Sunday, December 12, 2010

Roger Ballen's 'house of horrors' is a delight for critics

Roger Ballen’s work really is the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I write about his art I find something new to say. This doesn’t always happen. Of course, his work is engineered to offer multiple readings.  The Boarding House series is perhaps the best example of this and, in my opinion, is the strongest body of work he has produced thus far. I have reviewed it at length already. His mini-retrospective at SANG forced me to revisit work I had already seen, even the late sixties work, which was on exhibit at the Rooke Gallery some time ago. Because of this, I didn’t get caught up in any of the details of the work. I looked beyond the identity of his subjects  - he does after all silence their presence (an interesting device) quite purposively, which is why I have always been perplexed by the unnecessary attention writers have paid to their status.
The most important subject in Ballen’s work is perhaps himself. I have always been so caught up in the conceptual underpinnings of the work that I have overlooked Ballen. There is a reason that he keeps returning to this dark aesthetic. It is not his subjects that are trapped within these barren, dilapidated spaces but Ballen himself.

Here is my review: 

It is tempting to ask Roger Ballen to pinpoint the exact moment or image where his social documentary photography collapsed into conceptual photography that some have termed as constructed, because of its contrived appearance. The titles of the photographs seem to provide a clue: factual titles such as Diamond Digger and Son Standing on Bed, Western Transvaal (1987) should clearly demarcate the documentary work, whereas as abstract titles such as The Chamber of Enigma (2003)|imply that these works hail from Ballen’s extraordinary imagination.

But it simply isn’t as clear-cut as that because the former image bears many of the visual motifs and characteristics that mark Ballen’s abstract photography. Clearly, like most photographers, he consciously created his distinctive aesthetic from the moment he picked up a camera. 

Superficially, there is little difference between his early body of work dating back to the 1970s – commonly pegged as his documentary phase – and his more recent ones which include the Boarding House series and the Shadow Chamber series, which are both contained in books bearing those titles. The settings and objects contained within these two discrete bodies of work are always unkempt, dirty, dilapidated and in ruin, creating this sense that he is fixated with the remnants of a culture that once flourished but is now dead.

In Sideview of Hotel, Middleburg (1983), Ballen presents a vacated rundown building. An old Ford car from a bygone era is parked out front. Because it is in mint condition (a rarity for a Ballen photograph) Ballen disrupts the temporality of the image – if it was not for the date in the title, the viewer would have no idea of the year/the decade the photo was taken. This is a key feature of his work and one which challenges one of photography’s supposed unalterable characteristics: fixing events in a specific time and place. Ballen, however, has conceived of a way of circumventing this in both his documentary and abstract work. Consequently the former body inevitably becomes abstract, fictional – other than reality.

Impoverished, white Afrikaners were his predominant subject-matter when the American-born Ballen first began to photograph in South Africa. In Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal (1993) he presents two mentally and physically challenged adult male twins. Their ears are extraordinarily large and their heads unusually oblong. One could presume that this defunct society which is indirectly and directly referenced throughout his work is a white-dominated one that enjoyed its apogee during apartheid. The deformed, inbred Afrikaners mark the nadir of this reign of power. These physically repugnant and misshapen beings give expression to the consequences of a closed, insular society.

This capsule-retrospective, however, clearly shows that Ballen’s interest in these distorted human forms and the decrepit interiors they inhabit predated his South African photography. Blow Up Boy, East Malaysia (1976) features an impoverished child sucking air into his chest and thus distorting his upper frame. A dirty wall forms the background. Thus it is clear that Ballen’s fixation for soiled interiors and distorted forms reaches beyond political commentary. These kinds of people, these kinds of places are a conduit for something else. Loss and nostalgia.

It is not a loss of power (political or ideological) or longing for a better age that his distinctive aesthetic maps. His work acknowledges that the memory of a former existence has been lost. So to some extent, his photographs express a longing to retrieve an intangible state of being that no longer has a form  – the animals and cute toys are part of a desperate ploy to retrieve lost innocence that was corrupted at its genesis.

It is not just Ballen’s subjects that are held captive by this reality but Ballen himself, who is compelled to revisit and re-enact these scenarios over and over. The impoverished looking subjects and objects in each of these macabre chambers are ciphers for his own longings, betrayals and recriminations. The bedraggled, threadbare teddy bears, the naive childlike doodles on the walls that recall spectral figures that reappear in photograph after photograph engender a recurring nightmare – a childhood horror – that cannot be transcended or made fully tangible.

In Upseedaisy (2008), Ballen presents a row of family photos that have been circled. Simplistic drawings of faces that appear on the wall above act like a mirror of these portraits. They are refracted through a childlike lens. This is a recurring device in many of Ballen’s photographs, where childlike drawings offer powerful animated renditions of the objects in the frame. This seemingly naïve lens carries a kind of agency in the sense that this expression is unfettered by an adult sensibility which has a tendency to conceal and aestheticise experiences/emotions. 

But these dark chambers that Ballen keeps returning to are not simply bad childhood’s remembered, the fictional element suggests that these are disremembered spaces. They are vaults within the mind where time, reality and space have collapsed or become distorted. Ballen assumes to present his viewers with documents that substantiate the existence of these intangible spaces where memory and longing intersect while simultaneously holding all the|untruths and malformations that place them beyond our reach. It’s a remarkable visual and intellectual achievement, which is founded on the blurred lines between the real and the fictional. - published in The Sunday Independent, December 5, 2010.


Anonymous said...

Love your writing. Glad to have found your blog. Pity about the pink. Or is that an automatic governing mechanism to prevent the reader devouring all your writing in one sitting? Can't read more than three columns that are white font on pink background. My eyes belong to a painter.

Mary Corrigall said...

Okay, okay will change the colours... I keep getting complaints from painters with sensitive eyes.