American Photographer Roger Ballen does not have a very uplifting outlook on life. “Who’s the boss?“ he asked rhetorically at the press opening of the exhibition “The World According to Roger Ballen” at the Halle Saint Pierre. “Chaos!” he answered himself. “You can’t stop it. Eventually, things break apart, and you reach the subconscious mind.”
Instead of trying to fight chaos, Ballen confronts it head-on in his artworks and seems to have a lot of fun doing it.
Already well known (as he will be the first to tell you) for his photography, he now makes installations that incorporate his photos, as well as childish drawings (his own and those of others, some of them Art Brut artists from South Africa, where Ballen lives), mannequins, furniture and miscellaneous weird stuff he has collected over the years from flea markets and the streets.
These often-macabre (if not downright creepy) pieces are not without humor. You can’t help laughing, even while shuddering and wondering, at the sight of a life-sized figure in a pink dress kneeling on a filthy bed with her (or his – the face is not visible) bottom and red high heels in the air and head plunged into a beat-up suitcase on the floor.
Another installation shows a highly realistic mannequin of a middle-aged man nearly falling off a sofa while clutching a stuffed animal that lies on the floor. I couldn’t help thinking of Lucian Freud’s 1995 painting “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.”
Ballen only started making installations in 2012, but he has been collecting Art Brut objects for a couple of decades. The installations “grew out of the photography,” he said. “Photography is the mother of this show.”
While distressed humans are the subject of many of his works, Ballen is also obsessed with wire, cages, suitcases and animals, especially birds, rats and mice.
Many of the same objects and creatures seen in the installations in the darkened ground-floor galleries can be found in the photographic series upstairs.
He calls his work the Theater of the Absurd or the Theater of Apparitions. Always questioning what is normal and what is real, his photos can be disturbing. How about a baby sprawled on the floor next to a grinning woman sitting in a chair with a lap full of live rats? On the wall behind them are a painting of a happy baby and a naive drawing of a deranged-looking woman.
In the mysterious/surreal department is “Eugene on the Phone” (2000) in which a dirty-footed boy sits on a sofa staring vapidly into space and holding a phone receiver to his ear with his left hand and the tail of a cat that is desperately trying to escape in his right hand. On the wall behind him is a drawing of what looks like lingerie on a hanger.
“What’s the difference between insanity and creativity?” asks Ballen. Some might think his work balances on the thin line between the two. Whichever it is, it’s intriguing. Go and see for yourself.