Imaginary Realism

In Roger Ballen’s first solo show at a public gallery in the UK, Manchester Art Gallery presents his darkly playful and psychologically intense photography.

One of the most compelling and distinctive of contemporary photographers, New York-born Roger Ballen (b. 1950) has lived in South Africa since relocating there in the 1970s. With his mother employed as an editor at the photography agency Magnum, Ballen grew up surrounded by documentary photography and began documenting South Africa as soon as he arrived, through captivating images of marginalised elements within its society. In some ways, this is a photographic assignment that Ballen has never abandoned. His work can be found in a number of books and collections in over 20 museums worldwide, including MoMA in New York, Pompidou in Paris and the V&A in London. Recognised as a documentary photographer, a label placed on his practice in the 1980s and 1990s when he captured the soul of South Africa’s rural villages, Ballen’s work from the last decade transcends his known identity. His latest exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, Shadow Land, reveals the reach, scope and artistic aims of his recent project, which has profoundly transformed his work into one of the most ambitious, energetic and surreal bodies of contemporary photography today: a searing and unsettling exploration of the shadowy sides of the human psyche.

For all its dark intensity, Ballen’s work is at its heart playful and exuberant. There is something almost cartoonish about the torrential barbed gyre of wire above a figure’s shrinking head in Ballen’s photograph Twirling Wires (2001). Shot with Ballen’s trademark crispness, focus and lack of clutter, the image is at once direct and mysteriously complex. Wrapped in a blanket and cowering under the structure as though from some inner turmoil, the facial expression of the figure is somewhere between fear and wonder, shock and awe. It’s as though he’s in part marvelling at the beauty of, and trembling in terror from, the intricacy of the wire sculpture above. Theatrically depicting the projection of inner psychology outwards, the photograph is also itself a projection of an equally complex form of inner psychology outwards onto an art-object. As with many of Ballen’s photographs, the concept of time is crucial to the peculiar and unsettling effect of Twirling Wires. Wrenched from the usual logic of cause and effect, Ballen’s pictures seem to take place in a staged zone of their own, away from chronological realism.

Included in Shadow Land are photographs from three decades of Ballen’s artistic output, collecting work from the period 1983-2011. As Ballen himself comments, this exhibition provides an interesting opportunity to explore the ways in which his practice has evolved in that period. In one sense, the form of Ballen’s work has remained remarkably consistent over the three decades he has been taking photographs. His work is marked by his familiar use of analogue, Rolleiflex film, even in the face of mass transference onto digital photography. In 2009, Ballen commented: “I come from a film generation and I am committed to black and white photography. I’m really the last generation who’s grown up with black and white; who is steeped in that media and will continue in that media. What you’re seeing is the end of the black and white film photography. In some ways, it’s disappointing. But what can you do? You just have to focus on what you do and do it well. You can’t control others. When my heart beats, 6 billion other hearts beat. It’s just a small little ball in the universe.” However, in another sense, Ballen’s work has evolved considerably in the time span of the exhibition.

Ballen’s early work was collected in the book Platteland (1994), a collection of disturbingly abject portraits of rural South Africa. In Sergeant F de Bruin, Department of Prisons Employee, Orange Free State (1992), a uniformed sergeant stands in front of the monotonous off-white boards of a panelled and painted exterior wall. Running behind his head is cord or wire which looks as though it is slicing through the government official’s head. Similarly, Mrs J J Joubert and dog Dinky in Bedroom, Central Cape (1990) shows a woman in a loose white dress or nightgown with her dog at her feet. Standing against a patterned white wall that is badly chipped at the base, the eye is drawn to the same contrast between the white wall and greyish damage as well as the white dress and cavernous bags under the woman’s eyes. While these images are intricately and delicately composed, their focus is on depiction and social documentation.

Ballen describes the stylistic shift away from these sorts of photographs: “From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, my work was part documentary. It was an act of trying to define aspects of social, cultural, political and economic relationships in South Africa. I certainly wouldn’t say that the meaning of those images was only those concepts, but there was an important aspect of that in those photographs. Beginning in the mid-1990s, my images started to transcend that. I became much more involved in creating the images, with or without the subjects, and the pictures started to take upon themselves a very personalised aesthetic.”

Since 2003, Ballen has been working in a much more painterly style. Although retaining the same distinctive aesthetic (all his work is in black and white, square format), in the last decade, Ballen’s work has evolved into a style he describes as “documentary fiction” where the line between reality and fantasy is deliberately blurred. In doing so, his work entered into a new realm of photography; the images are more physical in ways not immediately associated with photography. Saturated with a sense of artifice, his pictures left traditional notions of documentary and portraiture behind in favour of a much richer and more surreal vision, as Ballen states: “The face started to disappear from my pictures quite considerably.” Many of the images in Ballen’s series Boarding House (2009) feature animals alongside human limbs, feet and other body parts, rather than faces, for example, Squawk (2005) shows two men’s legs meeting at the feet to form a diamond arena with a goose in the centre, leaning back against one of the legs. While on one level amusing, the image is also extremely tense, with a shadowy charcoal drawing on the back wall depicting what looks like a ring of children holding hands and on a hook on the wall, a large hand-held saw. In a 2009 interview with Aesthetica, Ballen said: “It’s important in any form of art to decipher the metaphors behind the work. So, one has to decide: what is it about a boarding house that makes it a meaningful place in the human experience? What is essential about this place? Is this boarding house like a theatre set where the human condition is acted out? Or, is it just a word describing a place of transience? If you start to think about that word you can find some things that relate to the human condition. In their transient place, people act out the human condition and express a part of the psyche. And the human psyche opens itself up in the Boarding House.”

