The Visionary and Silent Theatre of Roger Ballen
Photography has always walked a crest between reality and fiction, maintaining a precarious balance which, depending upon the stylistic choices of the individual photographer, tilts now towards the documentary, now towards invention; now towards the world as it outwardly seems, now towards its reworking as part of a spatial and narrative construction devised by the photographer himself.
The presumption of reality linked to the photographic object will cause the photographer’s vision to be permanently guided by an acceptance, however critical, of the authenticity of what it is vouchsafed to him to see, but at the same time an ever-present awareness of his use of the medium will cause doubts as to the mise en scene to filter into every photographic image,
as we see so clearly from the endless debate concerning the “authenticity” of the dying militiaman immortalised by Robert Capa.The paradox of documentary photography, upon whose principles the career of Roger Ballen has always been based, lies in precisely this: in the fact that while he is undoubtedly aiming to bear witness to an actual fact, the taking of the image
is dependent upon an intellectual and visual process which is entirely under the control of the photographer, to the virtual exclusion of that spontaneity and immediacy which characterise – or which should characterise – the photography of reportage, without this absence actually diminishing the truthfulness of the end result.
Furthermore, the mise en scene itself is a legacy handed down to photography straight from the history of painting; this legacy is further sensed in a subdivision into genres which lasted many years, at least until the great upheavals worked by the Dadaists and Surrealists: the still life, the landscape and the portrait are categories which endured, went their own ways and had their specialists over long decades; indeed, they live on to this very day, albeit in different forms, and often as a result of mutual infiltration. When photographers began to assemble objects randomly, or bring out hidden similarities between them, as with Stieglitz’ Equivalents; when they began to endow them with psychological and mystic meanings, as in the work of Minor White; or when we are presented with the atypical but influential research into the identity and dramatisation of the image as practised by Ralph Eugene Meat yard, culminating in the series of Lucybell Crater, then we have a line of enquiry which may be historically defined.
Ballen himself may be regarded as the heir to and most significant practitioner of this trend, the last link in this chain to date, though obviously his own work is still maturing and developing.
The reference to painting, in connection with Ballen’s work – he is American by origin and South African by choice – and with that of its predecessors, is the reverse of coincidental: as we know, for the Surrealists the artistic experience could and should be pursued In various different spheres; we know that Stieglitz moved in painters’ circles, and that Minor White made constant comparisons with painting (“it can also reveal what else things may perhaps be and, by so doing, invent more or less what a painter invents”, as the author of Sequences wrote in 1956): Ballen himself conceives his photographs as so many tableaux vivants, not just by incorporating scraps of real painting into his work, but by using real objects as abstract signs, as
lines or figures with a strictly pictorial nature. But he does so without ever straying from the photographic sphere, without yielding to the resurgent “pictorialist” mood which lies at the root of much contemporary photography; he keeps faith with that “honest” photography given new life by the masters of straight photography in the first decades of the last century, and which today might be taken as the key less to an aesthetics than to an ethics of photography.
So we must now ask ourselves what is happening in Ballen’s recent images, what are the constituent elements of that theatre of the absurd staged shot after shot, figure after figure, object after object, in a space which is often claustrophobic, where entrances and exits in their turn are often traps, both optical and physical, as in Grabbed, or Out-and-out wings, as in Targets, or doors opening on to nothing, or indeed closed, as in Peeling Door. A space defined as an interior, in which figures, objects and signs, are brought together – apparently without any logical link between them, but in fact all interconnected by a series of hints, suggestions, whether of meaning or purely formal – making up a picture which does indeed have a certain unity despite the fragmentary nature of its parts. Here we have intense figures, faces and bodies suggestive of a visual and emotional unease which is all too evident; faces and bodies on which life has left it mark, almost always seen in fragments, almost never in their entirety, mainly hands and arms, sometimes engaged in action, sometimes simply there, pure signs in space. They emerge from below ground, from a hole in the curtain or wall, putting us in mind, instinctively, on the one hand of Chinese shadows – or at least of some form of theatre – and on the other of a series of well-known images of repressive institutions such as prisons or lunatic asylums, also characterised by the presence of hands emerging from the bars of cells or rooms.
