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"Portraits as Still Lifes: the Photographs of Roger Ballen"
2001-06-16 until 2001-08-24
Hasselblad Center
Göteborg, , SE

This anthology of the photographs of Roger Ballen explores the whole spectrum of his work over a period of almost twenty years, ranging from the unpopulated interiors of the small dorp towns of South Africa, reminiscent of Walker Evans, to a selection of frontal portraits from the Platteland series and the disturbing, demonical, self- enclosed tableaux vivants of recent years. They are photo installations positioned in the grey area between fact and fiction. In the most recent pictures, they appear as condensed radical still-lives in which Ballen fuses bodies and objects together, creating a heightened sense of alienation and the grotesque.

Ballens protagonists are social outsiders. Unbelted by beauty, they, like their surroundings, often exhibit visible traces of decay and the passage of time. They are characters in the artists mini-dramas, in which objects and animals have a role to play as well. Ballen is no critical social documentarian, no voyeur of poverty and ugliness; he observes his fellow players in the human comedy rather like a painter - in the manner of a Lucian Freud for example - awed and fascinated by the human body in whatever form it appears and by the profundity of the banal.

The intriguing mystery of these photos, their tendency to linger so long in our minds, is a function of the fact that we perceive their reality as authentic, something the medium of photography apparently guarantees, although its truth actually evades us. Samuel Becketts plays could be seen as their literary companion-animals can stand as symbols of innocence and beauty in Beckett as well. Yet desolation, banality and ugliness are raised to another, higher level through the pathos of the presentation. Unlike Diane Arbus, with whose work this dark, disturbing photography appears to share a great deal, Ballen adds the dimension of play, through which his protagonists are redeemed.

Photographic images of wall assemblages, reminiscent of still-lives, are another persistent theme. The early arrangements: photos, newspaper clippings, wall hangings and pious aphorisms in the Dorps and Platteland collections (from which the photographs preceding this introduction are selected) provide clues to the origins of the people he portrays. As Ballen explains in his introduction to Dorps: Various items, reflections on a persons life, are collected and hang on a wall. I was not necessarily interested in homes that were saturated with what is known as kitsch. Alternatively I sought to capture highly personal expressive taste and experience in the choice and arrangement of decorative objects. Ballens more recent photographs, which account for the majority of the pictures shown here, are not reportage-style social documentaries. They are staged scenes in which the absurdity and alienation of the situations are intensified. What holds our attention is not the specific nature of the lives of these South Africans, but the compelling drama provided by the characters themselves.

In fact, his use of direct flash intensifies the sense of doom, dread and disturbance and the subjects appear to be trapped, incapable of shaping forces of any kind. Subject and shadow are often frozen and glued together in a harsh and direct manner. The subject is unable to escape his destiny, his fears and anxieties. The mask is stripped, an animalistic man surfaces. There is no hiding in Ballens pictures.

The wires in the spatial installations appear to suggest that the human figures are puppets. They heighten the impression of the theatrical, of a theatre of the absurd. Amidst the detritus of civilisation are the visibly recognisable victims of social collapse. The people-the injured and the Humiliated - stand as metaphors for a world in hopeless decline.

Roger Ballen is a narrator with the camera. Yet he no longer attempts to be objective or representational. He does not attempt to record meaning, but to generate it. The images seek inherent complexities, ambiguities and ironies, and the layering one is accustomed to finding in other art forms. Ballen is not concerned with documenting the decline of colonialist ideas of supremacy or with depicting the fate of a marginalized minority in a society that has outlived itself. His figures are protagonists in an existential drama. Ballen is a chronicler of decline and dissolution, an artist who commands a broad emotional spectrum in which horror, revulsion and guilt have their place alongside empathy, humour and wit. Only thus can he help us enter the hidden territory, the dark zones of life. The quality of the photographs derives from the fact they are universally applicable. Their origins in the game of showing and seeing involving model and photographer are irrelevant. It is their archetypal character that touches our subconscious and determines their quality

Peter Weiermair
Rupertinum Museum fuer moderne und
zeitgenossische Kunst, Salzburg


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