Roger Ballen – Shadowlands – a retrospective exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery UK

My pre-blog of this event, giving an account of background research and links, is at …

Is it really worth making the long journey north to Manchester, both time consuming and expensive? I decide I feel like an excursion and that the OCA meeting will be worth it. After a night in a local hotel, just outside the city centre in Salford, I trudge my way to the gallery (a lot longer walk than that suggested by the hotel) and arrive to see Gareth greeting everyone and Peter appearing in search of coffee which he was denied in the early morning train ride over from Wales.

Roger Ballen comes from a well established documentary photography badkground yet he has gone beyond the limitations of that tradition to crate his own work that has resulted in controversy, not just because of a departure in style but also because of subject matter. “Shadow Lands” is his first major UK exhibition.

There is also video to watch in this exhibition notably a music video; of this more later but I was amused to see members of the gallery staff dancing to this when it came on. The relaxed atmosphere of the gallery was also reflected in one being free to photograph both in and outside the exhibition space although video was forbidden.

Roger Ballen says all his photographs are self-portraits; to him the question “Who am I!?” can be found only in his images. I find this rationale rather phoney since the koan, the “Who am I?” question can only be truly directed inwards, and photographs are external objects. Ballen’s photographs are about what he is.

There are disturbing elements to Ballen’s work and for me, the treatment of live animals is one. For instance, a goldfish flaps in a bowl of soup and a pig is hung up with a rope around the neck although an image such as Brian with Pet Pig 1998 (from Outland) is much more compassionate in view. One might be better though questioning the status of the people in the photograph.

The lay out of the gallery is interesting since it contains a series of rooms in one big room, each one showing a particular body of work. Nevertheless, it is a bit overpowering to see so much work altogether and the result is an exhibition that is more about Roger Ballen and who he is rather than the subjects he is exploring; surely it is the subjective nature of the work that is worth looking at rather than the photographer. However, the photographs do look a lot better as prints on a gallery wall than rather soft, low contrast images in a book which have presumably been made without the photographer’s co-operation. There is a good balance of tones within the gallery prints so that a balanced chiarusco effect helps emphasise the subject matter. Overall, the exhibition is not so shocking and senseless as the images can suggest.

Diane Arbus is mentioned as an influence. This seems likely though the freakiness did not come till later. Much of Ballen’s early work is quite straightforward although the portraits are usually taken unposed and from a different angle; his first book was called “Boyhood” and is a series of portraits of boys. These earlier images were not however in the exhibition which really focuses on the work that started in South Africa.

The tendency we have to name things is perhaps a desire to control them but through documentation, we are better able to understand them. Similarly, we can apply theory to images yet our theorisation may not be supported by the images we interrogate. Peter Haveland, OCA head tutor for photography and visual culture, mentions John Tagg and Victor Burgin who describe this kind of way of looking at photographs. Peter is bowled over by the work and thinks he may take up knitting instead of photography! I can not help but think these images are of elements “knitted” together as well as containing a few “nits”.

Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, mentions two things to consider; firstly, the use of animals in the photographs (have already discussed my concerns over this but obviously they are not exhaustive since they do not address the significance of such imagery) and secondly, images within the images as there are quite a few of these and they reflect upon the meaning of the photographs as a whole.

One of the first images the group looks at is called “Dressie and Casie, twins, Western Transvaal, 1993” which is striking since the twins are evidently not normal. Seen in a book they can be held at a distance but on the gallery wall almost life size, they loom out at us. This is one of Ballen’s best known images and probably accounts for his work being compared with Diane Arbus although it seems that Kertesz who Ballen knew when much younger was probably a stronger influence. Who had made the decision to print this image larger than the others? The photographer or the curator? It may have been an agreement between both of them as in the exhibition there are a number of photographs made bigger and these are largely ones with a clearer or more obvious meaning. Positioned by this image is the much smaller one of a retired soldier; he looks much smaller now than he might have considered himself and the centre of interest is the expression on his worn face rather than his social stature.

There was not really the time to consider each photograph in depth but I mention a few that struck me. For instance, a smiling woman clutches three puppies; it is a nice image but what really strikes one is the caption that states she is the wife of an abattoir worker. In what way is this relevant to the image? Her husband is an abattoir employee … stating this fact seems rather as if a certain way of looking at the photographs is expected of one.

A disturbing image is “Elias coming out from under John’s bed” since it may simply be the harmless play of a child although he has more likely been told what to do by the photographer, an older male but probably not as old as the man lying on the bed. The presence of younger boys amidst older rather strange looking men is apparent in a number of the photographs and one can not help but think of sexual abuse of youngsters by older males since it is so often in the news these days. Ballen has done a whole book on boys some of whom are rather scantily clad so what is going on in the background to these photographs? It is no longer illegal to be homosexual but to have sex with minors definitely is. Perhaps Ballen is deliberately playing on our senses but alongside the maltreatment of animals, I find this somewhat disturbing.

