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Monday, 16 April 2012

Roger Ballen in Manchester

Over the holidays, I enjoyed the Roger Ballen exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery . The exhibition  is laid out as a chronology of Ballen's work - from Dorps, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House and ending up at his new Asylum work. In essence, the work is a timeline of the decline of a community and a culture - of sorts.

Each stage of his work is given an equal showing; so we see Casie and Dresie move into the highpoint of his Outland theatre and then the slow decline into Boarding House and Asylum. Not everything is equal in the show in other words, and why should it be? Ballen is showing the chaos and disintegration of a narrow community chosen by Ballen that was debased by definition, that was upheld by its own propaganda and also destroyed by it. The final tail-off of Asylum might be seen as the disintegration and fading into oblivion of the old Afrikaans identity and culture (as put forward by Ballen) - and also the limits of what Ballen was able to do with his version of this before he got bored. Or it might not - I really don't know enough about it to say, and Ballen's own ambiguity on the subject doesn't seem to help. But I don't think he wants to help, he presents us his pictures of old Afrikaaners falling into a Ballenesque decripitude and doesn't tell us what to think.

Sometime the work is human, sometimes it's fun, there's more than a hint of a warning on the dangers of inbreeding, there are all kinds of things going on - with a veritable glut of monsters, masks, wires and scratchings all taking a central position.  Ballen says his work is a reflection of ourselves, of how we are if we look in the mirror, if we get under our skin and discard the thin veneer of the civilisation that surrounds us, a world where shoes and phones and skincare products really do determine who you are and how you are regarded.

Perhaps his work is a pointer to our own hypocrisy; a world where we worship at the altar of high-end electrical products, while we half-ignore (while recognising the injustice of it all and that something should be done, but hey...) the people who slave to make them, where we shop at supermarkets and Amazon, but praise the local grocer and the bijou bookshop just as we destroy it. Maybe with that whole mask thing, all he is doing is saying how full of shit we all are, himself no doubt included.

One of the most interesting things about the show is the video showing some of the people Ballen photographed  being interviewed; it's not happy families here, but rather all about children being chained up, sons jumping on their mothers and bursting their lungs, all done against a diet of porn and watching your parents have sex. This makes his pictures so much more real than the half-fictions that Ballen creates. And it's a reality that is also more fictional. I wish there were more of this, I wish that his fictions were more rooted in the real world. Somebody looking halfbred checking out a toy dinosaur is fun, but the reality (I know, I know) would be so much better. I'm guessing that the stories that could be told are so much better (and also less believable) than the ones Ballen makes up. But perhaps with those stories, the pictures really would come at somebody else's expense. So here I'm also guessing that Ballen is holding back and showing a good degree of kindness with what he chooses to make up and  show, as well as obligatory cruelty and a touch of a messiah complex.

But I think we have come full circle on all that selective fictionalisation of the subjects. Sure, we can say it's all a fiction, but now that so many of us inhabit a world where the fictional has become real, why not just flip everything round and say that the fictional is real as well. The simulacral works both ways. And that goes for Ballen himself as well. He has his real side and his fictional side as well and they're both part of the same whole (Sean O'Hagan has a few reactions to this here)..

But the good thing is Ballen always moves on, building and shifting from what came before, creating a catalogue of a community and its infinite failings. Ballen's catalogue loses its edge as it passes the Outland stage, but that is a good thing. He does something and he moves on. The new work might be in  the same kind of area but he moves on. And just as he starts to become stale, so he is revitalised by the  energy of Die Antwoord, fellow purveyors of a distorted and synthesised culture. (and I would have liked to have seen the fun video he did for them but I must have missed it. Either that or it's not there),

And that's what I liked about the show  - that he encompassed this life and death of a community, but also its rebirth, albeit in a fictionalised and distorted form. 

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