Asylum of the Birds
September 26th to 01st November
The work of Roger Ballen is a web of images nestled in the depths. His photographs are complex visual and mental concretions. Clustered within a cloistral universe that is perfectly square, they rise to the surface like crystals, glimmering with infinite reflections of grey. They travel through the full spectrum, between the dullness of slate and the shine of silica, from the translucent white of calcite to the impenetrable black of onyx.
His world is a buried gallery, both psychological and geological, housing an accumulation of graffiti, cables, shadows, stains, rubble, bones, masks, dolls, animals, human faces, and bodies fragmented and jumbled in the magma. His rooms are inner landscapes, incongruous yet skilfully constructed, illogical as dreams and pure like gems. It is as if the silver gelatin process turned the artist’s practice into a branch of geology that delves into his psyche like a mine, searching for meaning by taking core samples of its successive layers, deeper and deeper, turning up unexpected materials, sediments and fossils. Reaching down into the twilight of consciousness where memories amass and dreams are born – the murky place that lies at the centre of the earth, of life, of the human being.
Roger Ballen’s camera works like a drill: his pictures dig into time. They move in a spiral, from the surface of the moment into the nether regions of the most distant past. From his earliest photos, which depicted the actual presence of a place or face, to his most recent works, which form the dreamlike image of an ancestral era, before time even began to pass. In an inverse chronology that unwinds from a now towards a then so remote that it is lost in the dusk of memory. His pictures dig into space. They advance in concentric circles, their gaze burrowing from the level of the immediate surroundings into the submerged inner workings of the individual. From the rural villages of his earliest career to the cerebral chambers of his most recent works, tracing a reverse topography, from outside in, from world to self.
They are photographs that come to light like the findings of a probe. They carry with them traces of a lost time and a secret space, cast in black and white, which is not the absence of colour, but rather the colour of thought. White like paper and black like ink. White like a dove, or a mouse, or their carcasses stripped clean by the passage of years. Black like coal, or the traces of drawings left on a cave wall. Grey, like the result of their mingling. Like stones, like dust, like shadows, like the brain. These are the colours that the mind projects on reality, certainly not the ones the eye sees in it. The colours of fantasies, memories, nightmares, dreams, conjectures. Notes, sketches, drawings: all the processes that in a word are called art.
Asylum of the Birds is the title under which Roger Ballen has chosen to collect his recent work. Words with different meanings lodged beneath their surface. On the one hand, a house on the outskirts of Johannesburg, which, mingling truth and fiction, harbours a motley assortment of inhabitants and a remarkable number of birds, flying free. On the other hand, a symbolic place at the meeting point of earth and sky, life and death, freedom and constraint, hell and heaven. Asylum, both refuge and prison, nest and cage. Birds, white dove or black raven, a Biblical apparition that is the harbinger of the future or the delirious dream of an end without end, as in the verses by Poe. In the ambiguity of symbols and metaphors, this group of photographs delineates a universe reminiscent of the one in Goya’s Caprichos. It is a sueño de la razón, a sleep or a dream – in Spanish the word is ambivalent – of reason that “produce monstruos”, generates monsters, in the original sense of the word: extraordinary beings, prodigious events. A plunge into the winding tunnels of the subconscious all the way to the underworld, until the souls of the dead appear to say, “Ya es hora” – the time has come.
The mind, dark as a well at the bottom of which everything comes to an end. The mind shining like a spark from which light springs. Asylum of the Birds is a world where madness and wisdom blend together.
The images travel the thin line along which fact encounters fiction, perception becomes a mirage, and illusion in revelation. It is a book of changes, of material and symbolic metamorphoses. The place where identity wavers between self and its representation, its shadows and its reflections. The subject becomes something separate from itself, both different and paradoxically identical. As in the photographs titled Demented, Headless and Liberation, where the human heads are plucked from their bodies and the faces disappear, masked or replaced by those of mannequins. Or Mirrored, Omen and Consolation, where they are reduced to flat clichés and old newspaper cuttings. Images of images.
And it is not the head alone, as the seat of thought, which symbolizes the ongoing process of transformation that is a path to knowledge. The body, too, the vessel of the senses and emotions, incarnates its manifestations. And so, Transformation, Inflated and Deflated, Mourning, Seduction, Serpent Lady and Offering show silhouettes, effigies, carcasses, drawings, dolls and statues like steps in a journey through realms of flesh which imperceptibly blur into each other, from sexuality to disease, from bloom to withering, from pleasure to pain. It is a gallery of magic mirrors, which reveal to the photographer – and with him, the viewer – the images of self that the trappings of reality conceal.
Ballen is one of the most important photographers of his generation. He was born in New York in 1950 but for over 30 years he has lived and worked in South Africa. His work as a geologist took him out into the countryside and led him to take up his camera and explore the hidden world of small South African towns. At first he explored the empty streets in the glare of the midday sun but, once he had made the step of knocking on people’s doors, he discovered a world inside these houses which was to have a profound effect on his work. These interiors with their distinctive collections of objects and the occupants within these closed worlds took his unique vision on a path from social critique to the creation of metaphors for the inner mind. After 1994 he no longer looked to the countryside for his subject matter finding it closer to home in Johannesburg.Over the past thirty years his distinctive style of photography has evolved using a simple square format in stark and beautiful black and white. In the earlier works in the exhibition his connection to the tradition of documentary photography is clear but through the 1990s he developed a style he describes as ‘documentary fiction’. After 2000 the people he first discovered and documented living on the margins of South African society increasingly became a cast of actors working with Ballen in the series’ Outland and Shadow Chamber collaborating to create disturbing psychodramas.
The line between fantasy and reality in his more recent series’ Boarding House and Asylum of the Birds (published in the Spring of 2014 by Thames and Hudson) has become increasingly blurred and in these series he has employed drawings, painting, collage and sculptural techniques to create elaborate sets. People are now often absent altogether; replaced by photographs of people used as props, by doll or dummy parts or where they do appear it’s as disembodied hands, feet and mouths poking disturbingly through walls and pieces of rag. The often improvised scenarios are completed by the unpredictable behaviour of the animals which appear snapped in an instant of observation. Ballen has invented a new hybrid aesthetic in these works but one still rooted firmly in photography.