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Gawk Some More

by Ang Lloyd / 25.09.2012

Dear Mr.Ballen,
When we first discovered your work a few years ago our minds got totally blown and we have never been the same since. I remember clearly that when me and ninja saw your photographs we decided right there and then to put an end to all the music and art we had been working on up till that point. Immediately we began working on a new project called DIE ANTWOORD.

(Extract from an e-mail sent to Roger Ballen from Yo-landi Visser, October 12th, 2010)

You need to be a whole lot of weird to inspire Yo-landi and Ninja. Prior to viewing his latest photographic exhibition, I’d never heard of Roger Ballen. Maybe I’m a philistine, but I’d only known him as ‘the guy who directed “I Fink U Freeky (And I like you a lot)”’. Which is sad, because this ‘guy’ is a truly amazing artist. His work is challenging, disturbing and hugely controversial. Like any great art-maker, he’ll blow your brain. Hard. Then, inexplicably, he’ll leave you with a really, really strange taste in your mouth.

Funeral Rites (2004) © R.Ballen/courtesy Erdmann Gallery

The first thing you notice about Ballen’s work is that it’s all shot in a black and white, square format. This has been his signature style for the last 40-odd years. The next thing you notice is that his photos are not comfortable to look at. Ballen aims to unsettle, and he outdoes himself. The controversy stems from past criticism about his choice of subjects. Ballen has always documented the ‘othered’ and marginalised parts of society: orphans, retarded people, criminals and the poor. Some would argue that his shots are merely a display of ‘freaks’, and that his subjects are ‘posed’, set up only for the viewer to gawk at, and turn away in disgust. Then, compelled by morbid curiosity, to return and gawk some more.

Yo-landi and rats (2012) © R. Ballen/courtesy Erdmann Gallery

After viewing his work, I’d have to say that he doesn’t merely provide a freak-factor. Yes, his work is disturbing, and yes, his subject matter is at times questionable, but his shots go far beyond the realms of the camera: they’re a surreal blend of sculpture, painting, drawing and, of course, photography. His photographs are essentially rich and layered artworks, which are developed onto film.

Although the exhibition primarily focuses on a series of Die Antwoord stills (from the ‘I Fink U Freeky’ music video), I found myself skimming past Yo-landi and Ninja; instead being captivated by the handful of shots from an older collection, entitled Shadow Chamber (2004). The Shadow Chamber is not a happy place. It’s dirty, lonely and cold. The fact that children are subjects make it profoundly dark and twisted. This is apparent in ‘Room of the Ninja Turtles’, where a young boy lies on the ground, shirtless, his face covered with a Ninja Turtle mask. The wall behind him is scrawled with child-like chalk drawings of faces. Not the kind you put on fridges. The kind that messed up, disturbed kids draw. Another picture, entitled ‘Bitten’, shows a hooded, barelegged man stooped over in a chair, with a snake slithering away on the floor. I find it interesting that Ballen often incorporates living creatures into his shots, such as rats, insects, reptiles, and even kittens. Birds also seem to feature a lot. In ‘Bath Scene’, Yo-landi holds a duck. This also seems to be a reference to one of his earlier shots, entitled ‘Contemplation’. You can see the similarities in the pictures provided, although the emotion caught in Contemplation is mysteriously intense and real. At least, it feels that way for me. Although with Ballen, you never can tell. That’s what makes him so remarkable.

Room of the Ninja Turtles (2003) © R.Ballen/courtesy Edelman Gallery

Bitten (2004) © R.Ballen/courtesy Edelman Gallery

Bath Scene (2012) © R.Ballen/courtesy Erdmann Gallery

Ballen’s work has long been an enigmatic. He has often been asked where his shoots take place, and has remained silent. Are these dilapidated and lonely settings real? Are they orphanages? Prisons? Mental institutions? Recreated in a studio somewhere. Do they even exist? Is it from a nightmare, or from our imagination? Or are they the darkened rooms of our collective unconscious? The rooms with the peeling wallpaper and the creepy children’s scribbles. The rooms that we all fear to enter, because they’re just too terrifying.

In comparison to the Shadow Chamber series, I found the ‘I Fink U Freeky’ stills to be familiar, and even rather tame. All I could see were these larger-than-life tattooed characters from the Zef-side, neatly presented in greyscale, at R5250 per unframed print. Not that his other prints come cheap, though (if you’d like one, you’d need to be willing to part with between 4000-6000 USD).

Crazy pricing and Die Antwoord aside, Ballen is beautiful. In an intensely morbid and off-putting way. Whether he’s collaborating with the zef rappers or taking photos of drooling inbred twins, his photography is art. According to the introduction of Boarding House (a book that documents his 2009 series of the same title), he blurs the lines between documentary photography, painting, theatre and sculpture, but – most importantly – he forces us to question everything we see. In so doing, ultimately, he forces us to question ourselves.

Ballen-inspired spray paint at Erdmann/photo Ang Lloyd

Contemplation (2004) © R.Ballen

Newspaper scene (2012) © R. Ballen/courtesy Erdmann Gallery

Chamber of the Enigma (2003) © R.Ballen/courtesy Edelman Gallery

Ninja (2012) © R.Ballen/courtesy Erdmann Gallery

Pielie (2012) © R. Ballen/courtesy Erdmann Gallery

*Opening image: Roar (2002) © R.Ballen/photo Ang Lloyd

Roger Ballen/Die Antwoord is showing at the Erdmann Contemporary Gallery (63 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town) until 27th October.

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