Archive: Issue No. 105, May 2006

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Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen at Erdmann Contemporary
by Lloyd Pollack

'On the contrary, my photography makes no reference whatsoever to socio-political issues.'
'No, my work certainly does not provide a portrait of white South African society.'
'I have never attempted to phrase a political statement about this country.'

A petulant voice brays these angry denials out at the abashed company at a dinner, given in Roger Ballen's honour by his gallerist, Heidi Erdmann. Valiantly we guests try to break the ice, but Ballen answers our questions with questions or deflects them with withering rejoinders. Conversation languishes and we address ourselves to the rolls and butter.

The American photographer probably evolved this prickly social carapace, because here, in his adopted country, his work often elicits churlish, jingoist censure. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Centre Georges Pompidou all collect Ballen. Internationally he is revered as an undisputed master, whereas locally, he has been reviled as a meddlesome foreigner hell-bent on doing the dirt on this country's reputation. His images of poor whites were resented as offensive subversions that undermined the myth of white supremacy and held Afrikanerdom up to derision. The artist was also accused of heartlessly exploiting his disadvantaged sitters, emphasising their physical deformities and mental retardation in order to transform them into freaky grotesques.

As one surveys 'Shadow Chamber', Ballen's latest body of work, so the questions proliferate. 'Who are these people?', one asks oneself, 'Where are they?', 'What are they doing?', 'What is their relationship with the animals, and what is their relationship with the photographer?'

At Ballen's last Cape Town exhibition, 'Outlands', at the AVA five years ago, the viewer enjoyed a far clearer sense of where he stood and what he was looking at. The photographs were portraits of poor whites seen in their own homes, and titles such as Wife of Abattoir worker holding three puppies, Orange Free State, 1994, or Diamond digger and son standing on bed, Western Transvaal, 1987 identified the time, the place and the occupation of the sitter, encouraging us to view the images as contributions to the documentary tradition.

In 'Shadow Chamber', by contrast, the photographs deliberately withhold all information about their own genesis, and disclose nothing of the context in which they were taken. The actions, the locations, the sitters and the nature of the photographic exchange elude definition, leaving one baffled.

The subjects are the derelicts of 'Outlands', and they exhibit the same destitution, neglect, apathy and disturbance but here, the similarity ends. These down-and-outs are divorced from any socio-political frame of reference, and presented in a limbo free of reference to time and place. Titles such as Wall Shadows and Configuration direct our attention to purely visual phenomena, and disavow all claims to provide an objective record of a social reality.

The very phrase 'Shadow Chamber' bristles with malignity. 'Shadow' is synonymous with shades, spectres, dread and obscurity; both the province of the powers of darkness, and the territory of illusion rather than reality. The word 'chamber' invokes dungeons and torture, and smacks of a labyrinthine Kafkaesque world of vain waiting for a judgement that is endlessly deferred.

We gasp for air, space and light for the photographs present a dark, cell-like space without windows or doors. There is no exit from this cheerless grey limbo which resonates overtones of gaols, asylums, cellars, factories, warehouses and all those dim hangar-like places of transit, assembly, detention, interrogation and extermination that we recall from grainy old newsreel footage. Here time has ground to a halt. Like the seashore of Happy Days where Samuel Beckett's Winnie finds herself buried in rising sands, this purgatorial location is not a real place, but a metaphor for some ontological extremity, some dire state of being. Ballen evokes this mental hell through scenographic invention. The photographer fashions a backdrop to act as a foil to the human puppets who, under his direction, enact scenarios drawn from his theatre of cruelty, his dramaturgy of the absurd.

Several images clear the boards of human beings, and simply present the empty set. This is as minimal and denuded as the isometric boxes that confine Francis Bacon's screaming Popes. One image may contain a chair, another a table or bed. The stage itself is usually so shallow and cramped as to eliminate freedom of movement, and the photograph is composed so as to emphasise the sitter's confinement and isolation amidst the void spaces of floor and wall.

As place is used to evoke a state of mind, Ballen's main concern is with that, rather than the people therein. Frequently the sitters are auxiliaries to the wall which usurps the prime expressive function. This wall is activated rather than inert. Figurations have been scribbled upon it in an effort to kill time, relieve boredom, humanise the environment and imprint one's stamp upon it.

Crudely scrawled mask-like faces with O-mouths and eyes widened by horror or alarm; ghoulish apparitions of ectoplasm; diabolic bearded heads sucking on fags; snarling toothed and fanged beasts, targets and random patterns of lines materialise everywhere along with hearts, breasts and crosses. These voodoo doodles infuse life into the masonry, animating it with sinister vitality. In Wall Shadows and Funeral Rites the occult imagery is enhanced by patterns of stains which seem to turn the wall into some permeable substance through which we dimly glimpse battalions of wraiths trucking into the space of the Shadow Chamber.

The impulses that motivate this spooky mark-making proceed from the depths of the human psyche, and express the compulsive urge to make magic and propitiate the supernatural. This primal drive likens the site to a Neanderthal cave painted with expressions of its dweller's deepest terrors.

