Within the ballenesque

This article was originally published in Art News New Zealand Winter 2017

Roger Ballen’s strange, psychological scene-scapes, with their immersive black-and-white aesthetic, are a powerful force in contemporary photography. Ballen’s work is always compulsive viewing, says Colin Rhodes.

Roger Ballen rarely stays still. He was born and raised in New York, schooled in California and Colorado, and has lived in South Africa for more than three decades. Restless movement has marked his life. But his journeys in time and space were not so much to get from  A to B, as about exploring the self.

Over the decades since the publication of his first series of works, in the book Boyhood (1979), Ballen has attracted a constantly growing art world audience. It broadened considerably more recently with the addition of a new generation of admirers from the contemporary music scene drawn to his photographs after seeing the powerful video he made with South African rap group Die Antwoord for their song “I Fink U Freeky” (2012). From the haunted, uncanny small-town vistas of the Dorps photographs (1982–86), through extended forays into increasingly strange, disenfranchised communities, he has consistently sought equivalents for his own psychic depths in real world manifestations.

Ballen always considered himself a photographer, yet he originally chose to pursue a career as a geologist. This provided him with a way of making a living that didn’t tie him to an office desk; and allowed him to commit himself to a photographic practice without ever having to submit to photography as a commercial necessity. In other words, Ballen has only ever made the art he wanted to make. He  is unconcerned with passing art fashions and fads, and   his work is often unapologetically ‘difficult’ and always compulsive  viewing.

The artist has had  a  busy  few  months.  Since the publication last September of his latest book of photographs, The Theatre of Apparitions, he has been honoured with a retrospective at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, collaborated with Dutch artist Hans Lemmen on an exhibition in Paris, opened the new Roger Ballen Foundation Centre for Photography at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, and now has his first major exhibition in New Zealand, Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, which I helped to develop. I caught up with him recently at his home in Johannesburg.

Roger Ballen has been thinking a lot about the idea of theatre lately and its relationship to his art. In the past he’s resisted suggestions that his art was theatrical or related in some way to theatre, because they were usually simplistic, based on incorrect assumptions that his works were artificially ‘staged’. On the contrary, the marginal characters and eccentric interiors in works from the photographic series Outland, Boarding House and Shadow Chamber (published as artist books in 2000, 2004 and 2008) not only existed as real things, but they were actually photographed in the regular course of daily life. These places and lives were highly irregular in themselves, but Ballen seems always to have been able to insinuate himself naturally into the circumstances without surrendering his own identity and separateness. So, the people he photographed were their own  ‘directors’.  “It  was  very  spontaneous,”  he says. “It’s not something  where  I  scripted  anything. It’s impossible.” Ballen’s role was to make the photograph out of the sum of his own  psychology  and  experience. The resulting images are thus never voyeuristic, because the artist is also always a strong and pervasive psychological  presence.

Theatre in Ballen’s work is best understood metaphorically. Because each photograph is complete in itself, yet also part of a series, he has come to see the totality of his output as ‘acts’ that can be recombined in different ways. In this theatre, for both artist and viewer, the actions of encounter and participation are never completed. Indeed, as Ballen says, “In my own work I look for what challenges me, for things I don’t have an answer for. When I make a work I can’t necessarily comprehend its meaning, and it sometimes takes months or years before I come to some coherent emotional and intuitive relationship with the pictures I made. So these pictures I’m making now, whose subjects are actually rats, have  that element in them that  is  challenging me.”

Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind is part of the artist’s journey. It contains work made between 1997 and 2015, but it is not a retrospective. Instead it reassembles images according to psychological themes, conceived as ‘theatres’ that owe more to the interior dramas played out in the writings of Unica Zürn and Antonin Artaud, and Hermann Hesse in Steppenwolf. It is a kind of movement from light  to dark, from outside to the depths of the interior; a rich series of ‘acts’ in the psychological and creative life of Roger Ballen and the products of that life.

The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ (with its nod to Artaud)     is a light space, populated by human characters,  all  of who enact the absurd process of living meaningfully in situations most might find hopeless. In the ‘Theatre of the Real and Unreal’ the integral human body fragments, and the living presences of people, animals and birds are fused with other constructions. Ballen’s work is about laying bare what is hidden. It is also about revealing our tendency to hide  from  things.  The  ‘Theatre  of  the  Hidden’ operates through images that reveal even as they obscure and conceal. The ‘Forbidden Theatre’ is a deeper, more primal realm. It is the place of sexual desire and the unfathomable region where religions and beliefs grow and die.

In Sydney last year, Ballen worked with Marguerite Rossouw and a group of students and graduates of the University of Sydney to create a chilling, site-specific installation in the contested subterranean spaces of the old Rozelle psychiatric hospital, fittingly titled the Theatre of Darkness. Though these spaces are now returned  to their usual inaccessible emptiness, something of the experience lives on publicly in the short movie, Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind (2016) that he and his collaborators made. “Making a video left a very strong impression on me,” says Ballen, “because I was able to delve deeper, and I integrated my experience in that place with my photographs and my own history and to a degree the  history  of  the  place itself.”

Continually challenging himself is, Ballen argues, one difference between him and most other photographers:   “A lot of photographers  hit  on  something,  they  do  well at it, and they keep at it all the time. They get stuck in it. I think that’s one thing where as a photographer I’m separated from a lot of other people. Over the years I keep metamorphosing what I do over time, whereas if you look at someone like Cartier-Bresson, what he did instead of changing style was just go to another country. And Diane Arbus, or whoever you look at, they’ve just gone into this style and worked according to it.”

The continual challenge adds up to something that the artist himself refers to as the ‘Ballenesque’. “Sometimes,” he says with a wry smile, “people say, ‘Your work might give me a nightmare,’ and I say, ‘Well that’s great news. I’m really happy. That’s what the doctor should have given you as a prescription. The work has actually penetrated your skull and got under your skin.’ That’s what art should be doing. It should be challenging and adding to one’s sense of self. If my work creates a sense of anxiety that means  its doing something for you. And I certainly don’t mean in a negative or superficial way. I’m interested in challenging on  a  deeper level.”

Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind is at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery from 27 May to 20 August 2017, as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography, and at Tauranga Art Gallery from 23 September to February 2018.

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