I was in Manchester on the opening day of this exhibition so took the opportunity to spend some time taking it in. I have since been back for a second viewing. It’s Ballen’s first major UK exhibition and as such is quite extensive. It covers three decades of work from his early series Dorps and the controversial series Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber and Boarding House through to unseen new work from Asylum. There is also examples of his collaborative film work including the music video ‘I fink u freeky’ by Die Antwoord. I’m not going to try and cover all of this here but there were particular parts of Ballen’s work that had more of an impact on me.
Ballen was born in New York but has spent over 30 years in South Africa. As a geologist in South Africa his work took him out into the remote small towns of the veldt, initially photographing empty streets in the midday sun but later moving inside to photograph the lives of the people of these small towns. His initial work was more documentary but this moved into what Ballen called ‘documentary fiction’ and has moved further into fantasy with his latest work. He has used square (medium) format black and white throughout his career.
Dorps (1986) – Dorps is a mix between the documentary element depicting the small rural towns of South Africa and Ballen’s own view of the asthetic beauty of what he sees.
In Bedroom of Railway Worker, De Aar, 1984 there is a collection of personal objects pointing to the life of the worker. The electric wires form part of the decoration depicting a surreal and primitive place. Ballen describes this photo as one of the most important photographs of his career. This was the first of his ‘wire’ photographs. During this time he didn’t touch or rearrange anything. There was no real interaction going on, it was strictly documentary.
Platteland (1994) – The most well known of Ballens images is pictured below; Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, 1993 . He was criticized for this series and this image in particular for putting these people on display and exhibiting them akin to a freak show You need to see the full sized image to see the detail; both Dresie and Casie are dribbling (continually, looking at the shirt on the right). Platteland is very different from earlier work as people are very much centre stage.
Outland (2001) – It is this series that I find most disturbing. Ballen moves away from documentary photography here and presents us with posed images of his subjects. At this point Ballen stopped taking pictures outside of Johannesburg. He also started to think of himself as an artist and created a director/actor, actor/director relationship with the people he photographed that, in turn created the reality that Ballen refered to as the outland. Everything in the pictures has a purpose, there is no room for ‘fat’ in the images and Ballen describes the forms as very important to his work. As stage managed as they are, using animals in many of his images means that they are very much moments in time and not repeatable. The reason I find Outland more disturbing is there is still a level of reality in the pictures. The more real the possibility in my head, the more menacing the image is for me. ‘Shadow Chamber’ and ‘Boarding House’ are far more surreal and removed from reality, which I find more intriguing but nowhere near as disturbing.
The cat catcher would catch cats and deliver a bag full, still alive, to the local witchdoctors who used their various parts for ‘medicinal’ purposes and had lines of tails, ears etc. hung up on lines.
Shadow Chamber (2005) – For me shadow chamber moves further away from reality to a surreal place that I find less menacing and more intriguing. Twirling wires looks like a fast moving swarm descending on it’s victim or a cartoon speech bubble of confusion.
Asylum is very different to Ballen’s other work. They are more images of created art. They are also produced differently, being very vibrant archival pigment prints (ink jet). The following image Onlookers – 2010 has a huge amount of detail and therefore creates that sense of delay in that you need to look for quite some time to really notice everything in the image. Ballen’s use of light in this image creates a definite differentiation between foreground and background. It would be interesting to see the original set-up as there must be a certain amount of colour in the image but Ballen is seeing in B&W. A central person has been replaced by drawings, birds and animals and again, this is an image that needs to be viewed ‘full size’ and in the flesh to be able to appreciate the attention to detail and contrast in the image.
Ballen’s work has changed considerably over the 30 year period and it is the later work, Asylum, that I prefer, which is good because I can look forward to what comes next!