At the end of the short film made to accompany his latest book, Roger Ballen muses on the fact that after he is dead and his body, like all others is nothing but bones, all that will be left of him are his photographs. Ballen is 67 this year and while he’s been prolific over the last few years, he has become increasingly concerned both in his work and through his foundation with issues around his legacy. That’s evidenced most obviously in his recent major donation of funds and his archive to Zeitz MOCCA, which comprise the largest financial donations to the museum by a Foundation to date.
The work in Ballen’s Theatre of Apparitions marks both a logical extension of his fascination with the deep workings of human psyche and a major departure into abstraction. Inspired in typically macabre, Ballenesque fashion by drawings he saw on blacked-out windows in an abandoned women’s prison while filming Memento Mori in 2004, the images which make up this theatre were created by painting on glass and then drawing on or removing the paint to let natural light through – the glass was then re-used and so the photographs of the drawings remain the only record of the moment of their creation.
Made in collaboration with his assistant Marguerite Roussouw over an eight year period the drawings, with their intentional art brut stylings and evocation of cave paintings are arranged into seven acts – persona, burlesque, eros, transmuted, melancholy, fragmentation and ethereal and provide a carnivalesque journey through sex, death, violence, fear and the strange relationship between man and animals.
Photographed using a medium format Mimiya rather than Ballen’s trusted Rolleiflex the rectangular images hark back to some of the drawing and figurative elements that have been an increasing part of Ballen’s work over the last fifteen years but here divorced from interaction with real subjects the drawings exist in their own Becketian parade, mixing the grotesque with an often underappreciated black humour. There are plenty of penises and Babadook like ghouls lurking in the background and the method of their creation makes the images recall not only the rocks of cave paintings but also perhaps cellular life as seen swimming under a microscope. The kinetic moment of the images’ creation in the photographic developer has carried through in the texture of the still photographs, giving them a noticeable sense of animation.
In the film made for the book the images have been animated into a chipper, upbeat series of interactions, overseen by Ballen as a sort of mad professor inspecting the inner workings of his dreams, all to the accompaniment of a topsy-turvy French soundtrack – a 21st century Georges Melies short about the absurdities of existence. The drawings with their primitive shapes and naïve characteristics lend themselves particularly well to the exercise. As Ballen has gotten older and his career has accelerated – humour has become an increasingly important aspect of his work although as with many aspects of his work – the jokes are dark, wry and not always comfortable.
While Ballen’s attention to the composition of the photos is typically exact and while the departure into abstraction has created unique images that will become quickly part of his distinctive oeuvre, it’s difficult to appreciate them in the same way as his previous work. That said, it’s certain that they remain thematically linked to his other work and offer a further example of the artist’s excavation of another layer of his subconscious – as a photographer, Ballen has always been interested in mining ever deeper into the endlessly intriguing corridors of the mind, that most strange and confounding human characteristic.
As Ballen writes in the preface to the book, “It has become apparent to me that all forms of life have a unique spirit. If we become a spirit after our short stint on Earth, then it is not inconceivable that everything that has ever lived will become an apparition. The Universe is a very big place, so there should be room for all.” Time will tell if he’s proved right but until then Ballen continues to do what he wants as he wants to and these works will either be seen as a curious experiment or the beginning of a new phase in his continuing artistic journey – either way it’s doubtful whether they could have been made by anyone else, and they certainly remain in the mind – two of the oft repeated cornerstones of Ballen’s three decade artistic project, which will now have a home long after their creator has been reduced to bones.
*The Theatre of Apparitions is published by Thames & Hudson