Looking at the works as a whole, you can see how the work has progressed. He starts of with Dorps and Platteland and what might be considered to be documentary work that displays echoes of Walker Evans and the FSA photographs from the 1930’s. The photographs, like all in the exhibition, are superbly printed and framed in a traditional modernist style of thin black frames and a white mount, and this presentation seems to reinforce the idea that they could be part of a historical document, and they are, being from the 1980’s - I just mean from further back in history. The subject matter seems to further displace the images in time; there’s a photograph called Side view of Hotel, Middleburg, 1983 (image 1 of 4 from the gallery here) that appears to be from a much earlier time, at least it doesn’t say “1983” to me - if it were colour then maybe, but I doubt it. The same goes for the other images, on the face of it they’re from an earlier time, but it would appear that this is just how these people lived - one reason for the apparent outcry they created when released, perhaps?
Platteland starts to look more at the people, rather than the surroundings (although Dorps included portraits), and here the work of Diane Arbus is brought to mind; the people he is photographing look to come from a marginalised section of the South African population - the poorer whites. The apartheid system in SA appeared to me as dividing the rich white from the poor black, a simplistic view that says nothing of the poor white. Again, was this the reason for the outcry that it created? Or was it his choice of subject, such as the twins, Dressie and Casie? With this photograph, a connection with Arbus is inevitable. And yes, as such this will be a cause for outcry.
Dressie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, 1993 raises many issues. The one that I suppose it fairly high on the list would be whether Ballen was taking advantage of them. Why did he choose to photograph these men? Is he taking the mickey? Well, why should he be taking advantage and why not photograph them? They are entitled to have their photograph taken, and they’re obviously aware that it is being done, so there is nothing surreptitious going on. I think what the real issue is has more to do with the viewer rather than the photographer; the twins are looking at the viewer, heir stance is confrontational and square on and they are questioning the viewer in much the same way that Olympia did years before. The viewer is forced to question themselves, and how they react to the photograph - the viewer will have a reaction that will perhaps make them feel uncomfortable. It’s this reflection on the viewer’s mind (and the photographer’s mind of course) that Ballen takes forward further in his work.
The photographs from this point become much more collaborative and staged - rather than simply posing for the photograph they are starting to act out increasingly surreal scenes. In Outland the viewer might be forgiven for expecting the documentary nature of the photographs to be continued, although in some it is clear it has not (e.g. Twirling wires, 2001). Now more references can be drawn from his work, through psychoanalysis to Freud and Jung or through more ‘normal’ artistic associations to Dali and Surrealism. The photographs are dark and troubling in many cases, and again it is in turning the viewer in on themselves in self-reflection that we can become uncomfortable, we don’t necessarily want to face the questions that Ballen asks of us.
As I said before, all of the photographs are superbly printed, and there’s a comment on one of the walls that there’s no darkroom or photoshop manipulation either (Peter H said he was going to take up knitting at this point). I find the comment about no darkroom manipulation hard to grasp, as I would always expect a touch of dodging and burning to go on, but hey, what do I know. There was one image that was particularly well printed though (Tommy, Samson and a Mask, 2000), the range of tones here was superb. The photograph itself is excellent as well, raising issues of race, age and death, amongst other things. It wasn’t my favourite though. My favourite is more a piece of artwork than a photograph (the same should be said of all of his later work), but unfortunately I didn’t think to get the name of it.
It’s basically some twigs/branches resting against a graffitied wall, and I think it’s actually the human-ish forms drawn on the walls that draw me in. I find them quite disturbing in the way that the loom over the faces at the bottom of the wall. I suppose they’re quite reminiscent of the ghosts that feature in the work of Miyazaki Hayao. I don’t find them scary or horrific, just disturbing in a quite mesmerising way. It’s quite interesting that this work has gone back to not featuring any people in it, all of the previous series post the Evans-esque documentary work (at least the examples displayed) had done. Ballen talks of looking inside his own head, and things are starting to get quite lonely.
The photographs are becoming more “still life” in nature, and I now start to draw stronger connections to the artwork of Dave McKean, an illustrator and artist who’s work I first saw 20-odd years ago when he provided the covers for the Sandman collection of comic books. The Sandman story (written by David Gaiman) was rich in the occult and supernatural, the main character being the lord of dreams (hence “Sandman”). There’s obvious links here with the sub-conscious and the inner workings of the mind. This link is especially strong for me when you compare the home image on McKean’s website with a still from the Die Antwoord video, I fink u freeky. Is this particular instance Ballen or Die Antwoord, I don’t know for certain (Yolandi Visser has worn those contacts in other photographs I’ve seen), but I can’t help but think it must be Ballen. Incidentally, watching the video on a large screen is a very different experience to watching it on the web, viewed larger there’s a lot more to be seen, details that are difficult to catch on You-Tube.
Asylum seems to be heading in the direction of a more traditional surrealism (if there is such a thing), and as such it feels a little more accessible and less troubling. Again, I find myself thinking of Dali and a host of other surrealist photography images, the artists names of which I can’t recall. I’m not sure if it was the return to a tradition or an overload of the work, but at this point I was beginning to feel ambivalent towards it. It interested me less than I really expected. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy seeing the work and pulling back some of the various layers of the images, drawing links in my own mind with the work of others that may or may not be intended by Ballen, I did. Just not as much as I thought I would. Was this overload, or was it a response in my head to the hype that has surrounded the work in recent weeks? I’m not sure at this point. In the same way I’m often disappointed by Oscar winning films on first watching, I’ll know what I really feel in a few months when I look at it again, and to this end I’ve ordered a career spanning book of his photographs from Amazon, rather than one of the monographs featured in the exhibition (although Outland is also in my shopping cart, just in case).