Roger Ballen, the South African (by way of New York) geologist whose psychologically demanding black-and-white squares from his series “Shadow Chamber” are the heavyweight champion of Kathy Ryan’s “Chisel” exhibition, took a microphone from the podium and began to walk into the middle of the stage.
He cleared his throat, and then changed his voice into flat patter, a sing-song sinister “I am going to tell you a story now kiddies” kind of voice that seemed completely at odds with this man, standing on stage in a green-striped sweater that looked like it was stolen from Mr. Rogers.
Welcome to Story Time with Roger Ballen. Check your nightmares at the door…
If it’s 11 o’clock in the morning, and there’s an entire day of photo-progamming staring you down (wait, four days!), and Ballen has said his opening thankyous and is striding into the middle of the stage, you might just want to leave — because nothing is going to be as challenging, as bizarre, or as downright revelatory as what Roger Ballen is about to say. In trying to walk with that malfunctioning microphone, and beginning to speak in that voice, Roger Ballen single-handedly ruined the rest of the Festival.
Verging on performance art, Ballen asked the audience – no, willed the audience, into imagining a “building of the mind” that exists as much in real space as it does in the dark corners of one’s cerebellum. In that building (as Ballen explained), cats, rabbits, horses, dogs, and sheep roam free, on all three floors, with children, criminals, murderers and rapists. Got that? The building is three floors, and on each floor is a long hallway lined with doors, and some of the doors are closed, and some are open. Ballen’s trip, essentially, is seeing what’s in each room, or chamber.
If Joseph Cambell said, “myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths”, those of us at Ballen’s lecture were in the deep-end of Ballen’s public dream, a vision as private and singular as any I’ve witnessed. When introduced by Ms. Ryan, photo editor of the New York Times Magazine, Ryan referenced Picasso, Pollock, and Twombly, visual touchstones that might help those more educated in painting feel comfortable with Ballen’s creations. (In fact, after the lecture, I witnessed a newly-minted Ballen admirer remarking that it all made sense now, after Twombly.)
In taking us to the source of his vision, Ballen surpassed any relative critique as to the merits of his photography; the sum total of his effect was that at the end of the hour, I walked out of the lecture hall, looked around, remembered I was at a photography festival, and felt a little let-down. I wanted more stories.
Strangely, it was hard to tell if Ballen was operating off a script he’d written and memorized (his delivery was slow and practiced, as a storyteller’s, pausing for effect) or if he was making it up as he went along. Either way, it was hard to know where exactly, these stories about the “Shadow Chamber” came from. Did the stories come first, and the pictures were the afterthought? Did the stories arise a kind of mental exercise to buffer Ballen from explaining work that resists explanation? It’s hard to know, but if you’re going to present an hour’s worth of slides, and you’re Roger Ballen, why not go a step further, and make the photographs live in all of their dark complexity by creating a pure, vivid extension of the mystery that’s in their frames.
Interspersed with stories about boys who didn’t want their pictures taken, and the goose that “got the flash in its eye”, Ballen dropped photo-wisdom, the kinds of things that I didn’t hear anywhere else yesterday, like “you really can’t say anything about good work, you just know it’s there.” And “don’t use those art words you read in the magazine, they’re overused.”
He spoke about the decisive moment even, and while declaring its overuse, said there’s really no better way to say it, and talked about how his mere breath changes the careful compositional arrangements in his pictures. “Most art photography sits there like styrofoam on the seat. Some moment has to come out that makes you believe you’ve come to the right place in the road.”
Disinterested, in “cultural reality”, Roger Ballen spun a synthetic fantasy that boldly supported his work, and most in attendance were happy to fall into his net. It was an hour when the business of photography was kicked to the curb, and in its place, in a darkened lecture hall, one man bravely breathed life into his artistic vision, and bathed in the light of his slides, held it up, for the rest of us to marvel.
Looking up from the stage at another of his pictures, he said, “things that are profound don’t go ice skating on the mind.”
Indeed, Mr. Ballen, indeed.