March 11, 2012

Reading Pictures: Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen, Wild Child, 2003

The setting is a bare room, of sorts, more like a cell, and it’s hard to make out the size or shape of it – we don’t see very much. In a way these things don’t really matter. Any familiarity with Ballen’s work over the last two decades or so will offer some guide to this otherwise indeterminate place. The exact details of the room, this cell, are not significant – the rooms are all essentially the same, they might appear different, of course, but what sustains them is unchanging. These are the places that occupy the darker margins of life; we associate them with detention, faceless violence and the increasingly absurd machinations of power. There is often an element of amused cruelty to how Ballen employs these settings, as if to show what would be left if we scrapped off the thin veneer of civilisation – all our convenient fictions. He offers then a glimpse of how we spend our days, engaged in futile rituals of containment designed to stave off, just for a while, the full realisation of our abandonment, rearranging the shards of an atomised cultural history, the worth of which we are now permanently unable to grasp. In this sense, one of the most potent and fundamental archetypes of human society, (if we take the “room” as a place-holder for the notion of domesticity as shelter), becomes here pathetically inverted, a parody of what supposedly constitutes it – in the very place where civilisation should be, it is coming undone. This territory is one that Ballen has made his own.

Ultimately though the room is just a stage – if not exactly a neutral one – for this theatre of the mind; several objects and a figure are arrayed with an obviously performative intent, some of these cast in the leading role, the rest with supporting parts, still weighted with all the elaborate possibilities of meaning. Perhaps the first thing we notice though is the child, seemingly involved in some private (and frightening) game, alone in this bare room. Not an infant, we might, in fact, describe him as being of an age that is right on the cusp of social consciousness, where one’s sense of self is being shaped by the realisation that other people exist as wilful, independent entities. His posture is relaxed, but his actions decidedly specific, even to the point of being inscrutable; that raised hand could almost be some kind of declarative motion, beckoning. He is dressed in a way that is only symbolic of “dressing” as such – without being naked, he is not clothed either. The lone sock is especially pathetic, precisely because it is someone else’s sock and not his own, the remnant of another time, another life, now long absent, and so of course it doesn’t actually fit him. Its raggedness also speaks to a certain thrift, a loss of worldly station, but the loss is deeper and more fundamental – the articles of culture itself no longer fit the way they should. It is typical of Ballen’s perverse humour that a dirty sock can do so much in picture (whether or not he intended any such reading is, obviously, a different matter).

Perhaps the most obvious thing to say about this child, however, is the fact that he is wearing a blank mask, an item fundamentally associated with the theatre, with disguise and performance. But convention suggests that the agency of those masks should not be visible, they all hinge on certain ideas about what sort of behaviour is “natural” so that it might then be duplicated as fiction – without revealing how the performance is constructed. As we might expect though, Ballen takes a more aggressive approach here; the mask doesn’t quite fit, or at least is worn in such a way as to displace the whole identity of the child. It does not just conceal the wearer’s face, allowing him to slip into some other role – to “become” the character, but in fact obliterates his specificity as a person. The child is now an archetype of a lost self, and yet it is also worth noting that the mask does not “fit” in some very particular ways. This loss is achieved because the mask disavows any other reading; we can’t see his eyes and so the person beneath it is not really visible to us as an individual; there is, as a result, no synthesis of the mask and its wearer, no interior to the role that he is playing – the mask becomes the face, which then permanently assumes it contours. The conclusion we can draw from this, although it is, again, probably not something intended as such, is that the coherence of personal identity, even as it emerges, can be lost when overwhelmed by the forces of social expectation.

The temptation, though, is to assume that the boy is alone in the room, with his mask and his white rat, the proverbial ball-and-chain (anchored, of course, to nothing at all). But that is just a clever elision of the medium – and Ballen’s astute use of it. It is worth remembering that whatever we see happening here is carefully planned and staged, there are no incidental notes (and should any occur they are wrapped back into the narrative). We are seeing him as the photographer did, seeing what he wants us to see. There is always the possibility then that the “performance” is a double bluff and our expectations are being toyed with in ways that go to the very heart of what photography is about, letting us believe something only in order to prove it’s opposite – presenting truth as fiction, questioning the nature of those terms in themselves. It is this indeterminate state that gives Ballen free reign to upset the conventions of picture-making. He doesn’t use the technology in some radical way, but lets his stylistically austere treatment of these enigmatic objects and poses break the very illusion they otherwise convincingly evoke. The narration is so apparently straight-forward that the only reason we have not to question it the fact that he protests his innocence so assuredly – of course the faceless boy was sitting in that room, like a Christ child with his improvised halo. But the meaning of a photograph will inevitably fall in that deep space between what happened and what we see.

(Ballen's website is here, and the above picture came from here, where you can find many more pictures from the series Shadow Chamber).