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Dark Adventures: The Unhinged World of Roger Ballen's Johannesburg Article Image

Dark Adventures: The Unhinged World of Roger Ballen's Johannesburg

Posted on 19 October 2022

In Roger Ballen's Johannesburg, running at the Standard Bank Gallery from 19 October 2022 to 31 January 2023, the artist takes us on a mini retrospective encapsulating his photographic relationship with the city. Born in New York and living in Johannesburg since 1982, the metropolis has been the exclusive site of Ballen's creative production since the advent of democracy in South Africa, a period which coincided with the release of the instantly infamous book, Platteland.

Through artfully composed images characterised by a deliberate emphasis on a harmonious formalism, Ballen poked holes at the pervasiveness of white supremacy just as legislated apartheid was being shown the door. That era also marked the inception of the artist's Outland project, initially published in book form in 2001.

Arriving after seminal works such as Boyhood (1979), Dorps (1986) and Platteland (1994), Outland represented a seismic shift in Ballen's oeuvre, seeing him abandon his singular approach to documentary photography, which had synthesised only the essential elements from virtuosos such as Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz and others. The body of work, spanning 1994 to 2000, saw Ballen favour an unpredictable theatricality that sought to transform reality with the camera.

"It wasn't clear whether people were acting, whether I was directing, or whether they were directing, and I was taking the pictures," he says of the ambiguity that drove his process. "What was going on in those photographs started to become a little bit more obscure." No longer traversing the countryside, the interiors of Ballen's photos become more claustrophobic around this time. There is additional emphasis placed on the wall as a sort of canvas, as opposed to backdrop, from which various subaltern characters interact with animals and props such as plumbing pipes, cables, crosses, wires and masks. Outland points to the coalescence of various elements towards a new aesthetic, one the artist would eventually dub "Ballenesque".

Writing in the retrospective book of the same name, critic Robert J.C. Young frames this signature style as typified by components that recede and reappear at turns and in a non-linear fashion. The video to Outland, for instance, (produced in 2015 with Ben Jay Crossman) presents us with Stan, a reprisal of the central character in Ballen's first film Ill Wind (1972).

Roger Ballen, Biten, 2004

Ballen's subsequent work featured less and less humans - until they completely disappeared from the pictures, yielding space to drawings, animals, a variety of props and dismembered dolls. Shadow Chamber (2005), Boarding House (2009), Asylum of the Birds (2014), and Theatre of Apparitions (2016) all confirm Ballenesque to comprise a revolving cast of characters, poetically exploring a sense of interiority and the subliminal rather than the accepted reality.

For Roger Ballen's Johannesburg, the artist organises selected works into four categories which typify his output over the years, namely people, animals, drawings and, of late, colour. (In the latter regard Ballen strives for something in-between; a muted approach to colour that retains something of the abstraction of black and white.)

What emerges in the process of this compartmentalisation is a new appreciation for just how varied, prodigious and unconventional his approach to artmaking has been. While working within a confined set of strictures, Ballen has managed to stretch and shock the imagination ad infinitum. As he says, "If you consider yourself an artist, you have to take people to another zone."

As the city plunges further into a darkness beyond its control, it is fitting that Ballen's work dominates the gallery's walls this summer. "I have always had a high regard for the exceptional quality of the shows at the Standard Bank Gallery," Ballen says. "It is one of the most important exhibition spaces in South Africa and I am very excited to have the opportunity of being part of this noteworthy venue. As my exhibition is about my relationship to Johannesburg, I cannot think of a better place to create this exhibition.

The show's curator, Standard Bank Gallery manager Dr Same Mdluli, concurs. "Ballen's history as a geologist and photographer, not to mention his long-time residency in the city, means it goes without saying that he is primed to circumnavigate superficiality in his approach to art. Furthermore, the gallery's central location in a constantly morphing CBD, and the psychological dimension of Ballen's work - much of it about the city's hidden worlds - set the stage for unique and layered conversations about what drives us as human beings, how we have interacted with our natural environment and how we read art."

The exhibition runs at the Standard Bank gallery from 19 Ocotber 2022 to 31 January 2023 from 08:00 - 16:30 on weekdays, and 08:00 - 16:00 on weekends. Entrance to the gallery is free.

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