The Roger Ballen in Johannesburg exhibition is running at the Standard Bank Gallery until 31 January 2023. In this mini-retrospective, internationally renowned artist and photographer Roger Ballen invites us to explore Johannesburg transformed through his aesthetic, reshaped by his conscious and subconscious mind, and moulded by years of experience in photography. Born in New York and living in Johannesburg since 1982, Ballen has made the metropolis the exclusive site of his creative production.
Arriving after seminal works such as Boyhood (1979), Dorps (1986) and Platteland (1994), Ballen was no longer traversing the countryside, and his style changed. He placed additional emphasis on the wall as a sort of canvas, as opposed to a backdrop, from which various subaltern characters interact with animals and props such as plumbing pipes, cables, crosses, wires and masks. Where previously his pictures, however troubling, fell firmly into the category of documentary photography, these pictures move into the realms of fiction.
Ballen’s Outland (2001) 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 and André Kertész. 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.” Outland points to the coalescence of various elements towards a new aesthetic, one the artist would eventually dub ‘Ballenesque’. The video to Outland, 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).
Ballen’s subsequent work featured fewer and fewer 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 The 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 in Johannesburg, the artist organises selected works into 4 categories that typify his output over the years: people, animals, drawings and, of late, colour. Regarding the latter, 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 restrictions, Ballen has managed to stretch and shock the imagination. As he says, “If you consider yourself an artist, you have to take people to another zone.”
“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.”
Exhibition credits and details
Curator: Dr Same Mdluli
Featured artist: Dr Roger Ballen
Dates: 18 October 2022 – 31 January 2023, 8:00am – 4:30pm on weekdays and 8am – 4pm on weekends.