Roger Ballen: The Asylum
By Walter Guadagnini
Today, leafing through Roger Ballen’s 2005 publication Shadow Chamber, one becomes aware of an element that might have passed almost unnoticed when that book first came out. The photographer, whose book Outland had been published in 2001, opened this new volume with four images: a portrait, comparable to those that had initially brought attention to his work, followed by three photographs, all dominated by three walls covered with drawings, graffiti, and a rather perplexing, apparently natural dripping. This marked the beginning of a new phase in Ballen’s art, which has now reached definitive maturity. In the images published in the subsequent pages, two elements stand out: the décor of the walls and other surfaces against which objects stand out or rest, and the objects themselves, whether animate, inanimate, birds, vases, or sculptures.
If Outland was a reflection on the theme of the portrait, Ballen’s current series, The Asylum, represents a reflection on the theme of the still life, taking an approach that heightens codes of genre, bringing them to a point of rupture, of implosion, and entailing their redefinition. Along the way, a central role is played by the relationship established among the different constituent elements within the claustrophobic space of the image.
Objects, animals, sculptures, paintings, and signs are always linked to one another in these works, and there is no point on the surface that does not refer to another point, by analogy or by collision. In this regard the first image here is exemplary in its essentiality: not only are the birds tied to each other physically, not only do they form an oval, but this geometric figure also returns in the graffiti on the surface on which they rest. Likewise, the faces that appear in other images may be photographed, painted, even realized in three dimensions, using elements of nature as points of departure, in a chain of visual relationships that has its origins in Surrealist culture, which Ballen has always observed with an attentive eye. It should be noted that his art is not only photographic, but is also engaged with painting and literature. This is the basis for a growing sense of the absurd, of enigma, that imbues all the photographer’s work. Increasingly, Ballen stages his photographs, in an infinite play of mirrors and references, with an ever more vertiginous descent into the image’s potential to hold different meanings, a collage of spaces and times and figures that do not furnish answers, but lead one to question and to question oneself.
These are disturbing, ambiguous images—it is an ambiguity that assails the very definition of photography; as he has done earlier, the artist calls into question the definition of genres. Undoubtedly, the instant when the shutter is released and the photograph made is a decisive moment; this fact is revealed in the extraordinary quality of these images. For Ballen, photography is necessary because it embodies that suspension of time that is one of the primary characteristics of his work, and it is an inevitable key to its interpretation. But the action that precedes the shutter release, the construction of the image, is equally fundamental. While previously this element was secondary to the centrality of the human figure (which was the focus of the viewer’s attention), and secondary to the essential nature of the space in which the scene was developed, now the obsessive filling-up of that same space—almost as if to depict a horror vacui—gives prominence to the presence of the author’s interventions during a preparatory phase. The construction of the scene is equivalent to the scene itself. Everything takes place in these images as if in a circle, without beginning and without end.