“…the work of Roger Ballen is a form of radical, disquieting subjectivism, a psychology of the world itself that represents the inside of politics, the inside of ideology, the inside of ourselves. ” (Cook)
So opens Roger Ballen’s website. I saw him speak at this year’s Paris Photo with great expectations, partly arising from the reputation he had garnered. I have to say that I was rather underwhelmed, finding him grossly inarticulate, derivative and demeaning almost to the point of ridiculing his own work. Perhaps I went into the talk with the wrong mindset, I probably should have expected that the visceral quality of his images would be coming from an equally visceral man. I was not, however, prepared for the utter lack of responsibility that Ballen seemed to take over the creation of his imaes.
In a nutshell, Ballen takes fantastically composed images of the deprived and disenfranchised underbelly of rural South Africa. This is something that needs to be seen, I believe. I also believe that there is more to this world than the formal relations that Ballen ellicits. Inevitably, any discussion of his work will concentrate on the conditions of its production. Questions of how these images are made, who these people are and how much Ballen interacts with them become fairly standard. We return more or less to the Diane Arbus paradox – what is the photographer’s relationships to these subjects and why are they photographing them. This paradox, for anyone interested in the photographs and not the photographer, become stale fairly quickly. It’s the work we’re seeing, not the artist.
I don’t think he has shown us the inside of anything; he has succeeded in gleening the surface of things but he is far from penetrating them in any meaningfully political or ideological way, as the introduction to his work seems to be arguing. So what is he doing then? Is he expiating our desire to see the brutally bestial condition of man? Is he continuing the comforting reappropriation and neutralisation of the primitive that Dubuffet gave us in painting?
Ballen’s books seem to both threaten and reassure at the same time. The disquieting allure felt moving from image to image, not knowing what aesthetically perfect catastrophe awaits us on the next page is assauged by the fact that we can always close the cover and escape. This pleasure cofirms a sort of mastery over the inexplicable. The gruesome depravation behind the ink of those photographs is neutralised by our own ability to look at it, to marvel at its sheen while our mind revolts it.
More in Part II