The Descent into the Asylum – Roger Ballen’s new works

by Peggy Sue Amison

To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
Samuel Beckett

“Photography is like going into the mineshaft”, says Roger Ballen, and well he should know. As a geologist, his fieldwork sometimes has taken him 2 kilometers under the earth’s surface, in search of diamonds, gold, and other minerals. These subterranean pursuits have deeply influenced him, supporting his artistic development, which he likens to a psychological descent into the mine. As his work has progressed, the excavation continues – time and again he masterfully brings up to the surface what he finds buried in the orebody of his unconsciousness, this is the endless challenge of his practice.

Ballen’s work immediately recalls the notion Paul Klee once termed as the, ‘in between world’, a dimension existing between learned knowledge and instinct. When his photographs are identified as disturbing, Ballen explains that his audience is merely confronting the shadow side of their own psyche. This response brings to mind other artists accused of such ‘dark’ works, those who through their unsettling creations, have caused audiences to wrench open their minds and be willingly pulled along in the undertow. The initial shock when readers confronted William Faulkner’s, “The Sound and The Fury”, and were challenged by Benjy Compton’s incomprehensible blathering, the distinctive dialogue of Samuel Beckett, or the incomprehensibility of a film like ‘An Andalusian Dog’, are all examples which come to mind. They allow one to slip into an uncomfortable, yet familiar delirium, completely intrigued (or horrified in some cases). This static resonates to future generations and eventually the work becomes classified as, “ahead of its time”.

“Asylum”, the new body of work by Roger Ballen, continues to confront audiences with that visual sucker punch to the solar plexus. Chaos is heightened through his use of incredibly complex backgrounds. His black and white palette again compounds the pandemonium and with his flash he drenches the scene in brashness, resulting in the compression of foreground and background almost into one flat plane.

Ballen is first and foremost a formalist; his photographs have their foundations firmly planted in emotive compositions. In “Asylum”, scenes are filled to bursting with multiple layers of figures, animals and sculptures existing against crowded backgrounds of primitive drawings, which have become his hallmark. They are obsessively messier than works from his past collections, such as “Outland” (2001) and “Shadow Chamber” (2005), which are stark, accentuated by wire lines, drawing the viewer’s gaze around the composition. Often, the key in Ballen’s work tends to settle to the bottom, weighting the picture in a strong foundation of ambiguity, but in all his work the square format contains the image, much like a cage containing an uncontrollable force.

Beginning in 2003 Ballen concluded that the human presence overwhelmed the meaning of his images to the detriment of other aspects and so he began to eliminate it. In “Boarding House” (2009), full figures are replaced by mere body parts: mouths, arms, feet and hands, fingers pop out of the backdrops, causing the photographs to become more aesthetic and ambiguous. In “Asylum”, the only human figure that appears is completely masked and almost disappears into the background. Any other human figures are mere effigies: mannequins, often cracked, disfigured and decaying. Present throughout “Asylum” is the character of a white bird, providing some visual sense of hope or relief within this mad house of disjointed limbs, headless figures and animals, both alive and skeletal. The contrast of the white bird acts as a full stop amidst the rattling chaos within the shades of gray.

Ballen attributes his early visual development to opportunities he had during his childhood, surrounded by some of the greatest photographers of his time. Born in New York in 1950, he was raised in a household where photography was commonplace – Ballen’s mother worked as a picture editor for Magnum in the 1960’s and opened her own photographic gallery in the 1970’s – he learned immediately the power of black and white film and this has become his main palette of choice. In his early 20’s after his mother’s death, he embarked on what could be described as a ‘walkabout’, hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town, often traveling for months through cultures which had no consciousness of science or technology existing in the west. Never formally educated in photography, Ballen made his living working in geology, until his third book, “Platteland” was published. Up until then he considered his photographic pursuits more a hobby than an occupation.

His career as a geologist provided him the good fortune to travel to the interior of South Africa. Documenting outlying rural towns in his earliest books: “Dorps” and “Platteland”, he revealed the hidden side of white society in South Africa, existing within claustrophobic conditions in a type of forced agoraphobia, due to the racial pressures lurking in the streets. The images opened up a deep wound in the country for which he received a great deal of criticism.

In the late 1990’s Roger Ballen’s work veered away from documentary, becoming more akin to ‘fictional documentary’, reflecting his own deeper psychological being. “Confusion is a crucial metaphor for the human condition. We try to find a purpose in the confusion, but fundamentally it is just confusion.” The noisiness of this uncontainable confusion continues to be present in Ballen’s imagery. As an artist, he has broken the boundaries of pure documentary and created his own psychological in between world – an environment no longer related to any place or time.

“Asylum” again testifies to that floating reality, declaring in its wake that darkness is not always despair, nor is light, happiness, that these mindscapes can be a source of energy, inspiration and imagination as much as they can be a disturbing. Ballen has stated time and again that the power of photography lies in “the authenticity of the moment” and that “photography has its greatest impact when one believes in the picture.” I, for one believe.

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