Saturday, 7 April 2012

Freeks in the Asylum - Roger Ballen at the Manchester Art Gallery

The things I got, the things I worked out for myself, the clear conclusions of the process of the pictures that I didn’t need a guide for are listed below; there are a good deal more things that I didn’t work out, couldn’t fathom and still not sure I want to find out.

What seemed either clear from the outset or soon after studying the prints: They are all technically very proficient prints, the silver gelation and the archival digital prints, beautifully toned square images – I’m assuming this a camera format decision, and the reason for assuming so is partly because of the squareness but maybe more because the majority of the photographs contain information across the full image area; the earlier shots maybe less so, but certainly all the staged shots are “fully managed” productions, corner to corner. There was a switch as Ballen moved from the darkroom to the digital print, the silver gelation are all mounted such that the image area was window mounted with no paper margin, the early digital prints then had a white border; this was then replaced by margin-less digital prints. I suspect this is as much to do with available technology as an artistic statement. I was also intrigued by the way in the prints were hung – I saw a “step-wedge” of tones on the walls or partitions, from zone 0 through 10; the paper base white of the prints (10), the solid blacks (0) of the frames and then three different tones (3,5 &7?) that the frames were mounted on – see below: I wonder if that was intentional?  

Those that remember the dark room will have memories of how difficult it was to obtain “flat” prints – not flat in the tonal range meaning, rather the bending of the paper, I noticed that several of the silver gelation prints, clearly on fibre paper, still showed signs of buckling. Ballen must have seen this as he hung the prints, as he packaged them up for the exhibition, I wander about warping and the warped nature of these prints, especially with prints such as “Boy with Guns, West Transvaal” 1993
There are a limited range of props that Ballen uses, they can be seen a number of times, the duck, the dolls head, a toy rabbit, a toy dinosaur, some stuffed animals. The Outland (2001) – series starts to look staged. The “players” in the images start to look made up – feet and hands aren't dirty they are dirtied; whereas the leery-eyed subject of  “Wife of abattoir holding three puppies” 2004 isn’t staged – she is that person.

What I didn’t/don’t fully understand, what I question and what disturbs me is a fuller list. I can understand the “Outland” series - Outland means foreign - as Ballen was, when he arrived on the Veld taking a prurient interest in the small towns when he had time to spare; even more, the documenting of the townsfolk who appear to have welcomed him. But as the “project” wears on, as the interest delves deeper I begin to question the motivation.

I wrote: “Toys make up “Stories” from within or without. Within, the subjects, the country, the politics. From without -> Ballen? (meaning inside his head?).

As Ballen made his way around the townships on the Veld he noticed and recorded the time warp that existed (and maybe still does); I suppose he must have noticed the irony of the prurience of capturing the “Pensioner, Volksrust” 1984 as he stands, in what might be newly pressed pyjamas, next to his table above which are several pin-up photographs of sexually charged women, scantily dressed; this in a country who is still today coming to terms with the naked form, where censorship pervades all of society and, at that time, was probably at a standstill in Volksrust. Is this a document or a comment? The old native South African, head in the shadow in “Old Man, Ottoshoop” 1983 and “Tommy, Samson and a Mask” 2000 seem the only overtly political comment on the end of apartheid, not a criticism – just a comment.

The visual aesthetic seems to be fully formed by the time “Outland” appears, by then he has moved almost exclusively indoors and to stage managed shots; completing the control of all parts of the image and frame. Utilising text and a limited range of props and thematics, this visual vernacular doesn’t appear to develop. The semiotic toolbox of toys, knives, dead animals, grime, grit and mild shock doesn’t really move on as he dives deeper and deeper. This all tends to suggest that this isn’t a body of work that has any relevance to South Africa or the African continent, politics or poverty. It appears more to be about the exploration of the foreign country that resides in Ballen’s mind – he is that “Outsider” in his own phsychotic mind of Ballen.

The twin bodies of works “Shadow Chamber” and “Boarding House” push the boundaries of tolerance further and deeper than before, but there are clearer signs that these images are constructs of Ballen’s mind. The staging of, for example, the neatly cut holes in the cloth for three hands to appear in “Three Hands” belies the grit and grime of the image, although the technical brilliance of the images transgresses that aesthetic, it would seem, as the flowers are beautifully rendered in tender and immaculate detail. Some photographs give away their secrets much more easily in “Dazed” 2006 a new born puppy, a used/old condom, some twine (cord) and a knife are joined on set by a single piece of a jig saw puzzle. “Chuckle” 2006 had another cloth with apertures, this time for mouths agape as they scream or shout their message, though, again, they have very good teeth and offer another transgressive message against the grit, grime and shit of a subjugated life; these mouths are not in any immediate need of an orthodontist in the foreseeable future. The “Asylum” almost takes another variable away from the frame, that of the human, describing the human form with masks and charicature – Ballen takes the control of the picture further into his hands, further into his mind and as he does so the allure of his imagery moves further away from this viewer.

I was intrigued by a lot of the photographs - they were all intriguing - this shot left makes use of a single piece of scrawl on the wall and echoes it with the man's pose. I can't make that out. With the shot on the right I found myself comparing the chaos of the bundle above the head of the subject below and wondering if the chaos was an allegory for the contents of his mind - and that could be Ballen's or the sitters! And yet I was amused by the visual echo between the accordion and the chicken at the youth's feet!

By the end, I felt I had had a tour of Ballen’s mind (or at least a part of it), I was left wanting more of what appeared to have driven him there from the perspective of this exhibition. It started with a documentary of the world he found himself in, Dorps, Platteland; this exhibition seems to suggest that these travels drove him inside – from the outside world and maybe inside his head. This 30 year epic is a testament to his endurance, holding an aesthetic together for that journey, but it appears to me to be an isolationist journey, introspectively documenting the way by which Ballen copes with the world. The videos that are shown display graphically Ballen’s visual aesthetic, but not his temporal, for that the visitor needs to go to the “Asylum”.

This last shot also amused, but for different reasons:

Pictures by kind permission of the Manchester Art Gallery


  1. Hi John. I think you know my thoughts on Ballen. By all accounts the more you try to reason or rationalise his images (particularly the later ones), the less accessible they seem to become. There are threads that you cling on to where you can recognise some metaphoric or symbolic value. But I'm not convinced the work is meant to be 'deciphered'. When he showed us around the exhibition there was no inclination to 'explain' the images. He was more keen to show us how all elements within an image had a formal relationship. For example the placement of a line on a wall, lining up with the mask, which was the same shape as a shadow that was placed in the image at a specific spot...all there for a purpose was important we knew that nothing in his images was there by chance. The composition, exquisite lighting and exposure, placement and traditional values of photography were important to him.

    I don't think it is the type of work one would naturally be drawn to...but as he said, you instantly recognise a 'Picasso'. You don't need to be told it is good. And equally, you instantly recognise the visual style of Barren. It's certainly fascinating.

  2. Hello Penny, Thanks for the considered (and informed) comment. I would definitely say I was in awe of the work I saw; the craftsmanship, not only technical, but as I say in the post - the "stage management of his frames, corner to corner". They are masterful, and I was soon asking questions, especially after the Outlander series, but the answers kept being the same. I suppose that his style is now fully formed after 30 years, his vernacular finely structured - a bit like a lost and lonely language from some tiny outpost. I read recently that there is a language that now has only one person left who can speak it - somewhere in the Himalayas I think. I am studying Francesca Woodman at the moment and she moves me so much more than Ballen, similar age I would think, except Woodman died when she was 22, eight years less than Ballen has spent refining his style.