While Ballen’s vision is singular and distinctive, his work expresses correlations with other important contemporary South African artists including William Kentridge, whose art was celebrated in a major exhibition entitled Five Themes at MoMA in New York in 2010. While their thematic concerns might be similar in the broadest sense of being concerned with the process of expression and projection, and while the temperamental likeness of their art might be summed up as showing an equal allegiance to the poetic and the political, it’s in terms of style that Ballen and Kentridge have most in common. Where Kentridge is best known for creating animated films out of an endless process of drawing and erasing, Ballen’s work is equally invested in the act and process of drawing, of making a mark. His photographs are endlessly populated by swirling lines as though from a sketch by the Australian artist, Oliffe Richmond, a former pupil of Henry Moore.

Just as drawing in Kentridge’s films forms a kind of constant process of unstitching and re-stitching that simultaneously halts and propels his animations, so too in Ballen’s photographs is the propensity of drawings a form of auto-dismantling. In Headless (2006), for example, a body is hidden within a thick woollen coat of the sort a scarecrow might wear in a children’s book. The body’s hand is showing slightly through the sleeve, holding a nonchalant-looking grubby white bird. In the foreground there are also two spindly bare trees with multiple jutting branches. On the back wall is a surreal and fascinating drawing of what look like hanging, upside-down faces and necks depicted in thick-ish charcoal lines. In places, these lines are barely discernible from shadows cast by the trees, throwing into confusion the drawn faces, which start to suggest themselves as shadows of the figure and the bird.

The use of symbols such as the bird and the headless figure in Headless is complex. Ballen’s work is teeming with animals and other symbols that seem to beg for allegorical interpretation. In Head Inside Shirt (2001), for example, another headless figure sits with what looks like a plastic triceratops in one hand and a hunched metallic scorpion tail-shaped structure to her left. The image is unsettling and surreal; the body shapes of all three merging into an eerily similar, threatened pose. Rather than adhering to any one system of references, though, it’s as if Ballen’s work is a dramatic arena in which systems of references play out and clash in unexpected ways, rocking to the very core the pseudo-stable hierarchies that allegorical interpretation relies upon in order to create meaning.

Nowhere is Ballen more rocking convention than in one of his latest projects, a music video for the rap group Die Antwoord for their song I Fink U Freeky, which has become a huge viral hit with over four million views in just over a fortnight. The film incorporates many stylistic elements, which are familiar to Ballen’s still photography, such as the way he features animals as more ubiquitous characters in his photography than humans and the darkly playful style that pervades the piece. Characters from earlier Ballen photographs are referenced in the film, such as the man and boy from Concealed (2003) covering their eyes, and the kitten in the man’s boxer shorts. The collaboration highlights aspects of Ballen’s work, such as its relation to performance art and theatre, which is shared by the futuristic rap-rave group, Die Antwoord.

At the heart of Shadow Land is work from Ballen’s most recent photographic series Asylum (2011), a sequence of pictures from a house in Johannesburg populated by a wide assortment of people, allowed to board for free by the owner as long as his vast collection of birds are allowed to fly free within the house without cages. As Ballen comments: “An asylum can mean different things to different people – it can be a sanctuary or a place of refuge or it can be a place of chaos and disorder, and most often it’s both.” He goes on to explain how the people in the house all have diverse backgrounds that have led them to be there: “The house is full of people from all walks of life: destitute people, people from Ethiopia, people from Somalia, unemployed people and victims of domestic abuse.”

The birds in Ballen’s photographs form part of the fabric of the building, a quietly disturbing part of the energy and dynamic of the theatre of the asylum that takes place in Ballen’s art. They aren’t threatening in the way that birds are in works such as Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963). Rather than manic and intense, they have a quiet calm about them that is eerie rather than terrifying. The bizarre cohabitation of animals and humans in Ballen’s work gives his photographic world an alternative reality quality, posing a question about the way we live our lives and opening the viewer up to a more psychologically intense and dreamlike realm. As with so many of the markings and symbols found in Ballen’s work, the presence of birds is rich with multiple meanings and sometimes contradictory or paradoxical interpretations: “Birds have an interesting metaphoric relationship. If one looks at the metaphors that birds are listed in, and relates them back to the time and place that they inhabit, all sorts of interesting meanings come out of that … I think in a lot of my photographs the meanings can be very contradictory in nature – in the photograph you can see a beautiful bird, but the place could be very strange and disturbing, so it’s a picture about beauty, it’s about something disturbed … it’s about either one of those things.”

The thematic concerns of Asylum and earlier series such as Boarding House align Ballen’s art with that of Diane Arbus, whose black and white photography also depicted marginalisation through haunting and at times surreal images. The influence is also felt in the use of black and white square film, resonant of that used by Arbus. A jigsaw of trauma heavily weighted with emotional lyricism and intensity, Arbus’ controversial images are quintessential depictions of marginalisation on the fringes of American society. Undoubtedly influenced by Arbus’ work, Ballen takes her portraits of society’s marginalised people and transforms the approach into a dramatic and theatrical photographic method that casts its focus wider than just on human characters.

Ballen concludes: “The artist shouldn’t be able to explain the art. Art extends beyond the verbal ability of the artist.” This sentiment certainly applies to the complex and surreal photographs in Shadow Land. The dark charcoal lines and twirling wires of Ballen’s compositions are maps and surveys of the darker elements of the human psyche. And like shadows, Ballen’s images can be both fascinating and frightening, both light and dark.

Shadow Land ran from 30 March until 13 May 2012 at Manchester Art Gallery.

Colin Herd