Artborne Magazine December 2016 - Page 52

Review Roger Ballen at by Hind Berji Visceral is a word used almost too often in discussions about art—especially since it is meant to describe sensations devoid of visual/ sensory input—but when an image hits you in your gut in the most innate, ornate, and grotesque ways imaginable, it seems like an understatement. In New York-born photographer Roger Ballen’s work, there is a subliminal understanding that transcends consciousness and perceived reality—essentially; the right hook to your gut that took you by surprise during a pleasant gallery visit. At Snap! Space, the gallery organized a retrospective collection of Ballen’s dark, sometimes theatrical renditions of the conscious and subconscious mind in a fluid trajectory of his career. The collection includes earlier pieces from his series Outland to his most wellknown photographs taken of South Africa’s politically privileged white minority in Platteland. Ballen has lived and worked in South Africa since the 1980s, where he initially worked as a geologist. The move prompted him to continue his photographic hobby as a full-time career and his portraits of Afrikaners in rural South Africa have been compared to iconic photographers like Diane Arbus (his portrait of two South African twins especially resonated with Arbus fans, and it is one of the most recognizable images in contemporary photography). the gruesome nature of the impoverished, the rural, and the marginalized; in summary, the kind of gruesomeness we try to avoid in our polished lives. verseness, revealing parts of ourselves we believe to have safely tucked away, like in Unwind, a piece in the Asylum of the Birds series, showing a man lying on a meager bed frame. His face is covered by a menacing dooWhy do we find these images disturbing, be- dle drawn on fabric. It’s eerily frightening to guiling, or strangely humorous? Do we turn imagine what lies underneath. our heads before the hypnosis of Ballen’s strange world sucks us in? For a photograph This is one of most impressive things about to be Ballenesque, it must be penetrative. It Ballen’s photographs: each one embodies has to hold us under a spell. It leads us to the underbelly of human consciousness in a consider the grotesque, perverse dimensions millisecond of reality exquisitely assembled of our reality—whatever reality may mean and captured. Ballen’s structures of the subto us. Some may argue that art is a reflection conscious are concrete manifestations of the of the viewer; that a photograph can act as psyche. The Theatre of Apparition was partly a mirror. The images may reflect something inspired by drawings and carvings found in an unsettling, ugly, or deeply revealing about us. abandoned women’s prison, and a suburban home is the setting for Asylum of the Birds, leading us to the temporal in-between captured in Boarding House. In the darkest depths of existence exposed in Shadow Chamber, a three-story building with literal chambers of animals, humans, and objects interact, incorporating sculptural and formative motifs more than any other Ballen series. There is a textured assortment of people and animals that leaves viewers feeling a sense of abandonment. The subjects are petrified, frozen not just by the artist’s immortalization of them through the photographic form, but also by their environment. Dresie and Casie, twins, Western Transvaal (Platteland series) Arbus comparisons notwithstanding, Ballen identifies more with playwright Samuel Beckett. The starkness of Beckett’s plays, the dirty furniture, dismal characters, and bleak backdrops are logical comparisons to Ballen’s pieces, as his work has become gradually more psychological than social or economic. Actually, they’re all of these things. They’re a contemplation of the inner recesses of the mind in relation to 51 It was around 2000 when Ballen began to incorporate portraiture and drawing into his photographs. In Eugene on the Phone, a boy lies in a classical pose on a stained couch, holding a frantic cat by its tail while holding a telephone receiver up to his face. The form of the cat, the young man, and the crooked stenciled silhouette of a hanger on the wall somehow join harmoniously. His work is fascinating because it forces us to do all the mental work, facing the primitive machinations of the mind. At first glance, his work doesn’t seem to be a stripping of the viewer, but it can disarm us. Like the mirror in a gritty public restroom, Ballen’s work forces us to look at the sloppy wall art, the stained furniture, and the grimacing people. Perhaps Looking at the retrospective, it’s easy to pinthe scenes look all too familiar in their per- point Ballen’s other repeating motifs: heads