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We’re under no obligation to believe what an artist says about her or his work. Out of courtesy or curiosity, we might want to listen or read. But the work is the work, regardless of the yarn spun around it by its maker. At the same time, an artist is under no obligation to make the work we, the audience, want. Out of courtesy or curiosity, s/he might want to listen or read. But her or his impulse must remain that, the impulse, and the work has to arise from there, regardless of whether we (or the artist actually) want that or not.

In my view, the role of art is to make us face the human condition, regardless of how much or little we get to enjoy what we encounter. If we look at the history of art, it’s filled with work that for a large variety of reasons fills us with revulsion. The revulsion is often in part based on the fact that we’re made to connect with what we encounter even though we don’t want to, at least not on a conscious level. This is why art can play such a crucial role: It can teach us something about who we are, something about what we believe in, even when what we’re then facing abhors us on an intellectual level.

In other words, the world of art is one in which absolute truths or certainties often cannot be had. Good art has the power to pull us into the abyss — or at least bring us close enough, making us feel very uncomfortable. Our go-to procedure when faced with something unsettling tends to be to put everything on the artist: isn’t this all her or his fault? Isn’t s/he a bad person? This is an obvious approach, but it feels too convenient to me. However much we like to pretend that we’re only talking about the artists, our condemnation of what we encounter in art is also tied to ourselves, to what we believe, what we hold true, what we have in us.

Anyone who has ever watched Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will might know what I am talking about. Unless you’re an actual neo-Nazi (of whose continued presence these past few years have reminded us in painful ways), an educated viewer in all likelihood will be repulsed by the celebration of an evil tyranny that ended up killing millions of people. At the same time, the film is done just as well as the latest Star Wars movie. It’s an engrossing spectacle that manages to successfully speak to our reptilian brain. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I’m aware of the presence of the reptilian parts of my brain. They’re just as much a part of me as all the other, somewhat more appealing parts. To deny that they’re there would be foolish.

Plenty of art will speak to that reptilian brain. We don’t have to like it. In some sense, we don’t even have to accept that or have that part of the brain guide us towards our own personal truths. We don’t have to become Nazis just because Riefenstahl’s movie works so well. In fact, seeing that movie might trigger introspection: why am I responding to this, even though I know it is so evil? We need this introspection because it can make us face what we believe in, to either confirm it or have it undergo some changes. Whatever our larger sets of beliefs and our ideology are, if we want to live in a democratic society we have to be able to regularly question them. If we don’t do that, how are we then going to approach the larger body politic?

What makes art so great is that at the end of the day, it’s just art. As much as I love engaging with art, I know that I don’t need it for my basic survival. I need food, I need shelter. And pieces of art are merely artifacts mostly hoarded in museums of galleries, artifacts that, as John Dewey argued in Art as Experience, often had a very different role or presence in the past. Of course, this doesn’t apply to photographs, because at their core photographs have almost no utilitarian value. Nobody needs to hang a piece of paper in their home just because it has some pattern on it and curiously sells for a lot of money.

But that’s what makes photography so great, because while photographs (much like all art) are so useless in that very basic utilitarian sense that has come to dominate our thinking in this neoliberal age, they still have the power to affect us more than, say, our smart phone. That we’ll just trade that in for the next model as soon as we can. While the smart phone will also appeal to our reptilian brain, a photograph (even one made on the very phone) will do it in a way that is more likely to remind us of something at stake.

In other words, this fairly useless entity called art has a lot of power. Or maybe it would be better to say that it offers a lot of promise — if, and only if, we take it up on what it has to offer. Its lack of basic utility and its possible artificial market-based price aside, its actual value can be immense. But to be very clear, this value is the result of our own engagement with it.

I believe this somewhat long introduction contains some things that need to be kept in mind while approaching Roger Ballen‘s Ballenesque, in essence a richly illustrated photographic autobiography. The book is billed as a retrospective, and it is that. But unlike in the case of other retrospective books where curators and critics do the writing, here the artist’s own words feature heavily. I don’t see this as a shortcoming. In fact my assumption is that it will be widely enjoyed. But of course, we’re under no obligation to believe everything Ballen says about his work.

This is not to say that the artist would spread falsehoods about his life or work. We neither have a way of knowing, nor do we have reasons to assume so. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a rather heavy amount of what in the world of politics is called spin. Ballen is not afraid to attempt to steer the reader/viewer in very particular directions, which, I admit, I find a bit curious. After all, with the exception of the earliest work, the work speaks quite forcefully for itself. It simply does not need the at times heavy-handed performance around it.

