by Sebastian Smee
Roger Ballen’s photographs confront us with things we fear and things we cherish, then sow confusion between the two, writes Sebastian Smee.
Occasionally, as a critic, you see a show that makes you aware that almost all the art you have been looking at and writing about in recent months has been more or less interesting, but somehow short of great. It may have been full of things to admire; it may have suggested enormous potential. But it was, at best, very good, and the pleasure you felt in seeing it stopped short of real excitement.
Then something comes along, often when you least expect it, that moves your heart and mind right off the pegs they have been hanging on. You stand in front of the work feeling nervous, confounded, unaccountably emotional, perhaps even a bit giggly. These feelings persist when you go away. You can’t stop thinking about what you have seen.
This is how I have been feeling since seeing the work of Roger Ballen.
Ballen is an American who has spent the past 30 years living in South Africa. He is hardly an unknown: he shows with Gagosian Gallery, the world’s most high-powered commercial gallery, and he has had solo exhibitions at some of the most respected art and photography galleries in Europe and the US.
But I had never really looked at his work until Stills Gallery brought a show of 44 of his photographs to Sydney. All were taken between 1995 and 2004; 12 of them appeared in a book called Outland in 2000 and the rest belong to the series called Shadow Chamber (also a book, and the title of this show).
Ballen’s photographs tread a fine line between compassion and cruelty. They confront us with things we are afraid of and things we cherish and adore, and then sow confusion between the two. The result is that we stand before them in a strange limbo, paralysed by uncertainty about what is real and what is play-acting, between what is childish and what is grown-up, what is funny and what is horrific.
What do they look like? Inmate, from Shadow Chamber, shows a man lying on his back on a carpeted floor. He is smoking a cigarette in such a way that his hand obscures his mouth, one nostril and one eye. The cigarette points straight upward. His other hand looks gnarled and arthritic, perhaps because of the way his double-jointed fifth finger rests on the fourth.
To the right, the tight coils of a telephone cord can be seen. An electric cord is suspended from a nail in the wall. The end with the plug is tangled in a loose knot, while the rest of the cord hangs down straight to the floor. To the left, another, more serpentine line — the branch of a vine, luxuriantly leaved — winds down the wall.
This branch partially conceals a white rat. The rat’s tail forms a straight line suspended a couple of centimetres above the carpet. (Rats, I have just found out from an article on the internet called About That Tail, hold their tails above the ground when they move at speed, they don’t just drag them limply behind: so this is a rat on the move.)
Look at Ballen’s other photographs and you start to see some of the same elements recurring. Almost always, we are inside a room, usually with one or two humans — they might be adults or children — and a small animal or two. There are other props, such as toy animals, cardboard boxes, furniture, mattresses, pot plants.
The walls of these rooms double as blackboards or canvases: they are marked with childish or primitive drawings, sometimes just smudges and half-erased smears. In place of drawings, we might see an electrical cord, say, or a series of coat-hangers creating a graphic effect against the wall. Finally, there is usually some kind of sculptural element: a bundle of barbed wire or a stack of boxes.
The arrangement of all these elements, while owing something to chance, is the result of thousands of small decisions. (Inmate is, among other things, a natty arrangement of verticals: the electrical cord, the cigarette, the winding vine; and horizontals: the telephone cord, the rat’s tail, the line where floor meets wall.) All of Ballen’s photographs are crisp, graphically clean images in which texture, tone and composition play crucial parts.
This is great, because everything else about them slides about like crazy.
The objects in Ballen’s images are continually shifting on the spectrum between useful and useless, and between accidental and purposeful. A telephone cord connects nothing. A mattress is turned on its side. A cardboard box becomes a prison cell for a kitten.
They also slide between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional (scribblings and sculptures), the animate and the inanimate (a kitten shares space with a toy bear or a plastic dinosaur) and between the fully revealed and the occluded. (Although the photographs are starkly frontal and Ballen uses a flash to violently illuminate his scenes, his human subjects are often concealed behind masks, mattresses or cardboard boxes; often all we are shown is a set of fingers or toes.)
But Ballen’s photographs amount to more than a collage of different but strangely related elements. That would suggest a shallow form of surrealism. These images are far more specific, far more dangerous.
What they are really about is what we do with all these things. Can we find a purpose for them or is their presence in these rooms — in our lives — arbitrary and out of our hands? Is a puppy to be treated as a toy or is it a vulnerable new life, something to feel compassion for like a human child? What about a cuddly toy? What about a rat? (One photograph, called Rat Cemetery, has an answer to this: it shows three dead rats in the corner of a room with five paper crucifixes stuck to the wall above. To the left, reclining on the same bare floor as the rats, a young man laughs into a telephone.) Do we think of the white rat in Inmate as a specific vulnerable animal or as an abstraction that represents things we have particular feelings about (“rats”)?
