After moving from his native New York to South Africa in the late 1970s, Roger Ballen (by his own account) produced exclusively documentary photography, chronicling life in and around Johannesburg. Then, in 1998, he discovered a group of derelict buildings amid an expanse of gold-mine waste dumps on the outskirts of the city. Over a period of four years, Ballen inserted his camera into the shantytown community living beside one of these structures and created a series of photographs (“Shadow Chamber”) that blend fact and fiction, art photography and photojournalism. To shoot his recent series of gelatin silver prints, titled “Boarding House”(2004-08), Ballen stepped into an adjacent space—another derelict warehouse situated among the mine dumps—to build upon the formal and psychological premises of his previous work.
In the print also called Boarding House (31½ inches square), a vertically hung carpet serves as the backdrop for a domestic scene bound to raise the antennae of social services. Beside the lower left corner of the grimy remnant, a prone male toddler sleeps (one assumes, optimistically) on an equally filthy floor. At the lower right, a young dog—perhaps the boy’s awakened alter ego—lies next to a baby doll. Primitive line drawings resembling ceremonial markings cover the walls and furniture, and each rough oval or rectangular shape is rendered anthropomorphic by the inclusion of circles signaling eyes and mouths. The drawings are especially prominent on the hanging carpet, which despite its worn surface offers a toothy weave that further agitates the already discomforting imagery.
Like Boarding House, Ballen’s other scenes of life within the warehouse oscillate between surreal hallucinations and records of grinding poverty. To whatever extent the ritualistic masks and dolls (there are many) or hieroglyphlike graffiti are staged by the artist—a question Ballen constantly evades in interviews—the viewer accepts their presence as the squatter’s adornment of an otherwise dispossessed environment. In its qualities of cruelty and pathos (and Pathos is the title of a print in “Boarding House”), the series investigates an avant-garde realm associated with Antonin Artaud and art brut, which proposes that irrationality and delirium unleash repressed tendencies, providing catharsis. Moreover, as with Artaud, Ballen would likely dismiss the idea that his menacing situations and ragged tableaux traffic in fiction. For the 60-year-old photographer, reality is not an unmediated transmission through the lens, but something buried deep among our fears and base inclinations.
Photo: Roger Ballen: Boarding House, 2008, gelatin silver print, 311⁄2 inches square; at Gagosian.