Another photograph that stands out is called “Tommy, Samson and a mask, 2000 from Outland” (older man and boy again) partly for it’s meaning which is uncertain yet present. Like much of Ballen’s work, there seems to be no meaning that one can grasp hold of. Like all of Ballen’s works, the photograph is carefully constructed, nothing is left to chance as the people represented become actors. Ballen studied psychology and later geology since his photographer mother never wanted him to become a photographer having seen the hardship other photographer’s had suffered in pursuit of his art. His photographic work reflects his interests and references the work of Freud (in particular the fetish) and Jung (the concept of the darker side to the self) might be made from his work. One might draw further parallels such as with Herman Hesse and his book, Daimion.

A touching image, found on the front of his award winning photo book called Outlands, is of a small dog looking as if it has only just been born, peering out between the feet of an unidentified figure who is lying in bed. There is a sensitivity here which Ballen captures.

Peter talks a little more, saying that there is ultimately no such thing as documentary photography as every photograph is part fictional; photographs do not really have the power to say what reality is. Reality … is there such a thing? is it not really a notional concept? This is something Baudrillard has dwelt upon, the lack of ability in defining what reality is. The hype real is something that never existed. Much documentary photography is heading towards art.

I find Ballen a little threatening and so it is good to hear someone else voicing the same impression which meets with assent among others. His book Outland (2001) however, marks the beginning of a more collaborative approach or possibly more shocking since now the meanings of the images have become more intentional. One needs a lot of confidence to make this kind of work which is beyond the snap shot genre. Yet the images in Outland make one work harder to discover their meaning. Artists no longer put something in front of you as a way to inform you, they create something one needs to decipher. Documentary photography appeals because it’s meaning is self-evident and one does not have to think too much.

One image which I do not particularly like, called Twisted Wire it reveals a mass of twisted wire under which a half shrouded figure lurks, is one that resonates with others yet not myself. One can see an illusion is being made but it is one of angst and not a natural state of mind (Ballen says he is contacting the real or at least attempting to.)

Sliced (2007) is another image in which injury appears to have been done to an animal. In this case, a lizard has had it’s tail cut off.

Ballen is said to have made himself unpopular not by his outrageous imagery but because he is presenting a view of South Africa that most people do not want to think about, that of an impoverished white community.

Another image that seems to refer to the weirder side is called Confinement (2003) but might just as well be called Bondage since it sees a prone individual chained to the floor with other chains placed nearby.

Looking at these images, one needs to forget that Ballen is a photographer since he is obviousy so much more, namely a playwright as well as a painter since he actually makes inscriptions on the walls and paints them too. He refers to his work as imaginary realism.

Peter agrees with me when I suggest that one’s response to the images are likely to be determined by one’s conditioning and mental constructs that one has formed.

It is the last image in the show that does mean something to me and I am glad I see it and don’t hurry out as the OCA group make their way to the coffee bar for further discussion.  Called “Deathbed” (2010) it shows what looks like the skeleton of a child covered in sackcloth on a bed with an apparently mummified hand where the feet might be; hieroglyphics can be seen on the wall the bed stands by in the bare room. The uplifting part of this picture is the body of a white dove perched on the skull; one might interpret the bird in different ways such as taking to to be the soul or a symbol of redemption and hope but what it seems to be saying is that amidst all the detritus that Ballen has revealed to us during the exhibition, there is something that transcends it. The bird suggests a kind of freedom, a relief from the confinement implicit in most of the other images. There is light amidst all this darkness since our knowledge of darkness could not exist without light.

The images in the exhibition are often difficult to engage with owing to their subject. Another man’s vomit?

We are asked to see the video and this certainly brings Ballen’s work to life. Initially, his contact with the group called Die Antwerwood was because they were appropriating his images but when they began to work together something quite unique came of it. I find the dance movements very intriguing while the music is good too. One becomes aware of a certain sense of humour to Ballen’s work, an element of celebration.

Ballen does not advise people to do photography unless they are really driven to. Does this mean one has to become an obsessive as he admits to being?

One reason the exhibition is the way it is might be because the gallery has a new director who wants to make an impression and so shows work that is controversial and somewhat in your face. One goes to see art to experience a change in oneself as much art is about self-exploration although to say that art will help one find oneself is probably going a little too far.

To appreciate photography, one needs to stop thinking too much like a photographer by confining oneself to concerns about equipment, grain within the image, film type used etc as this can so easily detract from the actual meaning of photography which is likely to be on a more psychological level.

Are any of these images photoshopped? Apparently not. Photoshop has just been used in the making of high quality prints though.

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