by Rebecca Rafferty
Everything we experience in the waking world sticks with us; it tiptoes or rages about inside, or travels deep into the psyche only to be drawn out nightly in dreams and daily in unexpected reverie. Our brains work continuously to make sense of things, even things we might rather ignore. Dream-sense can be unsettling in its dense, archetypal symbolism, and while some will argue that it’s nothing more than the brain defragging the mess of information it must process, it’s the sense that most interests Johannesburg, South Africa-based American photographer Roger Ballen, whose work can be seen at the George Eastman House through June 6.
Ballen’s creative projections reveal a complicated inner world, where darkness and fear, playfulness and exaltation, beauty and mystery are all examined with the same bold focus, the same tender interest. A thoughtful viewing of this work, so intent on an exploration of the world through internal filters, may influence members of the audience to more fully and bravely examine the nuanced layers of their own inner experience.
The show is a mini-retrospective, spanning three decades of Ballen’s work in rural South Africa, and viewing it is a challenging, surreal experience. At first the show disarms the viewers, and then dares them to dwell within the dystopian settings, both real and mythic, long enough to discern meaning from the narratives.
Director of the George Eastman House, Dr. Anthony Bannon, served as project manager for the Ballen exhibition, and has traveled to South Africa and toured with the artist to many of the sites where Ballen has photographed. “I worked closely with the artist to select photographs that showed the range of his work from the beginning of his career to the present,” he says. Seventy-four black-and-white images, chosen from thousands, are included in the Eastman House show.
“This is a thoughtful view of his career over the past 30 years,” Bannon says. “The images in the exhibition represent all of his major books, making evident the transition in his body of work using straight documentary photography to a more artistic and expressive environment.”
Roger Ballen’s work resonates with viewers worldwide and has achieved much critical praise. He is included in the collections of dozens of museums and galleries around the world, including Gagosian Gallery in New York City. Though American, Ballen has resided in South Africa for three decades, and there he has built a portfolio which has shifted gradually from a raw examination of the impoverished rural populations, to his more recent endeavors to access and explore his complex, private internal landscape. Ballen’s images shock and disturb, but captivate something deep within the viewers, long hidden from themselves, pushed down and starved of attention in favor of the lighter, more logical aspects of human life.
Ballen sees his work almost “like a diary – recording the way I see things everyday,” he said in a recent interview with City Newspaper. The show encompasses his life in a way, he says: “It synthesizes the way I was, the way I thought.” Looking at it now, it tells him about his personal evolution over the years.
The work “encourages viewers to step outside of their understanding of reality in a photograph, challenging them to assess things differently,” says the Eastman House’s Bannon. “With this exhibition we are inviting our audience to consider, both personally and community-wide, art outside the comfort zone. You find things here you’re not used to looking at. With the right attitude, this art can be very fruitful for all of us.”
Poverty and illness are not comfortable images to behold, but neither are many of Ballen’s staged scenes. In “Cut loose, 2005,” a young man stands against a wall with his face downcast, but seems to hang from a mass of twirled twine, tangled around him. A heavy pair of shears lay on the ground, though his contorted hands and feet make it uncertain whether we’ve arrived on time.
In a looping video interview playing on-screen in the gallery, Ballen addresses the shadow-self and the labeling of his work as “disturbing,” saying that people call it such because “they’ve kept that part of themselves hidden from themselves, and they don’t want to deal with it; it’s too much of a challenge.” There’s nothing wrong with feeling disturbed. There’s something incomplete, and unrealistic, he claims, about not examining your reaction to that which makes you feel any emotion, even the less popular ones. Why do we blindly accept art that is soothing, without asking why it soothes? Why do we readily reject imagery that unsettles, and demand the reason for its existence? Why turn from it?
Ballen’s work wakes questions about why it’s crucial to bring this darkness back into focus. How do we suffer by not looking at suffering, be it external or internal? The artist laments that we are so “dependant on answers from external sources,” including books, TV shows, and pills. Ballen claims that if more people spent time with their dark side, “they’d find a lot more light than they think. It’s the state of the world – until we resolve it, we’ll never get ahead.”
