Text by Carol Huston
Currently showing at Manchester Art Gallery is Roger Ballen’s first major solo exhibition in the UK, representing three decades of Ballen’s photography. The retrospective guides the viewer through a 30 year progression of his photographic practice, from the documentary to documentary fiction to the more recent imaginary realism. As evidenced with 180 photographs of his work, it is certain that Ballen appreciates consistency, working strictly in black and white and printing in a square format.
Born in New York in 1950, Ballen has lived and worked in South Africa since the early 1980s. His early works portray marginalised figures of society, capturing his subjects at home in small towns. Critics often describe Ballen’s work as darkly disturbing in the vein of Diane Arbus, but this assignment betrays the element of straightforward honesty which underpins much of his photography. By shooting interior spaces and people at their homes, Ballen gives a voice to a largely under-represented group of society as well as a voyeuristic look into their lifestyles. Accordingly, the title of the exhibition, Shadow Land, reflects upon the idea of marginalisation rather than dis- or mis- representation. The gray area which lingers at the border lands is presented through the retrospective, both literally in Ballen’s medium of black and white and also figuratively through the display of social outliers.
For example, his 1993 photograph Dressie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal garnered much attention from critics as a contemporary form of putting the social deviant on display. Despite this critique, however, Ballen as a photographer does not judge his subjects, he merely acts as a conduit for their representation. Of course, with commercial photography, the image must be viewed as mediated and ultimately removed from its initial context through the framing and hanging process. In this sense Ballen’s documentary photographs such as Dressie and Casie act as social reportage when viewed in a gallery space, rather than any form of social critique.
With Ballen’s later two series Outland and Shadow Chamber, the photographer moved towards a more fantastical display of documenting social outsiders. Animals too play a larger role in these series than they previously had for Ballen. For example, in Puppy Between Feet (1999) from Outland, Ballen’s focus turns towards the photographic description of a newborn puppy with the use of a 90mm macro lens, allowing for more graphic detail of the subject being described. From the puppy’s fur to the calloused feet to the fabric of the pillows, Ballen strikes an artistic balance between texture and form, as the curved feet are visually transformed into massive wings attached to the tiny puppy.
The characteristic human figure which was central to the first two decades of Ballen’s works has been either distorted or entirely withheld in his most recent photographs spanning the last several years. Instead, Ballen’s practice now focuses on the production of fictional scenes using live animals or drawings of humans in combination with painted backdrops. By replacing the human form or only using a segment of the human body, such as a hand, arm or face, Ballen enters a proto-Surrealist display of fantasy and fiction-making. The scenes Ballen produces often appear nightmarish and haunting, as the photograph Cut Loose (2005) depicting a hanging body recalls the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs.
Included in the display of photographs are three short films, one being the music video which Ballen directed for Afrikaner rappers Die Antwoord (The Answer) that quickly went viral upon its release at the end of January this year. Shot entirely in black and white, Die Antwoord’s I Fink U Freeky video acts as an introductory point to a young audience who would not necessarily be familiar with Ballen’s work. Die Antwoord had previously collaged together Ballen’s stills to make music videos, eventually leading to their collaboration with the photographer as artistic director. Much like his recent photographs, Ballen designed the sets for I Fink U Freeky using drawings and graffiti. Human faces are sometimes replaced with drawings of faces instead, as in the photograph Alter Ego (2010) from the Asylum series. The figures in the video correlate with the subjects of Ballen’s early photographs, showcasing the marginal, strange and unusual, whereas the settings correspond to Ballen’s contemporary work with his use of graffiti and painting.
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Roger Ballen: Shadow Land: Photographs 1983-2011, 30/03/2012 – 13/05/2012, Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL. www.manchestergalleries.org
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1. Dressie and Casie, Twins, Western Transval (1993)
2. Eulogy (2004)
3. Excited Man (2001)
4. Head Inside Shirt (2001)
All images courtesy of the artist and Hamilton’s Gallery, London.