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.