Roger Ballen, Asylum of the Birds @James Fuentes

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white photographs, framed in black with grey mats, and hung against grey walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival inkjet prints, made between 1996 and 2013. Physical sizes are either roughly 24×24 (in editions of 7+2AP, 8+2AP, or 12+2AP) or 35×35 (in editions of 5+2AP, 6+2AP, or 20+2AP). A monograph of this body of work was published in 2014 by Thames & Hudson (here). A short film documenting the making of the project can be found here. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: If we step back and take in the sweep of Roger Ballen’s long photographic career, a distinct step-by-step progression becomes surprisingly apparent. Starting with the relatively straightforward documentary approach of his early years, each successive project has been a distinct move toward increased expressiveness and symbolism – the sparsely formal village interiors of Dorps transitioned to the quietly unsettling portraits of marginalized white South Africans of Platteland, and ultimately led to Ballen’s first hauntingly staged scenes in Outland.

Since that time, Ballen has jumped head first into an increasingly complicated psychological abyss, his Shadow Chamber and Boarding House projects moving beyond the dark moods and controlled tensions of those first pared down portraits, embracing increasingly performative constructions and installations full of scrawled backdrops, live animals, and metaphorical uncertainty. While his pictures have undeniably become more densely theatrical over the years, they also seem to be reaching for a deeper and more primal set of instinctual reactions, the horrors of the untamed and unruly human spirit coming closer to the surface with each new body of work.

In Ballen’s most recent series Asylum of the Birds, the animals are starting to wield the upper hand over their human roommates, moving from pets and intruders to more equal sharers of space. While in earlier images, tiny puppies and harmless mice were stand-ins for uncorrupted innocence, often tenderly cradled and cared for by Ballen’s subjects, the birds in these pictures have more ominous authority and menace – they seem to be running the asylum, not the other way around.

The captor/captive relationship plays out in several photographs. A man struggles with a bird cage that covers his head. Another screams with seemingly genuine fear, his head popping out of a hole in the floor, a pigeon roosting overhead in a position of dominance. A grasping off-screen hand pushes against rough netting, keeping the human away from a collection of birds resting on a porcelain sink. And angry big-winged predator birds squawk and peck at a sleeping boy, attacking him as he cowers under burlap sacking. Even when white doves are trapped in the hands of residents, the power inversion seems only temporary, wildness sure to quickly reemerge.

Other works take on a quasi-religious set of symbols and motifs, as if lofty spiritual impulses have been filtered down into nearly incoherent but still powerful religious urges. Crucified bodies (both real and hand drawn) spread outstretched arms, drawn upward by wire. Doves are held like offerings, flanked by floor to ceiling graffiti totems in chalk and charcoal. Figures huddle around a dead bird, like onlookers at the ascension. And a young boy bows in supplication to a single fuzzy chick, lost in his own form of prayer.

A short film (available on the artist’s website) shows Ballen at work on the project, and this is where his stagings wander into more uneasy territory in my mind. While it is clear and undeniable that Ballen has built trust and in some cases loving friendship with his shanty-town actors, it is also clear that they are not entirely aware of what’s going on – Ballen repeatedly tells them he is going to “make pictures” which elicits little response or recognition, and when he does begin work, his directorial instructions are detailed and specific, from where to hold the birds to how to draw a monkey face with big teeth in an open area of wall. The squalor of the place and the misty eyed cooperation of the sitters is tough to swallow – it’s hard not to feel like Ballen is exploiting these people at least in some measure, even if they are largely willing participants in his fantastical nightmares. When the machete comes down on the chicken’s neck and the masked men dance around the fire cooking the still feathered carcass, it’s hard to know where the border of reality and fiction really lies, and that left me uncomfortably wondering about where the limits of human respect belong in Ballen’s artistic pursuits.

As Ballen’s frames get more densely filled with feral action and rough iconography, they are certainly taking on a more mystical and dream-like quality. Crowded with shocks and grotesqueries (sometimes of surprising beauty), he’s pushing harder and harder on our defenses, trying to tap into our primal reflexive emotions and jar us into a more energized state of attention. Of late, a Ballen show is an intense and sometimes draining experience, and Asylum of the Birds is no different – it leaves a residue of over stimulated weariness and jangled nerves. In the end, Ballen’s birds aren’t as overtly threatening as Hitchcock’s, but the nuanced horrors to be found here are just as psychologically traumatizing.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $7500 and $20000, based on size and place in the edition. Ballen’s work has been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past few years, where prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $25000.

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Read more about: Roger Ballen, James Fuentes Gallery, Thames & Hudson

One comment

  1. Pete /

    I watched the video referred to and agree it’s disconcerting to see how Ballen handles his subjects. But, for better or worse, a lot of significant photography has only come about through very similar exploitation.

    The gulf between Ballen (and most of us looking on) and the sub-culture he interacts with is vast. I’d concede that the images are immensely more powerful as a result of that social chasm. There is an undeniable authenticity there and arguably his preparedness to discomfit is perhaps a useful counter-balance to the preponderance of a rather antiseptic digital new wave.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Andres Serrano over the last few days. I mention him now as his work has many similar associated issues and the effect is probably much the same. But I’ve started thinking of him as the stand-out photographer of the last generation. There, I’ve said it : )

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