Bleak images make an exhilarating exhibition

By Robert Greig

Roger Ballen’s technically audacious photography reinterprets the notion that the art form captures ‘the significant moment’, writes Robert Greig.

Roger Ballen’s new photographs are haunting additions to what we know and experience. They also, technically, modify the relations between fine art and photography and between the camera and its subject.
In both ways, their value is in creating possibilities of seeing, expressing and making. They add to the genetic pool of opportunity, understanding and feeling. This is exhilarating, though it may seem paradoxical that the work itself is bleakly austere. But then, we don’t just extend ourselves by wearing big smiles. The vision of the American-born, South African resident (30 years) in his latest work is of a state of being and a world that makes Samuel Beckett’s seem lyrical. And, like Beckett’s, it is shot through with sly, subject irony.

The world of Ballen’s photographs resembles features of the known – it has human figures, walls, light fittings, animals and birds. But these are rearranged tightly in a context of black-and-white, and an atmosphere one would call ominous if the word didn’t suggest something was about to happen. In the world of these images, past and future have no meaning; they depict an unending state of being.

Emotional variation in the portfolio certainly exists – with slight comedy. However, the effect of the photographs is as much for space – shadowed, bright or blurred – between objects, human beings, animals, birds and objects. Space does not define objects; it is swamping them. Technically, the photographs are audacious. Audacity is in Ballen’s revising photography’s relations to fine art and to photography’s own history.

Ballen has reinterpreted the notion of photography capturing “the significant moment”. He has also revisited that place in the early 20th century when photography ceased to be a kid brother of fine art.
He has turned the relationship upside down by noting, in lines on walls and in composition, how we still arrange the seen as if it were a painting. In this, Ballen subverts notions that a photograph is about something that exists outside itself – or about anything in fact – and a painting is the perception of something, or a variation on a visual theme. The use of a painterly attention to texture, for example, reduces the documentary elements of these photographs, and accentuates that they are created images.

The photographs, square and black-and-white, are suffused with a sense of texture and pattern. Ballen’s minimalism with dangling wires and smears on the wall evokes painters like Miro. The world has become skeletal.

The innocent but sinister figures of Ballen’s earlier work – those deformed, poverty-stricken grotesques of Outland – reappear in some of these photographs, with their real pets or plastic animals: chickens, dinosaurs.

With a mixture of threat and tenderness, the figures hold white mice, rats, chickens and birds. The creatures are proffered to the camera; they are both held captive and embraced. Similarly, the distinction between, for example, a living bird and an inanimate teddy bear is blurred. Figures and creatures exist but do not actually live. The life seems conferred by the photographing, it seems to exist only in the context of the photograph.

Though the photographs in Shadow Chamber and its accompanying book are not arranged according to the order of their being photographed, I had a sense of process in Ballen’s work. It seems that later works involve the bleaching out of human figures, leaving a residue of hanging wires, marks on a wall, shadow and light. Narrative elements have diminished; the visual evidence that stimulates the construction of narrative is diminishing. Without stories to intervene between the eye and the image, the image becomes starker.

Shedding the narrative is clearly purposeful: it has the effect of reminding the viewer that narratives are also ways of lending sense to a world where sense is a pasted-on, protective device. In the world of these photographs, just as distinctions between real and toy are dissolving, so are distinctions between the living and the dead, the human and non-human. Such distinctions are, after all, the apparatus we use to attribute meaning to what may be inherently meaningless.

Some of the human figures, hidden beneath dark blankets, could be dead. Others stare out but their stares betray no recognizable focus, idea or feeling. Looking at them, you wonder about your own gaze, of course, but also do not feeling that anything is about to happen or will happen in the world of the photographs. The significant moment becomes endless. It has been infinitely elasticized. The concept usually suggests that the photograph captures one element of a sequence in live experience. Implicit in this is the suggestion that the image gestures to experience.

The image seizes a simulacrum of “life” and implies a sequence: “This happened, then this, and this, the photographer captured the part of the sequence, implying the whole.” But, ultimately, capturing the significant moment tends to be an allusive act, gaining meaning from what we experience of the world and what precisely happened in it.

At best, such photographs make us see the world differently, revealing something about it. Sometimes they are illustrative, captions to events, or visual shorthand for obvious general truths. (For example, most photographs of children are less about the specific child than hopeful affirmations of the idea of innocence.) Some photographers use the surreal to “make it new”. Others like Diane Arbus, with whom Ballen has been compared, have so powerful a vision of the world that, in her case, social conventions are cleared away. Her children are bizarre: not just under grown adults but bonsai monsters.

Ballen does something slightly different. He creates images that both represent and embody a felt sense of his world in a way that the felt sense rings true for at least this viewer. Their power makes one feel that these images are not simply subjective expressions of his experience but an accurate and earned knowledge of the world as it is. Ballen’s insights don’t come easy. They are reminders of the kind of convictions that we may have but could not live by, necessarily placing them in a shut bottom drawer.

This does not mean they are wrong, fanciful, irrelevant or – the ultimate dismissal – “merely personal”, any more than religion, dealing with equivalent apprehensions of existence, is. What matters more is the feelings behind the images rather than the degree to which the images leave you believing: “This is real: and this explains”. The photographs convince one of the world that they depict, a world we may or may not acknowledge as our own but we know exists. This is visionary art. If Hieronymus Bosch were living today in this underclass, these images would be his.

Comments are closed.