Posted by: Issha Marie | March 24, 2009

Journey to the shadow world: Roger Ballen at the OCAD Professional Gallery

When you first encounter a Roger Ballen photograph, you will most likely be met with a perplexing combination of wonder and discomfort. What is hung before you, in Ballen’s trademark square format, are lushly printed black and white photographs of places and people darkly imagined and disconcertingly real. Body parts peek out from unlikely crevices. Faces peer out at you, vulnerable, yet almost sinister. Animals roam into Ballen’s constructed spaces; else, their [animal] parts – tails, paws, and even the tiniest hint of a furry head – peek out from underneath sofa cushions. Hybridized figures made up of dismembered dolls’ parts, animal parts, and human appendages inhabit crude interiors like living, breathing chimeras. This is the shadow world, and Ballen bears witness to all that occurs within.

Scavenging (Boarding House, 2004)

Scavenging (Boarding House, 2004)

from the series Shadow Chamber

from the series, Shadow Chamber

Ballen’s photographs hit somber notes for the most part; yet, in spite of their outwardly desolate attributes, the end results are also lush and playful, his subjects, empowered in their vulnerability. His compositions depict a harmonious mingling of two extremes – they are hauntingly dark and light-heartedly whimsical, discomfiting and also familiar. It is with no surprise to learn that Roger Ballen has lent [somewhat of] a curatorial hand in the installation of his much deserved two-and-a-half-month slot at the OCAD Professional Gallery. Upon entering the space itself, you are immediately met with selections from his latest series, Boarding House, where an enigmatic ambiguity is most certainly maintained. Illustrated within these neatly hung frames are the indiscernible places that “exist in some form or another in most people’s minds”. The seamless interplay between what was originally there and what has been added mirrors Ballen’s propensity to merge documentary photography with theatrical fabrication. The title photograph, for instance, depicts a landscape littered with found objects that may have belonged to a particular household in this impoverished South African community. The photograph itself, on the other hand, is that of a make-shift stage. Feast your wandering eyes on the center-most part of the photograph, where an eyeless doll’s head is meticulously propped on top of a nondescript base. Tilted ever so slightly, perhaps strategically for effect, its blank eyes peer curiously at you. But hold on now – the doll’s head is not eyeless; rather, its lids are merely closed. You stifle an awkward giggle – you must be seeing things.

Boarding House (Boarding House, 2008)

Boarding House (Boarding House, 2008)

The odd table-like structure on which [the doll’s head] rests resembles an altar; this could very well be a sacrificial offering to some unnamed god, or else, this is a representation of the deity itself. The space that inhabits the background of this strange centerpiece is littered with crude drawings, childish in manner, but profound in its execution. Charles Reeve, curator of OCAD’s Professional Gallery, quotes Robert Cook on the written companion to this exhibition:

“The drawings on the wall were initially found in the settings he was working within. In the process of making certain photographs however, Ballen and his subjects started adding to the existing imagery with chalk and other materials; they are an organic response to, and an extension of, a particular subjective situation and a particular physical context.”

Still, the illusion lies in the fact that the center wall is, upon closer observation, not a wall. Spot the sleeping child to the left and you will find the secret of its construction. The wall is made up of a heavy cloth – perhaps a thick blanket of some sort, or a large rug. Spot the flap, barely noticeable, resting gently against the child’s elbow. Futhermore, observe both the animate and inanimate “objects” that rest at the foot of this “altar”; all are rendered motionless, frozen, in the presence of this “deity”. You shake your head incredulously, surprised to find that you have unwittingly jumped into the story.

It is interesting to observe Ballen’s gradual progression from straight documentary to visual psychological studies. While the spaces his subjects inhabit in his later works tell of a struggling community swimming in poverty, his resulting compositions are entirely arrived upon through a collaborative relationship between artist and subject. Charles Reeves compares Ballen’s art-making approaches to Hans Bellmer and Man Ray, but the playful nature that emanates from his various subjects is quite reminiscent of Francesca Woodman’s photographic experiments with her body and the spaces her body inhabits. Just as Woodman has relied on the camera’s unpredictable nature to capture motion blurs in a most dynamic fashion, Ballen places much of his instincts on the unpredictable ways his subjects interact within these fabricated spaces. Even the still objects he chooses to photograph seem to reverberate with unexpected life. Chairs, Asian Bazaar, a photograph from one of his earlier series, Dorps, is a perfect example, as the photograph is actually quite telling of the direction his art-making is going to take. These stools, weathered and aged with time, their stuffing spilling out of their respective cloth covers, almost appear to be conversing with each other.

Francesca Woodman, House #4 (Providence, Rhode Island, 1976)

Francesca Woodman, House #4 (Providence, Rhode Island, 1976)

Chairs, Asian Bazaar (from the series, Dorps)

Chairs, Asian Bazaar (from the series, Dorps)

The second room features selections from Dorps, Platteland, Outland, and Shadow Chamber. Arranged chronologically from the years these works were produced, here you will witness Ballen’s gradual shift from the documentary to the surreal. To supplement the exhibit, a short 9-minute video by Saskia Vredeveld features Ballen’s chosen subjects in full motion, adding insight to the places and the people who have so deeply affected Ballen’s direction.

from the series, Platteland

from the series, Platteland

from the series, Outland

from the series, Outland

from the series, Shadow Chamber

from the series, Shadow Chamber

Boarding House will run through to the end of May at the OCAD Professional Gallery. Throughout the remaining two or so odd months, a series of talks and tours will be held in conjunction with the exhibit. On Thursday evenings, there will be a 20-30 minute discussion of the exhibition. This is, of course, free and open to the public, and will begin promptly at 6:30 pm inside the gallery. Phaidon books will also be releasing Roger Ballen’s latest monograph, Boarding House, which will feature all of the acclaimed photographs taken in this series. Roger Ballen himself will be present at the OCAD auditorium at 6:30 pm on the 8th of April to deliver a lecture, as well as sign copies of Boarding House. You can bet your bottom dollar I will be present, both Shadow Chamber and Boarding House on hand.

Also among those slated to deliver a talk on the exhibit over the coming months are Blake Fitzpatrick, director of Photographic Studies at Ryerson University, and Sophie Hackett, assistant curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Charles Reeves, curator of the OCAD Professional Gallery, already delivered his talk on the 5th of March – the evening of the exhibition opening.

installation view with Outland, OCAD Pro Gallery

installation view with Outland, OCAD Pro Gallery

installation view with Vredeveld video, OCAD Pro Gallery

installation view with Vredeveld video, OCAD Pro Gallery

For more information on Boarding House, visit www.ocad.ca/progallery, or drop by the gallery to see these prints yourself; they are far more engaging in person.

All source photographs, unless otherwise specified, were taken from Roger Ballen’s official site: www.rogerballen.com. flattened to fit paper assumes no financial gain from these photographic sources, and has restricted these photographs for illustrative and exemplary purposes only.

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