Monday, June 23, 2014

Mind Control: Roger Ballen


Roger Ballen has an office. Of course, this makes practical sense; as an internationally recognised artist with museum and commercial shows running concurrently throughout the world, he requires assistants and administrative staff who would need to work from somewhere.
Yet the idea of an artist, and one like Ballen whose work is defined by haunted dark spaces, working out of an office in a plush corporate building in Parktown, Joburg, jars with expectations.
We should be meeting inside a crumbling, dirty building or perhaps in a tranquil garden surrounding a mental institution - the outskirts of a place that deals with the "shadows of the mind" as |he dubs the main drive of his photography.

It is not an ordinary office - shelves in a waiting area are lined with the macabre ephemera I recognise from some of his photographs; disused toys, animal |skins, cages.
It could be the prop room for a horror movie, except for the plush furniture and industrious assistants who frequently check a large printing device that is churning out Ballen's black and white prints.
His macabre photography is big business. Maybe it does belong in an office park after all.
The scale of his photographs has grown, too, as have all photographers' work here. Photography has fast become an immersive medium, a condition which is undercut by photography books, which deny this and limit the impact of images.

Yet it was via his books, in particular Platteland (1994), a photographic essay documenting impoverished white people living on the fringes, that Ballen cemented his career. His seemingly negative portrayal of this population - some subjects are the products of inbreeding - may also have contributed to the interest the book generated.

Nevertheless, the book format has allowed him to more clearly set up relationships between images, and in past years, to reconsider his oeuvre. His new book, Asylum of the Birds (Thames & Hudson) includes photographs dating from as far back as 2005, tracing the trajectory of the bird motif.
It is hard to overlook this theme, not only in the book, which features image upon image in which a bird (mostly white) is present, but in his office, where birds are cooing in the background. The live props are kept in a storeroom with other creatures.

When the lanky American artist emerges from his office and I remark on the birds and his attachment to animals in his work, he brings out a cage to show me some baby rats. They are cute and it is kind of surprising to see Ballen revel in this. He could easily be a member of the Adams family or described as the High Priest of Darkness, a title borne out not only by a fixation with macabre subject matter but his serious, brooding demeanour.

Over the years, I'm not sure I have seen him smile or laugh, although his work has always been laced with a kind of absurdism that appeals to those with a dark sense of humour. Some of the images in Asylum of the Birds would warrant the ubiquitous LOL (laugh out loud) label.
It is via the juxtaposition of the titles (he says he dreams them up after taking the images) with the photographs that the humour is evoked. Such as Unwind (2013), which depicts a man lying on a bed with film tape wrapped around his body.

Like the subject in Caged (2011) whose head is trapped inside a bird cage, perhaps Ballen lives inside his head more than outside it. The birds confined to the upper reaches of the cage, and those present in all his images, suggest that while his mind (his work) might offer him the chance to fly, to imagine, such flights of fancy are also a bitter reminder that there is no escape from the mind.
It's a condition we all live with, but perhaps for Ballen it is more painful given he is so sharply aware of it.
"I have had this existential drive all my life," he confesses when we face each other in leather sofas adjacent to his desk.
Asylum of the Birds best illustrates this paradoxical human condition of the mind as a place of refuge that offers the chance to re-imagine, recraft reality (as Ballen does in his photography) yet through the repetition of symbols of horror - the headless or toothless men, animal skulls and naive doodles that appear to be left by the inhabitants of this house of horrors - it appears as if there is no escape from this dark and grainy world where the child self controls the adult one.



This conflict between childlike naivety and the adult self that has been tainted by the world is expressed through the juxtaposition of birds, dolls and naive drawings with the headless or toothless male subjects whose physicality has been eroded by time.
It is the child reading the world through the eyes of an adult and the grown-up returning over and over to his childhood in an effort to escape the elements that hold him prisoner.

This may explain the form of catharsis that Ballen believes his photography offers.
"Society tends to equate horror with something bad or evil but the light comes from the dark. I equate it with catharsis and essence, the core. I wouldn't say my work is |horror, it is closer to the truth."
The kind of truths Ballen aims to expose escape words, he says (a slightly awkward proposition for a writer).This is why he makes images; he wants to reach those places and conditions that are fundamental to existence, that we all chase and understand on some level but struggle to articulate (in any medium).
What he presents to viewers are not objective truths therefore; his images are (or have become - he started out in a documentary style) purely fictional constructions he creates with human and animal subjects, his horror props - dirty dolls, skeletons - wire, drawings and, in the more recent work in Asylum of the Birds, images. This collaged reality is a product of Ballen's imagination, but is one engineered to push all the buttons that will force viewers to encounter the suppressed parts of themselves - "the shadows".
The birds aren't only symbols of innocence and purity or the flight/trapped dichotomy they embody irrationality.