And what about these humans? Who are they?
This is the question that seems to stimulate people seeing Ballen’s photographs for the first time and the answer requires a little back story.
Ballen is the son of Adrienne Ballen, who joined the Magnum photography agency in 1962 and set up Photography House, reputedly the first photography gallery in the world, in New York. Consequently, he was surrounded by masters of photography including Edward Steichen, Edward Weston and Andre Kertesz throughout his formative years (Kertesz was his biggest influence). Later he studied at Berkeley and immersed himself in the counterculture movement. He then travelled for five years, first in Africa and then in places such as Greece, Nepal and Indonesia.
His first photography book, Boyhood, came out of these travels, as did an interest in geology and landscape.
This led him into a PhD in mineral economics, which he converted into a small but profitable mining business in South Africa.
On the face of it, it’s an unusual combination: mining entrepreneur and artist. But the business, from which Ballen has only recently begun to extricate himself, allowed him to pursue his interest in photography without compromise.
At this stage, Ballen’s approach (if not his deeper interests) owed a great deal to the documentary photographic tradition. His second and third books, Dorps and Platteland, resembled photo-essays about the communities living in the flatlands of inland South Africa, “the mixed-race couples, forgotten civil servants made redundant by affirmative action and political change, independent small-time diamond miners ever hopeful of a big strike, subtle and not-so-subtle statements of inbreeding and loneliness”, as the South African writer and photographer Brent Stirton described them.
Ballen says he wasn’t interested in social documentation but notes: “There is a profound irony in that, despite half a century of political privilege here in the physical heart of white South Africa, even in a system created to ensure their survival, are archetypes of alienation and immobility, victims of both political forces and personal circumstances defending themselves against economic deprivation and psychological anguish in a hostile and unyielding environment.”
Platteland, in particular, presented its poor, often inbred subjects very starkly. Susan Sontag described the book as “the most important sequence of portraits I’ve seen in years”. But the South African art community was outraged. “There is a simple test to determine whether such a work as this is morally defensible,” wrote James Mitchell, the critic for Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper. “Transpose every liberal’s favourite whipping boy, the rural Afrikaner, with, say, Jews or Blacks, then imagine the most unpleasant visual examples that might have graced the pages of anti-Semitic or Negrophobe propaganda. Acceptable? No way!”
The debate, like most moral imbroglios over photography’s confusing tendency to be objective as well as tendentious, is stimulating up to a point, but it has little to do with Ballen’s more recent photographs, which are, explicitly, explorations of an interior psychological world. Yet their human subjects (who are involved and willing participants, often over long periods, and mostly residents of Johannesburg rather than rural dwellers) retain an air of the outcast, the marginalised, the dim, the inbred. Physically, they often seem weather-beaten, even repugnant. And they are sometimes shown in poses that seem humiliating or awkward.
So all the questions pertaining to the other elements in Ballen’s photographs apply as sharply to them: To what extent do we feel compassion for them? What sort of power do they have over the small animals and toys they share space with? And what sort of power do Ballen and we have over them?
It’s clear that Ballen’s imagination has fed as much on other art as on observations from life. It is easy to see in the drawings on walls the influence of Jean Dubuffet and art brut. And Ballen’s embrace of visual accidents and unconscious imagery that seem to pour forth from an uncensored id may remind us of Joan Miro or perhaps Cy Twombly.
The shifting registers of representation in Picasso, which provide so many surprises and so much ambiguity, are also an influence. And I noticed too a close visual and imaginative link (stark interiors, an ambivalent complicity with animals, a playful morbidity) between Ballen’s scenarios and some of the early work of Lucian Freud: not just the obvious Man with a Rat and Girl with a Kitten, but Large Interior Paddington, which is virtually recreated in Ballen’s photograph Orphan.
In fiction, there are connections between Ballen’s work and the amoral, adult-free zones conjured in the early stories of Ian McEwan, particularly First Love, Last Rites andThe Cement Garden. And in the outside world we might find disturbingly prescient connections between some of Ballen’s photographs and the horrific images that escaped from Abu Ghraib.
Ballen, I would say, has a genius for describing the impossibility of our lives. His photographs make us aware of the censorship we continually impose upon ourselves and of the profound sense in which we are not the masters of our own minds, though we try so hard to be.