Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
24.03.2016 – 28.04.2016
‘The House Project’ is a collaboration between photographer Roger Ballen and writer Didi Bozzini, which explores the metaphor of the house as a site for the subconscious mind. The exhibition unfolds as a visual narrative that incorporates a text written by Bozzini and photographs taken from Ballen’s work over several decades. In addition to the exhibition of photographs and text, is the screening of the video Asylum of the Birds. The exploration of the asylum house provides one with a foundation on which to consider the role of Ballen as photographic artist and how he envisions and constructs his photographic creations.
Gallery MOMO is visually transformed into the four floors of Ballen’s house, as each space in the gallery is marked with a different shade of grey to depict the specific floor and state of mind. Photographs are purposefully chosen and separated for each floor to depict the narrative at hand, which is provided by a short text on the wall of each sectioned space. Text plays a prominent role in this exhibition and provides assistance to the reading of the photographs. This is immediately established as one enters the gallery and is faced with a wall of text that provides an introduction to the project. One enters on the ground floor of Ballen’s house and is immersed into a light grey space that features black and white photographs of the human body in absurd positions. This is followed by the first floor where an absence of human life is noticeable and is replaced with an amalgamation of different objects and trinkets. The largest space houses the attic which features photographs of religious iconography and bird imagery. A small room is devoted to the cellar, where blackened walls are aligned with unrecognizable, ghostly imprints of faces. This general view of the exhibition space illuminates the careful construction of the house and suggests a definite structure and reading of the photographs. Without the text providing the concept of the exhibition, the photographs would be a mere retrospective of Ballen’s work.
The metaphor of the house as a site of the subconscious mind is extended to the video screening of Asylum of the Birds, which features an intimate view of the asylum house. Ballen’s path as photographic artist is illuminated as the camera follows his steps into the making of his creation. The asylum house indicates the constructed nature of Ballen’s work as one sees the creation of an interior space and the directorial position that Ballen takes on. It is indicated that Ballen sources material and objects at scrap yards and pawn shops for further use in his photographs and provides materials for those individuals that feature in them. Ballen steps into the role of director as the individuals that occupy the asylum house become the actors in the photographs. Their movement and the space that surround them are directed by a careful hand that orchestrates the content of the photograph.
The directorial approach of Ballen involves the utilisation of the individual’s physical form, the controlled guidance of behaviour and body position and the creation of a set that serves as photographic content. The video provides one with an insight into the creation of Ballen’s photographs which also illuminate the work exhibited in ‘The House Project’. A photograph from the ground floor of Ballen’s house depicts a man crawling on his knees and fists as he positions his body under a wire table. His demeanour takes on an animalistic form that suggests the primal state that the photograph attempts to convey. Crawling Man (2002) demonstrates how the physical form of the human body is directed into positions that promote the concept of absurdity and the suggested state of the subconscious mind.
Ballen’s work can be viewed through the lens of Surrealism by its depiction of dream-like narratives and scenes that explore the subconscious mind. One way in which this is achieved is through Ballen’s use of assembled and collaged objects that suggest a refiguring of reality. The viewer is visually and mentally bombarded with an assemblage of drawings, cut-out images, figurines, masks and human body parts that create a vivid and disruptive narrative. Human bodies are juxtaposed with objects and animals to suggest the blurred line between distinct categories of life. A human head is displayed in a bird cage and is depicted with a fixed gaze on the snake that slithers up against the rail. Caged (2011) demonstrates how Ballen’s work disrupts the conventions of viewing by incorporating contradictions in the form of partly displayed body parts that take on the character of animals and objects. The surreal nature of Ballen’s work involves the relationship between reality and fantasy, and exhibit the narrative that emerges from that exploration.
‘The House Project’ attempts to lead the viewer on a path through the mind as they progress through the floors of the house. The works on display are purposefully chosen to accompany and assist the text and the concept of the project, but they also provide a survey of Ballen’s work. This allows one to delve into the creation of the photographs and investigate the directorial role that Ballen occupies.