His compositions aren't intended to make sense and the animals further advance this sense of chaos because they don't understand where they are, and it is not necessary to their existence. They can make peace with being caged and can transmit this to humans - make them feel at home in hell, so to speak.
This may explain our deep attachment to them. Ballen may circle the irrational but he can't resist explaining it to us. This is the friction in his images. Another one of the contradictions is in trying to describe and reach the subconscious - this deep intangible place - via cliched symbols in such a way that we re-encounter it from the other side of consciousness.
Is this possible? If so he can never fully immerse himself in this zone. He acknowledges this - it is grist to a photographer's mill?
"You can try to create metaphors around it and circle it but you can't penetrate it. Maybe in some pictures you hit the bull's eye. Photograph the thing that is making you talk now; that is tough. I am always trying to get to things that you can't put your finger on."

Naturally, Ballen doesn't take any photographs in his Parktown office: it's not as easy to access the murky depths of the human subconscious in a space defined by such rational order, he says.
However, he is quick to add that "though photography is an art, it is also a science and is rational in a way, too, because you are working with cause and effect".
"I think of myself as Clarke Kent, the superhero who worked all day at the Daily Planet and then became another person when he went to the bathroom and changed out of his suit."
Space is Ballen's "suit": his psyche responds to space as such as Ivor Powell notes in his essay in the book I Fink U Freeky: Roger Ballen, Die Antwoord (Prestel) his work is about "space". Conversely it is also about escaping it.

If you are curious about where Ballen cultivates his other self, you can watch a new YouTube documentary on the artist directed by Ben Crossman, which is set at his makeshift photographic "studio", a cluster of shacks, where his maladjusted-looking subjects appear to dwell. Ballen will be making more films in future.
"The most important thing I learnt from my experience with Die Antwoord was the power of videos and the internet. I Fink |you Freeky had 50 million hits. They taught me how to expand your audience."
Ballen's distinctive aesthetic and his documentary-fiction are the core aspects of his work that have informed Die Antwoord's submersion in their characters. This popular South African music act headed by Anri du Toit and Waddy Jones have been so successful at blurring the line between fact and fiction many of their fans are convinced they are "Ninja" and "Yolandi".
As such in their introduction to I Fink U Freeky: Roger Ballen, Die Antwoord, they observe their "characters" in the text, though they attempt some degree of self-reflexively, as they explain their connection to their progenitor. The duo are less interested in the psyche; it is Ballen's ability to manufacture an unstable reality and personas within it via a visual syntax that appears to have inspired them.
Interestingly, the images featuring Die Antwoord in their collaborative book lack the quality that defines his work; they are less haunting and his aesthetic functions as an empty gesture, a prop.
Maybe it's because we are familiar with the duo.

In the past Ballen's relationship with his subjects has been the source of concern for detractors, who have questioned whether these often anonymous "impoverished" sitters are being exploited. This partly arose from critiques of his portrayal of poor whites, which might have had more to do with notions of whiteness - and their (or his) seeming betrayal of the mythology surrounding it - than the power dynamics between them and Ballen. It is this aspect of his work that Die Antwoord mobilise within their own, riffing on the symbol of the poor-white Afrikaner and wearing it as a badge of pride or a foil to challenge whiteness. With painted faces, tattoos, clothing with paint splatters and offbeat haircuts they loom as members of an extinct tribe.
Ballen never chose subjects based on their ethnicity; their identity was irrelevant to him, he says. It's a slightly disingenuous remark but one likely to have been borne from the frustrations of living in such a highly politicised society where identity remains a point of contention - hence Die Antwoord's theatrics. The criticism his Platteland book ignited threw him and he seems irritated that I have raised the issue.
"I was so inundated and so out of my depth. It showed a lack of understanding of photography. It was a defence mechanism because the picture got in their heads.
"It has been such a relief in |the last eight years to see that people are able to see other aspects of the work. The only politics I am interested in are the politics of the divided self. I am not here to express my disgust with apartheid. The fundamental relationship in my work is between humanity and animals, what is that about?"

Beyond their metaphoric function, the birds that feature in Ballen's work have served a photographic purpose. They are the unknown quantity in his images; they cannot be controlled and as such provide the "decisive moment".
"You need the moment in photography to transform the picture to the next level, part of that is movement, something that occurs in an instant."
It is the search for the "decisive moment" that prompts Ballen to push the button on his camera.
"Of my best works I don't understand them. If I understood them, then I wouldn't be doing it."

By the time I leave Ballen's office I haven't yet met "the boss", the one he claims he is ultimately subservient to - his "shadow" or is he its shadow?
For a man who bares his mind on film, he is surprising elusive about the elements in his past that cast this dark shadow over his mind. It's all locked away. Aestheticising this 'vault' might not release what is inside, it simply lends a gloss to the surface of an activity parading as a dark explorative journey.  - first published June 1, 2014, in The Sunday Independent.

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