Needless to say, this might be just me. I just don’t see the need for the steering. The biographical information I can appreciate, also the work’s larger circumstances. But there are statements like the following: “A photograph is perceived as authentic if the viewer believes that the photographer has captured a moment that can never be repeated. If the subconscious mind does not believe in the veracity of the image, it will have little impact on the viewer.” (printed very prominently on page 140 opposite the image Eugene on the Phone, 2000). Ignoring the fact that this statement is very much debatable – it is based on a rather old-fashioned approach to photographic thinking, it also attempts to define the criteria with which the pictures can or should be approached. To be very clear, that’s not the artist’s job! Leave that to the audience or the critics! In fact, it’s not even really how art works. Art lives from exactly the freedom to be approached in a variety of ways, possibly using avenues that an artist either did not foresee or, as seems to be the case here, would rather not use.

To be fair, most major artists are headstrong personalities convinced of their skills. Each of them has developed a way to talk about their work while bypassing its possible weaknesses, problems, challenges. To point this out here is not to single Ballen out. Instead, it is to simply do what ought to be done for every major artist, but certainly for one who would label his work with an adjective derived from his own name: Ballenesque.

This particular issue aside, the irony is that Ballen’s photographs for the most parts resist their maker’s efforts to steer the conversation. The overall arc presented in the book is one in which the taking of photographs is increasingly being replaced by the making of photographs (this, of course, would explain the insistence on photographic veracity). I suspect seeing the photographer’s earliest work in the first chapter will come as a surprise to many viewers who think they have a good idea what a Roger Ballen photograph might look like. These early pictures are competent, yet not remarkable – they’re mostly straight (at times street) photographs that speak of the artist’s influences.

It is in the second chapter that things get a lot more interesting. Here, Ballen moves to his now signature square format and to the neglected countryside of South Africa. An initial excursion (Dorps, 1986) is followed by the body of work that includes two of his most well known and also contested pictures, Platteland from 1994. Dorps feels a little tentative in light of what was to come. At the same time, it contains some of the ideas the artist would come to pursue extensively over the next decades. For example, a set of jerry-rigged electrical wires against the wall of a room photographed in 1984 clearly foreshadows what by 2001 would become the frightening mess of Twirling Wires.

And, of course, there are the people. Quite a bit has been said and written about both Sergeant F. de Bruin, Department of Prisons Employee, Orange Free State (1992) and Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal (1993). These and all the other people depicted in Platteland clearly had no idea what the camera would do. Before jumping to any conclusions, we might as well admit that that situation is probably true for the vast majority of pictures made by professional photographers. While these two photographs are instantly recognizable, they also are not at all sui generis.

Whether one would want to invoke the work of Diane Arbus, probably the obvious reference, or, let’s say, Susan Lipper‘s Grapevine, let alone examples such as Bruce Gilden‘s Faces (described by Sean O’Hagan as “relentlessly cruel” in The Guardian), the art of photography contains a huge section of pictures that fly in the face of what many people would consider the bounds of basic human decency. And they might as well. This is not to argue that photography should be cruel or dehumanizing. It should not be. But how can it not be in a world that is cruel and dehumanizing? The week I started working on this essay, I saw a video of a man saying good-bye to his family because he was being deported from the US, a man who had arrived as a child and who had lived here many years. That act of deportation – that was an act of utter cruelty. There are countless other such acts or circumstances in our very midst. We probably don’t even have to look very far.

Of course, it is one thing to consider the world’s cruelty and quite another to show it in a photograph. The world of art has a long and valuable history of doing just that, however repulsive being confronted with it might be for a viewer. To insist that art not be cruel in a world filled with cruelty would defang, if not outright destroy it. The task at hand is not necessarily to expose what we are looking at, it instead is to remind us of our own culpability. Consequently, I am torn between conflicting impulses when looking at the picture of Dresie and Casie used in Platteland. I’d like to think that a large number of people are equally torn.

The two portraits of the policeman and the twins aren’t necessarily the Platteland pictures that touch me the most. As I already noted, they follow a tradition laid down by Diane Arbus (think that family-outing picture, for example). If we were to demand that these pictures be removed we would be moving along the lines of the recent petition against a Balthus painting. There is a good discussion to be had here, and I believe this discussion needs to be continued. That said, the German in me is very concerned about possible consequences or outcomes that for the right reasons would place us as a society in the very wrong company (“degenerate art,” anyone?).

As I set out to do, I have so far ignored Ballen’s own writing about these photographs. The fact that there has been condemnation of these pictures is acknowledged in his text. “At the time they were published, however,” writes Ballen, “I was unprepared for the attacks on my integrity.” This, for sure, is understandable. What deeper reasons for the condemnation there might be – the photographer doesn’t go there: “But the more I was criticized, the more confident I felt about my work.” (p.79) This reaction feels like a circling of the wagons to me. For sure, it’s a missed opportunity – both for the artist himself and for his audience. I don’t want to speculate too much about possible motifs. Based on the overall tenor of the writing in the book, my guess is that much like many of his peers Ballen is too myopic about his intentions and the ideas that revolve around his pictures. It’s thus up to us, as viewers, readers, critics, to look more deeply.

