Wizard of Odd

Roger Ballen’s Theater of the Absurd

In the '80s, after Roger Ballen moved to South Africa, his black-and-white photographs of the remote countryside and the people who lived there could pass for straightforward documents. His early work there had the stark simplicity of Walker Evans and the brutal directness of Lewis Baltz, but gradually that hard surface cracked, and an unsettling touch of madness seeped through. Here were white South Africans, isolated, inbred, and poor, who looked like the most benighted and blissfully oblivious citizens of Appalachia. When a book of these photos, Platteland: Images From Rural South Africa, came out in South Africa and England in 1994 (it was published here two years later), Ballen got death threats and a sudden rush of notoriety that left him stunned. The righteous outrage of the Afrikaner minority was compounded by the fact that the photographer, though married to a South African, was an outsider—a New York-born, Larchmont-raised geologist who lived in Johannesburg and took pictures on his trips into the field. What right did he have to expose the country's erstwhile ruling race to ridicule and shame?

"I knew Southern Africa better than most people," Ballen says. "I'd been there for some time and I'd traveled about 200,000 miles over a decade or so, so I knew it like the back of my hand." But the controversy over Platteland stung him, and pushed him more decisively in a direction his most radical photos had already taken: away from deadpan social documentation and toward a kind of private, improvisatory theater of the absurd. In his introduction to Platteland, Ballen suggested that his pictures might "reveal an essential aspect of the tragedy that pervades this troubled land." Now he hoped to move beyond that land—"to strip anything of South Africa out of my pictures"—and investigate a more universal realm, a place where tragedy and comedy were so intimately intertwined it was hard to tell them apart. The startling result is Outland, a time bomb of a book published by Phaidon early last year and just now detonating in a show at Larry Gagosian's uptown space (980 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street, through February 16). Since Ballen's only previous New York show was at Chelsea's under-the-radar Tarranto Gallery in 1996, his sudden appearance in the stable of one of the world's most powerful art dealers is cause enough for talk. (So is his slot as a finalist for this year's lucrative Citigroup Prize alongside big guns like Thomas Ruff and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.) Elton John, who already owns a good number of Ballen works and bought others from the show, was at the opening, along with half the photo editors in town, and even if some of the comments were cutting—"manipulative," "creepy," "exploitive"—the buzz was fierce.

And no wonder. Ballen's photographs are unforgettably odd. Nearly all of them are made indoors, with his subjects' bedrooms and living rooms serving as the stage for dramas devised on the moment. Because the walls are usually bare and the furniture sparse, the spaces suggest stripped-down institutional cells, and the people in them appear to be acting out—their every expression, every gesture, thrown into high relief by Ballen's harsh flash. In one picture, a painfully skinny man in nothing but gym shorts stretches out on a bed with a thermometer in his mouth; standing by, his arms raised like wings, is a plump young boy in the same shorts, laughing so hard his eyes are nothing but slits. An ineffective-looking security guard stands on another bed, truncheon in hand, next to his shapeless girlfriend, who sits staring into the camera through glasses that magnify her eyes cartoonishly. On yet another bed—this one little more than a pitted slab of foam—a man in shorts stands holding a globe, an unlikely Atlas with a big, sleeping dog at his feet. Animals feature in many of Ballen's photos, including a tiny puppy peeking between grotesquely grimy feet, a watchful cat perched on a sleeping girl, a pig cradled like a lover in a fat man's arms, and family of white rats scampering across a kitchen table. But his human subjects, sometimes naked, often nearly so, are Ballen's least inhibited and most disturbing menagerie.

"I want to be where Beckett is": Ballen's Untitled (Dirkie on bed) (2000).
photo: Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York
"I want to be where Beckett is": Ballen's Untitled (Dirkie on bed) (2000).

Ballen thinks of these people—most of whom he met on the street in Johannesburg, where he lives, and Pretoria—as his repertory company: "I consider myself like Ingmar Bergman in some ways, working with the same crew and the same actors year after year." Though that statement might sound a bit pompous, in person Ballen's self-regard is almost endearing, tempered as it is by his obvious discomfort—he seems as unhappy in his body as his subjects—and head-over-heels engagement with photography. And there's something appealing about an artist who's spent virtually all his creative life far from the art world's front lines. "All my goals in photography have been books," he says. "I've never geared my pictures toward the art world, so the work's been driven in isolation, by personal desires and personal needs. I always felt the camera was a personal rather than a collective tool. The camera was a tool of my self."

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