Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg Art Gallery | Johannesburg

Roger Ballen, Puppies in fishtanks, 2000, silver gelatin photographA comprehensive overview of Roger Ballens’ photographic work at a major South African museum has been long overdue, and this exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery did not disappoint. Comprising seminal works from his books Dorps: Small towns of South Africa (1986), Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005), the show also included a pruned selection from Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994), a controversial body of work depicting lower class white families that resulted in a lingering infamy for the photographer. “Who the hell are these people?” white audiences openly wondered at the time. “That’s not us?” People were outraged, and to this day his work remains an irritant to the politically correct in the local art world. In the press release accompanying this exhibition, Ballen is praised for being one of the few local photographers who has “successfully straddled the divide between documentary and art photography,” further, that in his work “a sense of continuity is maintained by a number of visual ‘threads’ and graphic elements such as electric wires”. After viewing the exhibition as a whole, I would argue that such a reading of Ballen’s oeuvre is slightly misleading, detracting from the conceptual focus, thematic development and personal nature of it. In my view, the exhibition presented an excellent opportunity to witness firsthand the continued development and expansion of Ballen’s cosmology, a personal world inhabited by the aristocrats of trauma. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” stated Diane Arbus, a photographer whose interest in marginal American figures has often seen Ballen likened to her. “[These people] were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” Ballen’s photographs record this upside down world in which another kind of aristocracy is manifest. I do not think through that Ballen is paying homage to these unruly aristocrats, or even attempting to be a spokesperson for their kingdom. Nor is he a documentary tourist. Rather, working in a manner similar to the early Surrealists, he uses his work to explore and recreate the limits of structured, conscious thought. The “tableaux vivants” (living pictures) of Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer offer a useful example. Seen in this light, Ballen’s world of personal dreams is no less real than that cherished and advocated by the bourgeois, cosmopolitan centre. Each work is a journey of self-discovery in which the photographer expands on a personal repertoire of possibilities through a combination of formal aesthetics and subject matter. In Puppies in a fishtank (2002) Ballen crafts a strong formal composition using an odd assortment of objects, his bizarre world juxtaposing childlike chalk drawings on the wall, one of these suggestive of a dog (and strangely mirrored by the head of real human subject), alongside two puppies in separate glass tanks, above which appears another, vaguely referential drawing. The works intrigue, bereft as it is of common logic, arises out of its very believable character, its realness. Ballen’s appeal lies in his ability to offer a feasible alternative to the reality we already inhabit. In so doing Ballen reminds of another American photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. A consummate formalist, Mapplethorpe’s photographs of New York’s gay sub-culture were exceptionally beautiful; they nonetheless offended bourgeois sensibilities. In The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1999), critic Dave Hickey argues that the power of Mapplethorpe’s images owe much to a discourse of desire that remained at the heart of western artistic practice up until the early 20th century, when subject matter yielded to form and the realist impulse in photography found itself banished to the realm of the merely documentary.Contrary to what his press release might have stated, it is clear that there is much more at stake in Ballen’s work than a simple binary that distinguishes documentary and art photography. (Never mind the poor white question, or for that matter economic privation in South Africa generally.) In my view, and rather crudely stated, Ballen’s work is an affirmation of an age-old desire in artists to create the world in which we live, even if this means having to represent, document or comment upon it while doing so. In the hands of skilled artists not willing to compromise their vision of reality, such art might even offer something akin the promise of individual freedom. Maybe this is why Roger Ballen’s photography succeeds where so much contemporary South African photography (and art for that matter) fails. Not only does it provide respite from the confines of political correctness, it lays a challenge to formally and conceptually anaemic photography cluttering our national museums.

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