Roger Ballen: Theatre of Apparitions / Reviewed by Ellie Howard / 29.03.17
In Waif (2012), a long drawn-out boogeyman figure emerges from closeted darkness. A vaguely human shape is discernible among its layers of shadow, yet where eyes should sit lie pitted black holes. Looming forward, a pair of supernaturally long skeletal hands precede its form, taking up the bulk of the frame. Although some may not have encountered Roger Ballen’s photograph before, they will instantly place it. Most probably through popular myth and its interpretations, such as F. W. Murnau’s horror classic Nosferatu (1992), or within their own psychological wells. Naturally the portrait represents the source of our own worst nightmares, ourselves.
The photograph makes an apt emblem for Theatre of Apparitions at London’s Hamiltons Gallery, that sees Ballen’s latest series on display after a successful monograph release. The works were inspired by a trip Ballen made to a derelict woman’s prison in Johannesburg while filming Memento Mori (2004). Upon discovering one cell’s blacked out window panes and the crop of etched figures seemingly drawn from light, he was moved to reenact the gesture in his own hand. Ballen has long since been drawn to psychological studies, so it’s easy to see how the experience would have proved fertile for the photographer. He became interested in the theatrical mechanisms of the subconscious mind – dreams, memory and imagination – and how these perform a kind of mental puppetry on the psychological stage.
The American photographer, who has lived and worked in Johannesburg for over 30-years, has produced ten major bodies of work since 1982. Evolving from socio-journalistic photography and into the unique vision of Theatre of Apparitions, Ballen is a stylistic shape-shifter. He cut his teeth on Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986) but it was a later project Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994) that garnered attention – albeit a fair bit of controversy, in its portrayal of the handicapped poor.
A mid-period characterised by a documentary fiction approach as seen in Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005), brought a more developed sense of texture and composition. After this point, Ballen’s work becomes increasingly illustrative and sculptural, reliant on props and played out in a series of decaying rooms as evident in Asylum of the Birds (2014). His latest offering Theatre of Apparitions, takes a lateral slide into his most introspective, painterly work. It feels like a distillation of Ballen’s distinct visual language, a new product in his transformation from photographer to artist.
One of the most engaging elements of the show was Ballen’s innovative approach in the production of the work. With his assistant Marguerite Rossouw, he would spray-paint and draw freehand onto a studio window, which would then be etched over. Lit by a natural light, the window would then be photographed in his trademark monochrome. For the earlier works, he shot with Rolleiflex 6×6 film camera but later switched to a Mamiya 5 x 6. A few works, such as Replacement, (2010) display a raw pumice texture similar to aged limestone, an effect created by the mixture of paint and epoxies used and one that immediately conjures up the primordial cave drawings of the Lascaux Cave. This takes root in Ballen’s description of the work as a “mythological ‘memory fossil’”, which he states “hark back to ancient shamanistic visions and sacred symbols that we have inherited and embedded within ourselves through the process of evolution.”
The meaning of the work is left up to the viewer. Ballen has always created deflective photographs that encourage self-analysis, perhaps in order to protect his work from overinterpretation. His cast of macabre “apparitions” – which bear a resemblance to the 19th century Théatre d’ombres – spring from human emotions we suppress: lust, aggression, loneliness, pain. Ballen has suggested they spring from his own psychological hinterland, although some of the archetypal images suggest that they might have been mined from the collective unconscious instead; fragments of the oedipus complex surface in Feeding (2012) and we see the the Jungian ‘shadow’ self in The Back of the Mind (2012). The latter is a great example of Ballen’s integration of form and content. The subject fights for recognition within the photograph’s composition, attempting to emerge through the interludes of blackened-space while simultaneously painting our moral and adjusted sense of self, repressing the subconscious.
Underpinning the series, and indeed all of his work, is a relentless need to photograph the vagaries of the human condition. And while this latest series aims to provide a visual mediation of Ballen’s own subconscious landscape, a realm populated by desires and instincts materialized as abstract paintings, it lacks the same calculated horror and uncanny power as his previous series. But the works are enjoyable departures into our own subconscious depths, nonetheless.
– review by Ellie Howard
Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Pl, Mayfair, London W1K 2EU