Could it be that the very process of examining sheds the light that we need? The physical reality of photography is the use of the power of light to freeze reality (or a version of it), and then use darkness to develop what’s already there. One image in the exhibit I repeatedly returned to is “Twirling wires, 2001,” in which a shrouded man huddles under a tangled mass of sharp wire, looking warily up at it, eyes wide. To his left, the illuminated wall curves away into profound blackness, adding a subtle, nagging intrigue to the already powerful image.
It’s true that Ballen’s images are uneasy and raw, but they are also captivating, heavily thought-out, pregnant with stories existing in states of potentiality. They’re innocent – not naïve-innocent, but innocent by way of being in touch with the primal energy of conscious existence we’ve tried to smother out with modern life.
Roger Ballen was born in New York City in 1950, and in the 1960s, his mother began working for international photography collective Magnum, enabling her son the privilege of being exposed to famous photographers and their work. He’s been involved in photography most of his life, though until this decade, he worked both in photography and geology. The artist first arrived in South Africa in 1974 after hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town in one of those quintessential spontaneous adventures of youth. He began photographing small rural towns in South Africa in the early 1980’s, and though his documentary-based work didn’t shift immediately to the surreal, painterly images that we see now, some early images were signals to him that he could get somewhere else with his work; they spoke “more of the essence of me rather than something out there,” he says.
“Until the late 1990’s my work had a documentary aspect to it,” Ballen says. “The work in a particular manner attempted to define various aspects of South African society. Since the late 90’s my photography began to contain aesthetic elements that were traditionally incorporated in painting, sculpture, and installations. The images no longer attempted to document South Africa in any way; the primary purpose is to reflect my existential relationship to the world.”
Ballen calls his 1994 book “Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa” an unexpected “bombshell,” the impact of which transitioned him from a hobbyist photographer to a more serious artist. This book revealed images of impoverished and socially outcast individuals kept hidden behind propaganda set in place by the Apartheid government, which didn’t want to appear weak or disorganized. Ballen’s pictures showed to the world “a group of white people who were worried about their future” (per the Eastman House exhibit’s video) and unable to cope, and this undermined the government’s efforts at portraying only one version of reality. But the artist argues that the images also showed “humanity’s inability to cope, to order the world, to act in an effective manner,” he says. “They showed our own marginalization in the face of events and time itself.”
The exhibit is arranged in a rough chronology, grouping images from early work, through specific book-projects, to the most recent photographs. Earlier pieces depict weatherworn, impoverished people in stark, bleak environs. The figure in “Man shaving on verandah, West Transvaal, 1986” is crouched small and vulnerable in a concrete doorway, surrounded by darkness, focused on his razor and mirror. “Dresie & Casie, twins West Transvaal, 1993” is a powerful image of brothers who confront the camera with tough scowls. Upon close examination, the viewer will spy viscous ribbons of saliva hanging from lips to shirts. Striking and disturbing, visual signals in the picture evoke a confusing mess of preconceptions – guilt, fear, and pity – in the viewer.
Ballen has never really shot “comfortable” images, but in recent years he’s shifted from the harsh realities of the largely overlooked in South Africa to a more playful shade of disarming. He’s less a silent witness now than a participant in examining and projecting the complicated nuances of difficult inner conflicts. As for what marked the shift, the artist says he’s interested in those often-intangible “aspects of the human condition, issues of life and death, what’s funny, what’s disturbing, chaos, what’s real and what’s not real. Issues most people try not to contend with all the time.”
“In many cases I feel the better the work, the harder it is to say what it’s about. The best pictures for me are the ones I don’t understand,” he says. For Ballen, the searching seems to be the entire point. The human mind wants to categorize, wants to put the chaos to order. But sometimes that’s just not possible, and that intrigues him.
For his 2001 book “Outland,” Ballen began to interact with subjects in greater degrees than before, and though he always had a strong artistic sense of formal elements in his documentary-based work, the hand and the mind of the artist began to show more than ever. “Puppy between feet, 1999” shows an impossibly tiny canine face and paw cradled in a human hand, which is framed by the V of two weatherworn, extremely calloused feet. Repeating this brutal contrast is the material in the scene: the feet rest on a velvety cushion, beneath a rough, woven material.
