I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Did Casie and Dresie Dance?
One of the interesting things about seeing Roger Ballen's video of I fink u freeky by Die Antwoord is how it changes the way one sees his previous work.
Ballen started in documentary and moved into apparently darker psychological corners as he progressed, adding layers of wire, animals, graffiti, masks and cardboard boxes into ever weirder concoctions. He played up to this with his entertaining talks, a psychodramas which mixed performance with hypothesis and a claim to the subconscious.
I always remember seeing the Chapman Brothers on TV talking about their Hell dioramas and saying how they were dives into the subconscious and what could be more subconscious than Nazis and kids with penis-faces. Well, the ultimate conclusion I came to was what could be more conscious than that.
Sam Taylor-Wood once gave a commentary on The Chapman Brothers when they were altering £20 at Frieze (or something like that). The Chapman Brothers claimed the currency defacing undermines something or other and challenges this or that and subverts the rest. "But does it though?" said Taylor-Wood when appraised of this claim.
Indeed. Does it though? The retort to fit virtually every artist statement.
The same can be said of Roger Ballen's work. It's funny seeing the video, because it's a funny video. I've shown it a few disparate groups of people over the last few days and everyone seems to like it - they watch it with a smile on their face and leave humming the words to the song. I watch it with a smile on my face. I laugh and dance and what could be better than that. And roachs in the omelette. Yuk! Disgusting! Fabulous!!
So it seems that Ballen, who used to inhabit a world where the discourse of sobriety and pretension held sway, has entered a new discourse, that of entertainment.
And in a strange way, that alters everything he has ever done. There is always the temptation to use a shorthand critique of his work that can essentially be boiled down to weird with a beard and, having seen the video, it seems that is exactly what it is. Forget about race, costume, torture, exploitation or anything remotely to do with levels of consciousness, first and foremost he made his work to be weird and weird is entertainment. Because that's what he did with the video.
Or maybe not. Maybe we can get into the discourse of South African music and culture. And then we have to redefine our thoughts in that way. Did Die Antwoord rip the music off, are they racist and homophobic, are they really poor Afrikaans, are they Blackface?
Oh my God, we're back into the same territory of wondering exactly what Ballen was doing making his pictures in the first place, of how and where it all fits into a global scheme of things. As for a South African scheme of things, I am just too ignorant of the cultural subtleties and projectings one's national racial stereotypes onto another country just doesn't work wherever you are talking about, wherever you come from.
Personally, I'm happy to see Ballen moving up and away from the dark world of his still wonderful (but are they though?) but increasingly self-consciously made photographs. I'll laugh at the video and do the same I do with pretty much all music I like that has sentiments I might not fully agree with. I'll pretend I didn't hear the words and that even if I did, then it doesn't really matter. And if I do think of it too much, then I'll do as Baloo did in the Jungle Book, when him and Bagheera are about to rescue Mowgli from King Louie and the monkeys. Baloo's mad, but as the music plays, Baloo weakens. "I'll tear him limb from limb, I'll beat him. I'll... I'll... Well, Man what a beat I'm gone man, solid gone."
Some quotes Roger Ballen gave (from an old blog post).
"I have created a Roger Ballen World."
"The meaning comes from the eyes."
"What are we trying to protect when we make our walls white and clean?"
"We are scared of nature. We are scared of animals."
"The relationship between people and animals is adverserial and usually one way. People who think differently are fooling themselves."
"What if I told you after I took this picture, the man took the puppy outside and strangled it? Would you believe me?"
"Modern life has blocked the relationship between man and animal. That's why people go out and buy a dog or a bunch of flowers."
"The horns may be plastic but they still mean something."
"Work done subconsciously is most important - don't walk away from your footprints."
"The eyes only reach you because they have the same emotion you have. Blankness."
"I did everything. You can't take photographs like me."