Sunday, August 16, 2009

Roger Ballen: The Boarding House

At first his new body of work appears to be classic Roger Ballen. With a monochrome palette and a grainy visual texture, Ballen conjures twisted, tortured, uninhabitable realms in his photographs. The walls are grimy and stained, the furniture, torn and soiled.

Naïve drawings of human forms cover walls and surfaces like graffiti inside toilet stalls. Disparate disused objects are co-opted into absurd and seemingly illogical configurations.

In Scavenging (2004) what appears to be a dead rabbit lies sprawled in front of a dilapidated dustbin. Out of one end a human leg protrudes, a half-naked young boy is seen placing his head inside the other end. Loops of barbed wire hang from the dark grey wall in the background.

Ballen's photographic works appear to summon worlds beyond reason, beyond human comfort, beyond comprehension and beyond human experience. It's as if Ballen is driving his viewers to the limit of psychological discomfort and physical uneasiness. He displaces the spectator. But his seemingly unfathomable compositions pique our curiosity and draw us in.

We are driven by a desire to unlock their meaning so that we can subvert their hold on us and relegate them to a place of comprehension where we hold the authority and not them.

While these images are obviously constructed, hinting that they are derived from the imagination, Ballen's mode of expression is such that they similarly remain rooted in reality too, thus he blurs the boundary between fact and fiction.

It's not just that the objects are familiar to us, some even promise comfort, like the tattered teddy bears, dolls and cute puppies and cats that populate his photographs, but his vocabulary or mode of narration, if one could call it that, recalls the classic social documentary style, hinting that these images are derived from reality and in a sense they are - the title of the exhibition alludes to a fixed place.

Because he shoots in black and white, his work recalls that canon of photography that is centred on probing human depravation, but his subject matter and the location of his work - a boarding house - both contribute towards what appears to be a study of existence at the fringes of society.

Ballen too has contributed to this canon with his earlier photographic essays on life at the edges of South African society. Here, however - and this is where this body of work extends his trajectory - he unpacks the significance and mechanics of that genre.