Roger Ballen’s surreal South Africa at Istanbul Modern

Roger Ballen’s surreal South Africa at Istanbul Modern

Joshua Bruce Allen
December 29, 2016

Roger Ballen is undoubtedly one of the most influential photographers of the 21st century, making the Istanbul Modern exhibition “Roger Ballen: Retrospective” mandatory viewing for all art appreciators in the city. Publishing his first book, Boyhood, in 1979, over the following decades Ballen advanced into surreal lands that fuse photography with painting, drawing, and sculpture. The magic element in his work is a painterly focus on form as well as content.

Side view of Hotel Middelburg 

Born in New York, Ballen came to South Africa as a geologist and began taking photos in his spare time. The picture above is from his first South African book, Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa. A square format in clean black-and-white was later to become one of his trademarks. Already Ballen’s flawless and yet soulful style of composition is in evidence, with the details complementing the structure in a way that fascinates the mind.

In fact, “mind” was one of the words that Ballen emphasized repeatedly in his talk before the Istanbul Modern exhibition opening. This point is linked to his elevation of form over content: a thousand photographers can shoot the same subject, but few will have the skill or insight to capture it as a timeless moment. Therefore, it is the photographer’s mind that makes the photo more than the object being photographed.

Portrait of sleeping girl

This attention to form leads Ballen to select the background as carefully as the foreground. Speaking before the exhibition opening, Ballen said that people often ask him how he found a particular person; his reply was that he found a piece of wire hanging on the wall first, and then the person came along. His later work expanded this focus on backgrounds by asking subjects to draw or paint on the walls behind them. In this way, he exaggerates the primal and symbolic power of the humans and objects arranged in the foreground. Items such as wires or furniture also echo the human forms, both personifying the objects and objectifying the people. This uncanny collapse of identity creates an absurd humor.

The photographer’s focus on the underclass or outsiders of South African society did not make him many friends at first, he admits. In series such as Shadow Chamber, Boarding House, and Asylum of the Birds, Ballen dove deep into a surrealistic language that used outsider communities to express the social and individual subconscious. It is no surprise that his work is strongly informed by Freudian psychology and existentialist writers such as Samuel Beckett.

Twirling wire 

In 2012, Ballen’s collaboration with rap group Die Antwoord on the video “I Fink U Freeky” brought his art to an audience of millions. The group had actually been in contact with Ballen for years before this video, basing its aesthetic in part on Ballen’s work in the rural communities around Johannesburg. The photographer has also created non-musical videos around his photo series, including “Roger Ballen’s Theater of the Mind” and “Roger Ballen’s Theater of Apparitions” in 2016. His full range of films can be seen on the photographer’s website. Meanwhile, visitors to the Istanbul Modern exhibition will be treated to a Ballenesque room featuring trademarks of his later work with dolls, animals, and decrepit spaces.

Ballenesque Room

The exhibition “Roger Ballen: Retrospective” continues until June 4, 2017.