Friday, June 17, 2011

Roger Ballen's Dorps: book review

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in Roger Ballen’s photography. Mementoes from the past, such as threadbare teddy bears, aged family photographs and other disused items from bygone eras have become common motifs in his inimitable brand of photography, which evokes a haunting liminal territory suspended not only between fact and fiction but in time too. His fascination for items that have been degraded by time is linked to his desire to retrieve a lost sense of innocence that one senses has always been sullied or corrupt.

In Dorps: Small Towns in South Africa, which was first published in 1986, one is able to trace the beginnings of Ballen’s fixation with the abandoned, the obsolete. It is an interest which manifests in a photographic study of small towns, dorps, where dilapidated Victorian buildings, empty streets and wall displays of dated imagery conjure up a lost culture. The black and white photographs of these overlooked and unpopulated rural towns, mostly taken in the mid-1980s, have an almost post-apocalyptic quality in the sense that they are caught in what appears to be a spiral of degeneration. Windows are cracked or broken, paint has chipped off the exteriors, signs are faded and corrugated iron roofs have rusted and buckled. The numerous vacant streets and abandoned buildings that feature in this photographic essay hint at a defunct society that has been exterminated. Of course, this offers a politicised reading, which posits these ghost towns as metaphors for a conservative white community that is on the decline.

But this is an oversimplified purview, particularly if one considers this early body of work in relation to his more recent oeuvres, which suggest that Ballen’s interest in entropy is part of an aesthetic designed to challenge the temporal character of photography.Ballen has always tried to undermine the properties of photography. Consequently, while the photographs in this glossy book appear to be the documentation of a society or culture in South Africa circa the mid-1980s, they in fact are quite detached from that era. The architecture, inhabitants’ dress and shop displays hark from a variety of epochs. In this way Ballen presents us with a world in which time has collapsed. Much of the architecture evokes a pseudo-European culture. This connection and the other stylistic throwbacks are motivated by an aspiration which Ballen describes as a “yearning for magnificence”.

This yearning largely manifests in the architecture of these towns; in the ersatz Victorian embellishments and the neo-classical façades. These stylistic gestures obviously evoke a desire to maintain a link to the perceived “magnificence” of European culture. These images of entropy suggest, however, that it was a failed project. It simply couldn’t be sustained. This notion is most succinctly expressed in a photograph titled Close-Up of Pillar and Wall, Hopetown 1985. Surrounding the pillar are boards of weathered and chipped wooden slats. A deep crack snakes along the join between the column and the wall, suggesting that a subtle but irreversible rupture has occurred. A lick of paint could possibly disguise the break but it would only be palliative.
Within this context it becomes clear that Ballen is interested in unpacking the mechanics of nostalgia, which he presents in these photographs as a gesture towards retrieving an imaginary ideal.

This interest also manifests in the photographs of interiors such as one of a pensioner in Volksrust (1984), which shows an old man posing in his bedroom.
Plastered on the wall behind him is an old family photograph – perhaps of him in his youth – and cut-outs of semi-naked women from magazines. These images quite obviously express his desire to connect with his youth, a time when his sexual virility was at its peak. On the table beside him is a pair of glasses, which one presumes he has taken off for the purpose of the photograph – another gesture towards retrieving the potency he has lost. He too is clinging to a sense of “magnificence”.

Of course, this is the function of photography: photographic documents create the illusion that the past is within our grasp. In this way Dorps marks the beginning of Ballen’s ongoing conversation about photography, which has seen his work evolve into quite an abstract form. Dorps provides a historical context or a factual foundation for his more recent works, in which the fictional and factual elements have been conflated, creating a disturbing macabre tableaux. The photographs in Dorps appear more like straight documentary, which might account for the demand for this book – it is more accessible. Aficionados will enjoy observing the origin of his aesthetic and the architectural study, which contrasts with his later emphasis on interiors and interiority.
In his introduction, Ballen suggests that dorps evoked a presence that existed beyond their visual characteristics. He infers that the march of globalisation, which has installed bland, generic modern buildings, has eroded this local flavour. In this way Ballen has to some degree become a victim of a kind of nostalgia that he perceives in his subjects.

Perhaps the difference is that Ballen celebrates the failure to reclaim the past. - published in The Sunday Independent, May 29, 2011

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