The inclusion of contact sheets for both photographs ultimately is interesting. But anyone looking for the aha moment – think Arbus’ Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade – might end up being disappointed. Still, I will admit that I was hoping for more insight, more of a deeper discussion of the validity of these pictures, in particular given such a discussion also would not be sui generis. There already exist plenty of problematic photographs, and there is much to gain from talking about what to do with them, about how to approach them, about that strange and potentially awful spot where no simple solution can be found.

Take, for example, W. Eugene Smith‘s famous pieta photographs, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, which is part of his book Minamata. In an article published in 2000, Jim Hughes writes “I received the sad news that the Tomoko photograph has been withdrawn from circulation.” Following the family’s wishes, “Aileen Smith agreed to ‘return’ the photograph to Yoshio and Ryoko Uemura, and ceded them ‘the right of decision concerning [its] use.’” (this is, btw, why I’m not linking to the photograph) “This photograph is among the most profound ever made,” writes Hughes (I certainly agree), “beyond a particular horror and tragedy, the image has come to represent compassion and humanity. Whether the universal takes precedence over the particular is, of course, a question that may never be answered satisfactorily for everyone.” (my emphasis) We might never come to an answer that might satisfy all of us, yet as Hughes makes very clear, we all benefit from a discussion that includes all aspects of the photograph at hand.

Not just because of these two photographs Platteland makes for uncomfortable viewing. That is the work’s strength, whether we like it or not. It gets at us. With Outland (2001), Ballen then started to pull back from what we could call Platteland‘s documentary approach, towards an increasing focus on visually performative elements. Whether or not these elements are actually performed or not is besides the point. If we were to apply Ballen’s earlier insistence on the “veracity of the image” we’d actually be doing these pictures a disservice. Who cares if these pictures were taken or made, whether they were found in the strictest sense or whether they were pre-arranged or partly arranged? The only thing that matters is whether or not these photographs work, and that they do. Head Below Wires (1999), for example, is a killer image (there are those wires again!), and I couldn’t care less about how it was made.

Outland for me is a successful variation of a theme hinted at in Platteland, with the photographer’s interior taking precedence over the exteriority of whatever was in front of the camera. Somewhere here, he reached his fullest artistic potential, which carries over to Shadow Chamber (2005). There, however, it gets defused, if not defanged, by too self-conscious an application of what it might mean to make something in front of a camera. Twirling Wires (2001), is another marvelous picture. Here, the jerry-rigged wires from earlier photographs have turned into a threatening swirling mess that clearly overwhelm its subject, a frightened figure at the bottom of the frame.

But it’s almost as if Ballen can’t help himself, relentlessly pushing animals and wires and drawings on the walls into his frame. More of the same can be good, but often it’s not. The cumulative effect of the repetition is one of dilution. Where the performative aspects combined with the documentation in Outland had me on edge, Shadow Chamber is beginning to feel very self-conscious, a trend that continues in later bodies of work, whether they’re Boarding House (2009) or Asylum of the Birds (2014), not to mention the latest ones such as the flawed The Theatre of Apparitions (2016).

I have no way of knowing how I would have reacted to the the later bodies of work had I been unaware of the earlier, career-defining photographs. I want to think that I would have been a bit more intrigued, even though at the end of the day, their heavy-handedness might have bothered me. Not that it matters. The inclusion of all of these bodies of work in this one book makes comparisons inevitable, and I will not be the only viewer arriving at her or his preferences.

Whatever conclusion you might arrive at vis-à-vis Roger Ballen, you will have to admit that his work occupies a fairly unique position. You will recognize a Roger Ballen photograph the moment you’re confronted with one. In all likelihood, it might provoke a strong reaction in you. It’s possible you could say the same about a lot of other photographers, but I don’t think many of them manage to pack their work with as much complexity as this one does. And with everything now being presented in this one book, neatly and tightly packaged by the artist himself, I think all we have to do as viewers is to crack the shell, go past the artist’s words where necessary and needed, and then engage with the work to see what it can tell us.

It’s good to remember that art is made by human beings who often are different than us and who might present us with challenges. There are plenty of challenges in Roger Ballen’s work. Some run along the lines of the ethics of photography. But it would do the artist and us, as an audience, a disservice to remain in that spot. There simply is too wide a variety of photography here for it to get reduced to what one or two pictures might do or not do. As an audience for art we might want to remember that truly good art will exist in a state where conflicting motivations, ideas, and emotions are present.

A lavishly illustrated book with a huge number of photographs, Ballenesque has much to offer. As is always the case with art, it’s up to its intended audience to make the most of it.

Ballenesque; photographs and writing by Roger Ballen; 336 pages; Thames & Hudson; 2017