Roger Ballen at the Durban Art Gallery
by Francesca Verga
Headlines in the Durban dailies read 'Prepare to be disturbed' and 'Shades of Madness'. This alone sets the mood for viewing Roger Ballen's latest show 'Shadow Chambers'.
One of the most enduring images is that of the pathetic drooling twins Dresie and Casie from an earlier body of work. The image is somewhat amusing but also evokes pity for the subjects' unattractive appearances. This is the sort of image with which Ballen is synonymous, particularly those that feature the inhabitants of the rural Plattelande and Dorps of South Africa which gave the title to his previous publications. The works on show here are taken from the latest publications Outland and Shadow Chamber, and they are quite different from his earlier documentary portrait-type works.
Here there is an integration of the human subject with props including pigs, chickens, kittens and small loveable puppies. The subjects in Shadow Chamber take on new roles in more obviously staged and choreographed scenes. Along with their subjects and animal counterparts, the images include child-like drawings and objects, such as bits of wire, masks, cardboard boxes, chains and teddy bears.
Some time after viewing the exhibition it occurred to me that there were very few female subjects. In retrospect, this is to be expected from an exhibition of this sort - thoughts or images will remain with you long afterwards. The works have a profound effect on one's psyche. Is it because you cannot ever be sure whether this 'Shadow Chamber' really exists? Is it in the imagination or in some dark alley somewhere at 3am? Where exactly is this place? Perhaps the air conditioning in this particular gallery was deliberately turned down, but whatever the case may be, this chilled environment is conducive to all kinds of strange associations.
At the exhibition's opening, viewers were given the chance to ask the artist about his work. Many were curious about the settings of his photographs, but Ballen would not answer such questions directly, and instead put forward questions of his own. Does this 'Shadow Chamber' exist in a nightmare space, or in fact in prison cells or rooms in an insane asylum? Would it have made a difference if these images were taken elsewhere other than in South Africa?
With these kinds of questions and responses, Ballen proves the point that his works are multi-layered, that there is no simple way of establishing a meaning that is not ambiguous or direct. It is the uncertainties that exist in Ballen's works that strengthen their impact, pitching against each other the opposing forces of despair and disturbance, comedy and horror. This exhibition's impact remains long after one's visit and the images truly have the power to change the way one thinks. The artist imbeds ideas that leave the viewer questioning what in fact they have just experienced. Simply put, the discomfort induced by Ballen's images is unavoidable.
Opens: November 2
Closes: January 16
Durban Art Gallery
2nd Floor City Hall, Smith Street, Durban
Tel: (031) 311 2262
Hours: Mon - Sat 8.30am - 4pm, Sun 11am - 4pm