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05 Jan 2017

Roger Ballen Retrospective at Istanbul Modern

Twirling Wi̇res, 2001

Roger Ballen Retrospective
Istanbul Modern


December 28, 2016 - June 4, 2017

Demet Yıldız

Istanbul Modern
Meclis-i Mebusan Cad. Liman İşletmeleri
Sahası Antrepo No: 4, 34433 Karaköy

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Roger Ballen Retrospective at Istanbul Modern

This retrospective follows the trajectory of American-born South African artist Roger Ballen since the 1980s. Ballen's distinctive and unique style of photography evolved from a form of documentary photography into a style that he describes as 'ballenesque'.

Ballen employs drawing, painting, collage and sculptural techniques to create a new hybrid aesthetic, but one still firmly rooted in photography. Ballen's works are evocative of the photography of Walker Evans, not only in terms of their formal aspects—texture, light, and interaction with the subject—but also in their aim to witness and reveal marginalized lives in a period of social change. Eugene Meatyard is another photographer who, like Walker Evans, has been a touchstone for Ballen. In both cases, though their photographs may appear distinct in formal terms, their subjects smolder with psychological intensity.

It is possible to describe Ballen's human actor-participants as stranger, starker, and more indeterminate than those in the theater of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. They have a definite kinship to Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd; marginalized characters such as Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot can neither exert force on the world around them nor escape it, and in this sense they are actually ordinary people. Ballen, likewise, lays bare the absurdity of the human condition through the agency of ordinary people, finding the comical in the grotesque and situating madness on the edge of reality.

The 'Roger Ballen: Retrospective' features seven series and an installation by the artist.

Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa, which Ballen worked on between 1982 and 1986, captures the houses, trading stores and artifacts of rural villages and towns, as well as the humble people living and working there. Described by Ballen as the most important project of his career, Dorps shows bare electrical wires (later to become hallmarks of his work), walls, and objects that reveal traces of the inhabitants and reflect the artist's interest in decay, loneliness and peculiarity.

Platteland: Images of Rural South Africa was produced between 1986 and 1994—the final years of apartheid, when the regime was shaken by insurrection and chaos. With their emphasis on portraits, the works in this series constitute a kind of psychological fieldwork, reflecting great social change while focusing on the white lower classes living on the margins of South African society in rural areas.

In the late 1990s, Ballen began to transition from observing his objects and subjects to collaborating with them. Seemingly detached from time and space, his photographs become theatrical, with widely varied subjects and animals playing a greater role. These tableaux vivants are suspended between reality and fiction. In his Outland series (2001), Ballen moves even further from documentary photography, and transforms his relationship with his subjects from one of observation to collaboration.

From 2003 onward, Ballen began to focus on producing abstract images that distance themselves from photography and incorporate elements of painting, theater, and sculpture. In Shadow Chamber (2005), human actors find themselves playing supporting roles among wires, stuffed or living animals, stained walls, drawings and strange objects.

In the artist's next series, Boarding House (2009), the background becomes intertwined with actors in the foreground, three dimensions are condensed to two, doodles and drawings prevail, and the intensity of violence escalates. In Asylum of the Birds (2014), birds become the lead actors at the front of the stage; the drawings in the background become their companions. In these photographs people appear in part or entirely in absentia. These actors, whom we cannot recognize or fit into any context, manifest themselves merely with their limbs.

The Theatre of Apparitions (2016), one of Ballen's most recent works, is inspired by the drawings and marks on blacked-out windows that he came across at an abandoned women's prison. He applied spray paint to glass and cut into the surface with sharp objects to let light through, then illuminated the drawings from behind and photographed them. We are faced with an unknown realm, a sort of X-ray of the artist's mind. The constructed photographs suggest infinite possibilities.

The exhibition also includes an installation titled 'Room of the Ballenesque' (2016). Using materials he found in Istanbul, Ballen re-creates rooms he previously photographed, creating a mini set that reveals his unique aesthetic.

Curator: Demet Yıldız