Roger Ballen is an American artist, who moved to Johannesburg in the 1980s to work as a geologist. He started his career as a photographer doing documentary photography but has now moved to what he calls, “documentary fiction.” Most of his figures are people who belong to the margins. As an outsider, he is drawn to other outsiders: his oeuvre feature the poor white people, some of them mentally deranged. His show at Photo Ink consists of his works from three projects, “Outland”, “Shadow Chamber” and “ Asylum of the Birds”. The exhibition also includes the music video, “I Fink U Freeky”, in which Die Antwoord and Ballen collaborated to create the signature, freakish interiorscape of Ballen’s photographs. His interiorscape  are constructed using sculptures and objects as props.

Although these photos have been taken in real, geographical locations like the dorps where the poor, white South African live on the fringes, the way the images are constructed indicate them to be autobiographical works and an exploration of Ballen’s interiority and his subconscious. From 2000, Ballen stopped travelling for his subjects; he found them in his backyard. The series “Outland” and “Shadow Chamber” was born of the collaboration between him and the marginal white people around Johannesburg to create his surreal imagery but with his most recent series, “Asylum of the Birds”, he decided to reduce the human aspects and portray them as mostly body parts interacting with animals and props. He slowly moved away from human beings as he wanted to get away from standard portraiture. The effect this produces is of staged dreams, where reality and fantasy intermingle. He employs symbols of birds, animals, dolls, masks and drawings. Ballen creates his own world where the animate and the inanimate cohere into a whole.

But what remains uniform throughout his work is the economy of his imagery. He eliminates anything that is superfluous to create a form which has nothing that is peripheral: every element is important and sums up to the total. Ballen stresses on formal symmetry and formal repetition. For example a tiny puppy is placed between the feet of a man in an arrangement that the feet looks like giant, flapping ears of the tiny dog.

It’s as if Ballen is exalting the object and diminishing the living being to create an in-between, abject space. His images trap the abject, which is defined by Julia Kristeva as an anomalous state between subject and object that springs from an “exorbitant outside or inside” and cannot be assimilated to the realm of the possible or tolerable. So, it’s not surprising that Ballen has often cited Samuel Beckett as his influence, whose books also figure abject, marginal figures. Apart from Beckett, Ballen is also influenced by Carl Jung. As Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It is from this black and dense site that Ballen’s images are constructed.

Shweta Upadhyay

On view at PHOTOINK, New Delhi
From October 29, 2015 – January 14, 2016
All photographs courtesy Roger Ballen and PHOTOINK

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Puppy between feet, 1999 from the series, Outland

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Eugene on the phone, 2000 from the series, Outland

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Brian with pig, 1998 from the series, Outland
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Man bending over, 1998 from the series, Outland
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Lunchtime, 2001 from the series, Shadow Chamber

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Puppies in fishtanks, 2000 from the series, Shadow Chamber

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Dove Catcher, 2009 from the series, Asylum of the Birds

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Five Hands, 2006 from the series, Asylum of the Birds

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Take off, 2012 from the series, Asylum of the Birds

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Onlookers, 2010 from the series, Asylum of the Birds