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The Deep Dark World of Roger Ballen

Culprit by Roger Ballen
It’s not unusual to have a heightened awareness of death and creepiness this time of year. Perhaps it’s the decay of summer’s fecundity, the shorter days, the waning light, or the advancing chill. And of course there’s Halloween, just a few days away. Whatever the case, we’re pretty sure there’s no better time to reflect on the work of Roger Ballen.

Ballen wields the macabre like a master. Often described as unsettling, even disturbing, his highly idiosyncratic work goes beyond memento mori. Ballen manipulates darkness, illusion, and discomfort in order to access the entrenched or repressed, to spur psychological analysis. He takes the taboo, the off-kilter, the disquieting, and gives the viewer no choice but to examine their own reaction to it.

Ballen’s black and white images are shot on film and capture his careful arrangements. The artist meticulously composes each scene, combining a myriad of artistic techniques (drawing, painting, installation) to achieve his desired effect before he even takes a photograph. His intricate sets are deeply symbolic, though up for interpretation—they are visceral visual poems.

Though he was born in New York City, Ballen has lived and worked in Johannesburg, South Africa since 1982. His human subjects are typically outsiders—the marginalized, the mentally ill, the poor, the people on the fringes of society. Eight books and over thirty years later, Ballen’s work is internationally recognized and has appeared everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art, to the Tate, to Centre Georges Pompidou. His latest project Theatre of Apparitions is a monograph and film.

Available on November 15th, the book features his new photographic series and is divided into seven “acts”, underscoring the performative element of Ballen’s creative process. In this new work, Ballen has applied spray paints to glass, augmenting the painted surfaces by sketching with sharp objects to allow light through the negative spaces. His source of inspiration for this technique? We can think of no other artist who would cite the same: Ballen points to the the hand-drawn carvings on blacked-out windows in an abandoned women’s prison as having served as the impetus behind this work. The result is at once eerie and impish, otherworldly and violently human.

The short film, also divided into acts, is on view now and was screened at both the London and Edinburgh film festivals. In this Pearly Oyster Production, Emma Calder and Ged Haney have created 2D animations of the photographs in Ballen’s upcoming book. The result is a bizarre dream, accompanied by an absurdist, accordion-laced score by John Webb that is reminiscent of a weird carnival of sorts. Ballen has been interested in further exploring the moving image since he directed a film for the South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord.

While fear and discomfort may be some of the most primal human states, each of us experiences them individually, in our own distinct ways. They’re not usually pleasurable, but they keep us alive. Why are we drawn to Ballen's work? In part for the same reasons we watch scary movies or seek out the dark corners. It’s more than adrenaline—we do it for a deeper understanding of ourselves. “Photography is a way of looking in the mirror,” Ballen has said.