The iconography simulates the startlingly aggressive stance of the more anti-social forms of outsider art. The ham-handed spontaneity of children's drawings, the urgency of graffiti, and the blatant vandalistic thrust of spraycan tagging transfuse these scribbles with smouldering feeling.

The spindly conglomerations of electric cables and wire coathangers that dangle from the wall also rank as primitive artistic expressions. These abstract sculptural entanglements not only greatly enhance the aesthetic impact of the photographs, they assume potent emotive repercussions. Any skein-like configuration becomes an obvious symbol of malign destiny through association with the three Fates: Clotho who holds the distaff; Lachesis who measures the thread of human life, and Atropos who cuts if off with her shears. In this mythological perspective, distaffs and all neatly spooled balls of yarn signify order and control, whilst loosening threads signify anarchy and chaos. The cable and wire figurations also evoke traps, snares and nets, and function as metaphors for impotence, entrapment and imminent death. Suspended directly above the heads of the sitters, they suggest puppets and human impotence in the face of fate.

Animals - cats, puppies, rats, chicken and snakes - appear, and often their rapport with the sitters assumes an elusive sado-masochistic drift as in Broken Bag where a wizened, zip-lipped lad holds up a carry bag from the torn base of which tumble a dead chicken's legs. These creatures may also be the only beings with which Ballen's outcasts are able to consolidate relationships. They divide into rodents and predators, and thus echo Ballen's down-and-out's battle for survival. Toy plastic dinosaurs and mastodons accentuate these Darwinian suggestions of slaughter and ingestion.

This dog-eat-dog brutality is further accentuated by the sadism that is occasionally implicit in Ballen's modus operandi. He pens his sitters in exiguous walled spaces, and then advances relentlessly upon them with his camera, like a huntsman in pursuit of his quarry, driving them into corners, or forcing them against walls before exposing them in all their vulnerability with his flash. The lens becomes their nemesis in Stefanus and Ratman where the chase takes place in some place of final reckoning, and the photographer harries his sitters into acknowledging their own frailty and perversion.

In general, the photographs correspond to theatrical tableaux in which the entire mise-en-scene - setting, costume, gesture, pose - is stage-managed. These are studio-bound set-ups, and, despite some semblance of verisimilitude, certain images disclose their own facticity. Artifice is apparent in Bitten which is set in a cell patrolled by a snake. Here a man clad only in a rainproof jacket and hood, sits motionless and slumped, his face to the wall, his legs and feet naked and exposed to the serpent's fangs. In Wall Shadows a man enveloped in a raggy coat lies supine and abject on the floor as if awaiting some awful sentence. His hand snakes out of the tumble of cloth to clutch at a white duck as if it were his last hope. In the single most well known image, Twirling Wires, an anguished man, cowled in what looks like under-felt, gazes fearfully upward at a cyclonic tangle of wires hovering immediately above his head like some materialisation of impending doom.

When I interviewed Ballen five years ago, he said he chose to photograph poor whites because they have been ruthlessly stripped of every single economic and political advantage, and this dereliction elevates them into timeless and universal archetypes of the survival instinct - 'They are what they are. There is an honesty and truth about them that enables them to clearly reflect aspects of the human condition which would be under wraps in more sophisticated people. I use them to portray the outlands of human consciousness, the outlands of the human soul, a psychic geography where everyone becomes vulnerable, where they are surrounded by forces far more powerful than themselves, and where they are unable to control what happens to them.'

All is not unrelieved gloom however. An oddball wit - part gallows humour and part Surreal Loony Tunes zaniness - characterises Lunchtimewhere a gaunt human carnivore removes his dentures in order to do full gastronomic justice to a diminutive goldfish isolated upon a white porcelain plate. Five photographs of boys exude an engaging playfulness. In Prowling the capers of a Puck-like sprite are movingly portrayed for the masked stripling, triumphantly elevated above us on some piece of furniture, has miraculously transformed the drab room around him into a jungle where he pursues an enthralling dream of hunting and pursuit.

At his walkabout, the lean, lanky American stalked ruminatively from image to image, staring at the floor in order to avoid eye contact and marshall his thoughts. After he had dealt with each photograph, he would gaze briefly upwards at his audience, and the corners of his mouth would jerk into a joyless momentary smile as though activated by a nervous tic. Ballen ignored the political, social and economic dimensions of his work, and instead directed his audience's attention to the aesthetic minutiae - a tiny patch of white here, a shadow there - which elevate his photographs into works of art.

This studied obliquity is a reaction to the literal-mindedness of South African viewers who imbibed the images of Schadeberg, Magubane and Goldblatt along with their mother's milk, and were thereby convinced that every photograph is reducible to a socio-political statement. Ballen's work addresses metaphysical concerns not current issues, and it challenges accepted notions of genuineness and authenticity. His fictive images are the lie that tells the truth, proving that in photography, like painting, theatre, opera and ballet, artifice can be far more real, potent and persuasive than fact.

Closed: May 6

Photographer's Gallery za
63 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 2762
Fax: (021) 422 3278
Hours: Mon - Sat 10am - 1pm