“Eugene on the phone, 2000” is a portrait of universal teenage awkwardness, in which a young man lay curled on a couch, dirty bottoms of his feet exposed, with the cord of the phone he holds pulled tight over his body. His other hand grasps the tail of a cat straining to keep hold of the back of the couch. On the wall above, a small t-shirt hanger is cocked toward the subject’s head. So much gesture pulls our attention straight to the subject’s face that we return again and again to his startled expression.
In 2003, the “Shadow Chamber” project marked a major shift for Ballen. Portraits began to disappear, and though animals and human bodies remained in a sculptural, prop-like aspect, drawings and objects took on a more equal role with the living subjects. So many of these images are about illusion, what seems to be; they are visions of an expectant held breath, and it’s the viewer’s duty to finish the story. The seemingly impossible figure in “Head inside shirt, 2001” is explained by the title; but the seamless apparent headlessness of the crouched child is initially quite startling. The metal-object creature to the right seems perfectly capable of scuttling around on its stilt legs, but in an animate gesture, appears to be looking curiously at where the child’s head should be.
Today Ballen’s style is even more nebulous, with a sense of dark-circus theatrics. We have less certainty about what is happening in the images. A dash of ominous humor is added; a sense of filth and brokenness resides there, but also a smirking, creative scavenging of resource and meaning. The increasingly painterly, surreal images in his most recent book, “Boarding House,” which published last year through Phaidon Press, explore “a place of coming and going,” which Ballen in his video piece calls “pretty metaphoric for the human experience.”
The artist pushes the limits of ambiguity, and wants the viewer to contemplate the “literally thousands of visual elements that interact in each of the images, creating specific realities.” Repeated study of the photographs reveal crucial elements missed the first, second, fifth time. My eyes initially passed over the children hiding in a pair of pictures, set next to each other. Two of the most complicated images from Ballen’s new set are “Skin & Bones, 2007,” with its repetition in patterning and oppositely positioned faces, and “Boarding House, 2008,” where child and dog mirror each others’ gestures and a host of faces and creatures stand guard over them. The two children seem hopelessly vulnerable under the weighty volume of the chaos surrounding them. The more I looked, the more the feeling settled into my mind that perhaps the children were dreaming the nonsensical environment, not just being crushed by it.
“The process of taking pictures is like going down a mine,” says Ballen in the video piece, and he would know. His career as a geologist brought him, at times, down into two-kilometer-deep gold mines in South Africa. He now translates that to the mind, saying he’s mining for what’s there and bringing it back, and working to materialize it.
My mythic vision of Ballen now has him dragging shadows out of the recesses of psyche and taming them (sort of) into material aspect. Exhausted, he sits down and looks out at his audience. Your turn. It’s both wise and frightening to decide to autonomously befriend that energy. We need to become acquainted with everything we can feel in order to really know who we truly are. Sometimes you have to, you know, kick Apollo to the curb and drink some beers with Dionysus.
Acknowledging our shadows doesn’t mean we can’t leap about and make them dance with us. Ballen injects a dark humor in cooperating with it, shaping it, skillfully giving that amorphous world form, presenting a moving narrative, pausing long enough for the audience to leap into, and then shifting it around us as we grasp to make our own sense of it all.
If through this work, Ballen has gained a clear idea of what these dreams signify, he’s not telling, because he wants that precious dialogue with the searching mind of the viewer. Each person is going to see in Ballen’s works what he or she brings to the table within his or her own mind and experiences. If you bring a blank slate, you might see nothing but a series of darkly beautiful and troubling images packed with a secret language of gesture and shadow. But if you’ve been alive for any amount of time, you can’t really bring a blank slate.
The artist hopes that the Rochester audience, half a world away, and living firmly within their own psychological experience, will “use these images to better understand themselves and the world around them. There is no single or multiple meaning to these works,” he says. “Each person must find there own place in these photographs. Just look at the pictures like you’d look in the mirror,” and you might find something of use. The problem with this is that most of what we see in the mirror is theatrical fade, anyway. Perhaps there is a lesson in that, too.
“Roger Ballen: Photographs 1982-2009”
Through June 6
George Eastman House, 900 East Ave.