Shadow Land is a major exhibition of work by internationally-acclaimed photographer Roger Ballen whose work offers a powerful social critique and an extreme, uncanny beauty. The exhibition explores three decades of Ballen’s career, charting the evolution of his unique photographic style and demonstrating the contribution he has made to contemporary photography.

One of the most important photographers of his generation, Roger Ballen was born in New York in 1950 but for over 30 years he has lived and worked in South Africa. In his work from the early 1980s to mid 90s he gained world recognition and critical acclaim with his powerful and controversial images of those living on the margins of South African society.

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 enters into a new realm of photography; the images are painterly and sculptural in ways not immediately associated with photography.

Shadow Land includes previously unseen work from his new series Asylum and is Ballen’s first solo show in a UK public gallery.

Fans of Ballen’s work will be interested in his recent collaboration with Die Antwoord, a futuristic rap-rave crew from South Africa who represent a new style called Zef. Ballen’s photography has had a formative influence on the band and led to him directing their latest video I fink u freaky, poised to be a viral sensation and introduce Ballen’s work to an entirely new audience.

Image courtesy of the artist and Hamilton’s Gallery, London.

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Review

Roger Ballen Exhibition
‘Shadowland: Photographs 1983 – 2011’
Manchester Art Gallery, England 30 March – 13 May

Challenging, unsettling and not easily categorized: Ballen’s work has the capacity to provoke questions, responses and emotions – it both engages and challenges on many levels.

Originally from New York, Roger Ballen has lived in South Africa for over 30 years. This UK exhibition takes us on a journey through several series of his work which are also published as books: Dorps, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, and Boarding House. The work moves from early documentary, distanced observation (white poor, marginalised South African's - ’A hidden wound in white South Africa’), through to more complex evolved interactions. It’s a view of South Africa that exposes a hidden white underclass. Images often include people, objects, animals; fragments of fragmented lives. In moving through this exhibition the viewer becomes aware of an emotional and intellectual metamorphosis taking place – in the work, the photographer, and the viewer themselves.

Semantics play a role in deconstructing this work; objectivity is not possible – Ballen has stated that the camera is a recording tool, therefore not capable of objectivity nor subjectivity. The camera is indeed an object but it is the use of the tool that brings subjectivity. He questions the term ‘subjects’ yet leaves a gap in place of a definition that might enhance this understanding. Participants is one that perhaps comes in the later work, where constructions, performances and set creations move towards theatrical staging. A performance and trust built over time with those he photographs. Oddly this work seems more contained within the frame, drawing us as viewers into a world we fall into rather than move through. Ballen is aware of the discomfort of viewers and in a talk at The Manchester Art Gallery, referred to viewer’s unease as something that may belong to them – recognition of something we’d rather disown. The work seems to expect responsibility in our gaze for the visual representation that is portrayed – it is what it is. Yet Ballen has chosen to photograph it and we become complicit in a voyeuristic viewing of it. Ballen challenges any notion of passive viewing, on showing the image Dresie and Cassie, twins, Platteland, 1993. Ballen suggests that viewers find this image disturbing in that when we look at it, it is ourselves we see.

It is easy to draw immediate comparisons with photographer Diane Arbus, whose work engaged with outsiders, those marginalized and labeled ‘Freaks’. Arbus claimed to have developed close friendships with those she photographed, seeing them less as subjects and more as actors in her constructed documentation. It is still hard to get away from a sense of illicit viewing in both of these photographers works.

Staging is another term Ballen disputes, he emphasizes that images here are ‘un-staged’ because they cannot be repeated, that moment cannot return. Yet the set is there, the backdrop, the actors/participants. The core of this ethos seeming to be about a fluidity of movement, not easily repeated and therefore not staged in that sense. He cites Samuel Beckett as a key artistic influence. The connection can be seen in the method, a reductive and minimalist approach of the respective art forms. You may not be able to stage an emotional reaction, but you can set the scene for one.

In Girl in white..., from the Boarding House series, 2002, a corner room squarely frames the figure of a young girl; the eye immediately drawn to her as a light and centralized figure in the image. She is wearing a white dress, no shoes or other accessories. A child-like drawing of a large head sits to the top left corner on the otherwise drab and marked wall. It is not a room you want to spend time in. The girl touches the wall as though trying to escape, staring at a mark, a trace of something thrown perhaps, circular with dripping tendrils. It is not so much what it might have been as what it represents: the juxtaposition of the girl, white dress and stain is enough to unsettle. Metaphors of innocence and inquiry mingle with traces of the Other, our imagination does the rest.

These images are active - they constantly question the viewer’s perceptions, knowledge,prejudices and fears. The viewer may experience a range of responses throughout the exhibition, from fascination, disturbance, repulsion, through to hope and despair – all of which fluctuate. The beauty of Seed Pods, 2008, lures us in like a John Blakemore photograph, a still life with beautiful silver and black tones of dried seed pods, and yet still a shadowed gash dissects the lower third of the frame, the dotted seeds, gaps, eyes and mouth gape and stare back – the relief is temporary. If earlier work is reminiscent of Arbus, later work seems to draw on visual associations in primitive versions of Keith Haring drawings, particularly in Asylum, whilst Shadow Chamber has echo’s of Joel Peter Wilkin’s work. This is not to draw comparison but rather to locate the work in a context of recent practice. For Wilkin’s work is blatantly shocking in a visceral and highly constructed way, Ballen’s more complex in why his images may disturb us: yet both touch on a dark area of the psyche we usually try to avoid.

As a presenter and photographer Ballen doesn’t reveal too much of his own role in the construction of these works. Contradictions seep out, it is as though the gift or burden of awareness is passed on to us the viewer. As an artist Ballen has brought something dark into the light – it is guaranteed to provoke thought and discussion, but ‘like’ may not be the word that falls from your lips, it is too complex for that simplicity.

Brace yourself but don’t run.

Lynne Connolly
Photographer and writer.
lynneconnolly.co.uk
(This review first appeared on Cassone-Art, May 2012)

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