“Roger Ballen: Retrospective” opens at Istanbul Modern
Istanbul Modern Photography Gallery is hosting the works of American-born, South African artist Roger Ballen, whose photography evolved from a form of documentary photography into a distinctive and unique style he describes as “ballenesque”. Ballen employs drawing, painting, collage and sculptural techniques to create a new hybrid aesthetic, but one still firmly rooted in photography. The exhibition aims to follow the trajectory of the artist’s output since the 1980s.
The works of Roger Ballen, one of the most important contemporary photographers of the 21st century, will be on view in Turkey for the first time ever at the Istanbul Modern Photography Gallery from December 28, 2016 to June 4, 2017.
Organized with the support of the Eiger Foundation, the “Roger Ballen: Retrospective” reveals the evolution of Ballen’s work from a form of documentary photography into a unique style he describes as “ballenesque”. Ballen turns the counterparts of reality and fiction in the art of photography upside down and creates a whole new hybrid aesthetic using drawing, painting, collage and sculpture that is also firmly rooted in photography.
Curated by Demet Yıldız, the exhibition presents a selection of works from seven Ballen series – “Dorps”, “Platteland”, “Outland”, “Shadow Chamber”, “Boarding House”, “Asylum of the Birds” and “Theatre of Apparitions” – as well as a new installation titled “Room of the Ballenesque”.
Ballen first came to prominence as a photographer with the publication of Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa, in 1986. His view of the Afrikaner underclass would be recognised for its dispassionate observation, without comment or obvious involvement, possibly akin to Ballen's portrayal of the surrounding architecture. As a practising geologist on field trips Ballen had encountered his subjects living under the imagined benefits of the policies of the regime. The landscape photographs in Dorps would mark the end of Ballen's foray into outdoor photography. But the series would mark the beginning of Ballen's use of the middle format camera and flash, as well as the deliberate choice of a square negative and black and white film.
For Ballen’s second series Platteland: Images of Rural South Africa the photographer dedicated himself to a deep exploration of the inhabitants of the marginalised and poor white communities of the rural heartlands. The resultant psychological portraits were perceived by the public as deeply disturbing images of a world where the dominant but uneducated whites who had privileged access to jobs and accommodation under Apartheid had descended into a world of chaos, paranoia and disappointment.
The publication of Outland in 2001 saw Ballen moving away from the documentary approach to create something wholly new where the veracity of the direct approach and the use of black and white so long associated with the real and the factual was transformed through Ballen’s mind and camera. Ballen’s subjects increasingly enter into a partnership with him performing acts of the absurd, arranging objects and interacting with animals in front of the camera. The elements of textured walls, trailing bare wires and odd arrangements of ornaments and decorations Ballen had discovered inside these dwellings during the course of creating Platteland become increasingly formal.
Shadow Chamber (2005)
The lessons Ballen had learned with the ground-breaking Outland were pushed forward into new realms with Shadow Chamber. Yet they entered a world of fiction and storytelling far removed from his early works. A great admirer of the plays of Samuel Beckett, Ballen created images within enclosed spaces, with minimal props. Visual psychodramas replaced dialogue. Characters could be described as actors without audiences, acting out an existential theatre.
Boarding House (2009)
For five years Ballen focused his attention on a strange and alluring place near Johannesburg that became titled the Boarding House. Crowded with poor workers, transients, criminals hiding from the law, witchdoctors, children, pet animals and insects, the images skirted the fine line between dream and the waking state. The altered sense of place contained drawn and sculptural elements, and the collaboration between artist and subject had become clearly evident. The images in Boarding House blurred the lines between documentary photography and art forms such as painting, theater and sculpture.
Asylum of the Birds (2013)
Asylum of the Birds was presented as a monograph of iconic photographs all taken entirely within the confines of a house in a Johannesburg suburb, the location of which has remained a tightly guarded secret. The cast was made up of inhabitants of the house, both people and animals, and most notably the ever-present birds, all performing within a sculptural and decorated theatrical interior created and orchestrated by Ballen.
The Theatre of Apparitions (2016)
Inspired by the sight of hand-drawn carvings on blacked-out windows in an abandoned women’s prison, Ballen started to experiment using different spray paints on glass and then “drawing on” or removing the paint with a sharp object to let natural light through. The results were like prehistoric cave-paintings: the black, dimensionless spaces on the glass are canvases onto which Ballen has carved his thoughts and emotions. The Theatre of Apparitions series has transported Ballen’s photographic work into a new set of fictions gesturing to a constructed psychological drama of infinite possibility.
About Roger Ballen
Ballen is one of the most important photographers of his generation. He was born in New York in 1950 but for over 30 years he has lived and worked in South Africa. His work as a geologist took him out into the countryside and led him to take up his camera and explore the hidden world of small South African towns. At first he explored the empty streets in the glare of the midday sun but, once he had made the step of knocking on people’s doors, he discovered a world inside these houses which was to have a profound effect on his work. These interiors with their distinctive collections of objects and the occupants within these closed worlds took his unique vision on a path from social critique to the creation of metaphors for the inner mind. After 1994 he no longer looked to the countryside for his subject matter finding it closer to home in Johannesburg.
Over the past thirty years his distinctive style of photography has evolved using a simple square format in stark and beautiful black and white. In the earlier works in the exhibition his connection to the tradition of documentary photography is clear but through the 1990s he developed a style he describes as ‘documentary fiction’. After 2000 the people he first discovered and documented living on the margins of South African society increasingly became a cast of actors working with Ballen in the series Outland and Shadow Chamber collaborating to create disturbing psychodramas.
The line between fantasy and reality in his series Boarding House and Asylum of the Birds (published in the Spring of 2014 by Thames and Hudson) has become increasingly blurred and in these series he has employed drawings, painting, collage and sculptural techniques to create elaborate sets. People are now often absent altogether; replaced by photographs of people used as props, by doll or dummy parts or where they do appear it’s as disembodied hands, feet and mouths poking disturbingly through walls and pieces of rag. The often improvised scenarios are completed by the unpredictable behavior of the animals which are captured in an instant. Ballen has invented a new hybrid aesthetic in these works but one still rooted firmly in photography.
Museum visitors may purchase the exhibition catalogue, various books portraying the artist’s photographic style and journey, and design objects related to the exhibition theme at Istanbul Modern Store.