Yet these gestures do not suggest desperation, or an appeal for help: rather, they point towards the forging of a relationship between a living being and other components of the composition, living or otherwise. We see this in Bite, for example, where the arm, hand and finger find their extension in the form of a snake, and their echo in the telephone wire and receiver above them: here we have a perfect synthesis of three elements, suggestive of an illustration of La ut rea mont’s famous phrase, though here paradoxically stripped of all sense of surprise, as though they had a logic of their own, a raison d’ etre, deriving from the perfect balance of the composition, which ultimately gives meaning to something which cannot be rationally explained. Predators too is marked by this sense of intentionality, with the narrative view point reversed (since in Bite it is the human being who is stung, where in Predators it is the animal which is at the mercy of the human hand) but identical in terms of the construction of the space of the image, with the tail forming a straight line placed in relation to the circle making up the face, while the three limbs – one human and two animal – form a very obvious triangle, one by which the whole composition is defined. Hands, arms and faces: real faces and drawn faces, created in the material, placed in the centre of the image or to one side, real or invented. In Grabbed the face is hinted at by the tear in the curtain, which suggests a human figure sketchily drawn by a child, but with two hands unsettlingly where the eyes should be, in defiance of visual custom; in Skin and Bones, on the other hand, we have a further confirmation of Ballen’s desire to confer meaning upon photography not just through what we see, but also through how we see. The upside-down child’s head at the bottom completely disconcerts our gaze, doing away with the idea of top and bottom; indeed, the depth of the image itself is put into question by this quite surreal though utterly credible apparition; as though that were not enough, the real head is echoed by those drawn above, this time placed on a level with the viewer’s eye, in a sort of redoubling or splitting compounded of both presence and suggestion, like a riddle which expects no answer, only the noting of the possibility that a situation might exist whose interpretation must
Another interesting feature found throughout Ballen‘s oeuvre is his use of graffiti, of marks on walls. In the series mentioned above, these appeared either as real marks on the walls of the rooms in which the subjects of his portraits found themselves – with the usual ambiguity between their “authenticity” and their creation specially for the photographic shot – or as patterns made by electric wires, coat-stands or barbed wire, whose objective reality was now joined by that of the sign, as extensions of a writing no longer made with the traditional instruments of painting or drawing, but with the things themselves, evocative – particularly in the case of barbed wire – of other realities, other coercive situations. In recent works, the presence of such signs has become distinctly pictorial, as well as visually more intrusive. From Mimicry to Innocence, from Targets to Peeling Door, down to the Untitled 1193 and 1219, drawings positively proliferate, deliberately primitive in their draughtsmanship, and also, and intentionally, reminiscent of Dubuffet: almost always faces, stylistically mid-way between polished quotation and childish spontaneity, which cannot but remind us, within the photographic sphere, of Brass ar’s own earlier versions of the same, so important to Surrealism at its most fertile and influential.
Furthermore, it is also clear that these drawings are a sign – from photographer to viewer – that the images in question are to be read in an explicitly pictorial key, with the term implying that freight of experience, rules and conventions which underlie the creation of the image and give it meaning, in the same way as they also supply its subject, and narrative and iconographical pretext. In this connection Peeling Door becomes almost a declaration of artistic intent: while almost every living being has been dispensed with, the human figure is nonetheless present through any number of representations, from that of the artless graffito to the artful figure of the old master painting, passing through the male doll which appears on the door, also head down. This also hints at a further reading: faced with the need to specify the genre to which this photograph belongs, the viewer is left at a loss, because the very idea of the still life – which is the nearest we can come to defining it – cannot, on its own, do full justice to the meaning of this vision. Untitled 1219 acts in the same way: its structure is even more complex, though thanks to this very complexity it tells us that in this latter series of works Ballen has shifted his attention to the specific theme of collage, which has always underpinned the world of his visual imagination, but which has never before been given such pre-eminence in terms of inspiration and accomplishment. Thus in this last series, the theatre of the absurd as mounted by Ballen tells us of another aspect of its nature – and also of its roots: namely, that a collage is conceived of as being not made up just of images, but also of situations. This is a crucial development, which demonstrates both the author’s absolute consistency, and his ability to move within an extremely complex visual and conceptual panorama, one that may open on to real worlds and ways of seeing that are ever new.
(Translated from Italian by Judith Landry)