Disturbing, potent lens of Ballen in mid-life

by Mary Corrigall

Disturbing, potent lens of Ballen in mid-life Documentary photographer’s constructed imagery offers no respite to viewers, writes Mary Corrigall.

A gut reaction is to look away. It’s disturbing and frightening immersing oneself in Roger Ballen’s art.

Not only does he offer no respite from the decayed, disconnected and tortured worlds he presents, but his medium – photography – automatically suggests that these angst-ridden landscapes exist independent of his imagination, rendering his art more potent than the illusionary visions that painters or sculptors are able to conjure.

Juxtaposing his documentary-style photography of the 1980s and 90s with his more recent so-called constructed imagery, Ballen’s mid-career retrospective allows for a comparison between the real and the fictional. Such an evaluation begs the question: what compelled Ballen to discard documentary photography for a practice that transcends, and ultimately rejects, the tenets of photojournalism? There is no room for accuracy and objectivity in Ballen’s latest oeuvre; the images have been designed to reflect the relationship between internal and external manifestations.

Despite the disparity between his conventional portraiture of the 80s and 90s, and the shocking, surreal images that featured in his books, Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005), these diverse bodies of work have much in common; fiction does not come from a vacuum.

Firstly, both sets of work feature identical subjects: South Africa’s marginalised poor whites living on the periphery of society. Secondly, the interior settings are similar: they are dilapidated, dirty, barren spaces that serve to hold inhabitants captive rather than providing a place of refuge or a platform for self-expression.

That Ballen’s fictional works echo his non-fiction suggests a strong connection; one articulates what the other cannot fully express. They are interdependent; one cannot abstract a form without first becoming familiar with its essence. Ballen’s documentary photographs therefore can be viewed as a meditation on form.

Although it may seem deplorable to consider subjects as malleable as forms; Ballen recognises that that’s the role, they play in photography. After all, individuals are moulded by their environments, especially Ballen’s subjects, whose disproportioned bodies appear to be the result of a stale, unsanitary and oppressive environment.

The unbalanced and toxic relationship that exists between the two people who feature in Man and Maid (1991) – a domestic worker and her employer – is reflected not only in the dirty, uninviting interior that they inhabit but the unbalanced physical qualities that characterise Sergeant F de Bruin, Dept of Prisons Employee, OFS (1992), responsible for maintaining the laws that govern this deranged society.

The distressing images that see freakish-looking men configured in unfamiliar poses voice what is absent from his portraiture; they communicate the tension and inner turmoil that documentary photography can never substantiate.

Ballen acknowledges documentary photography’s shortcomings; it can only ever capture the seen. No longer forced to be a purveyor, he can bring the unseen into focus.

Crawling Man (2002) sees a man attempting to squeeze his body through a peculiar wire contraption. It is not just the absurdity of his actions that is disturbing, but also the environment he inhabits. It is a dysfunctional space; although the man lives there, it is not made for living; there is no furniture or windows offering views of the world outside. Like all of Ballen’s subjects, this man is divorced from the external world, emphasising his intent also to invoke the internal topography of his subjects.

Ballen employs wire in much of his photography; it gives him agency. It is more malleable than his subjects; it can be twisted into any form, allowing Ballen to intervene inreality and give expression to that which is not visible.

Twirling Wires (2001) shows a large ball of wires suspended above a man’s head. One senses that the wired behemoth above him is an imaginary product of his own design. It has, however, over time become such a an intricate arrangement that he is unable to untangle and destroy it and so, consumed by fear, he is paralysed.

The domestic worker and her employer, who live in a small dorp, should be able to determine their relationship. But their affiliation is so complex that it is easier to surrender to familiar patterns established long before they arrived on the scene.

The dilapidated nature of the homes that Ballen’s subjects dwell in suggests that they were constructed by a previous generation, making it clear that the damaging patterns of behaviour that imprison his subjects are well entrenched in this society; they don’t know how to live any other way. The only reprieves they are offered from this bleak existence are the animals that serve for entertainment and companionship.

The animals appear pure, innocent and untainted by these oppressive environments, emphasising the humans’ dirty, malformed bodies. The animals might look equally out of place in the surroundings, but at least they are unaware that they are trapped and estranged from the world.

Roger Ballen: A mid-career exhibition is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until 29 April 2007.

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