on the surface, slowly turning into objects, into compositional pretexts given as much importance as that given to any other element of the composition. An arm that continues the line of a wire, hands and feet sticking out of containers, from behind curtains, artificial walls, shapes among shapes. To the point in which even the face disappears, shut off within a box or substituted by the faces drawn on the walls or floors. In some of the most recent series of photographs, they are created by the walls themselves, and here the pictorial sense of Ballen’s research may be more strongly felt, like his reflection on Brassa├»’s graffiti, or on Lotar’s abattoirs, and perhaps also on Bellmer’s doll (without forgetting figures such as Wols and Dubuffet, for narrowing the artist’s field of interests down to the purely photographic would be a pointless exercise).

On the other hand, it is clear that these drawings entail the need to read the images on an explicitly pictorial level, in the sense of this term standing for that baggage of experiences, rules and codes that veil over the birth of an image and confer sense to it, just as it is conferred by the subject, as well as the narrative and iconographical pretext. Hence a work like “Peeling Door” almost serves as a declaration of the artist’s poetics: having eliminated all living beings, the human figure is present through its manifold manifestations, from the naivety of the graffiti to the grandeur of the ancient painting, via the doll which appears – head down – on the door. With the evocation of a further reading, i.e. when we are faced with the need to define what genre this image belongs to, there is no answer to be found, for the very notion of the still life – which is the closest to this way of conceiving the image – is not sufficient on its own to describe the sense of this vision.

An infinite game of mirrors and reflections, an ever giddier descent into the possibilities of the image to envelop different meanings, a collage of spaces, times and figures that do not provide answers, but rather lead us to question both them and ourselves. This is what Ballen teaches us; this is his strategy, his own believable ambiguity.