Education, like art, should be about knocking us off our feet and challenging us to understand. And for this reason museums must present ideas one can’t get a handle on.
George Eastman House invites one to consider art outside the comfort zone, by experiencing an exhibition of photographs by the contemporary, and often controversial, artist Roger Ballen. The 74 black-and-white images of his mini-retrospective, titled Roger Ballen: Photographs 1982-2009, are on display through June 6. Ballen himself will join us for a lecture at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 15.
South African artist Ballen is known for his thought-provoking photography and his particular attention to rich detail, photographing his human and animal subjects in complex, fictional scenes filled with symbolism.
Tommy, Samson, and a Mask, 2000, by Roger Ballen
Ballen’s work is fascinating, compelling, mysterious. It encourages viewers to step outside of their understanding of reality in a photograph, challenging them to assess
Critics have called Ballen’s images powerful social statements that at the same time are disturbing psychological studies. Aperture Magazine described his work as “images from a waking dream; compelling and surrealistic with sparkles of dark humor,” and Australia’s Artlink Magazine said they are “freeze-frame images stolen from the sub-conscious … Ballen’s bizarre tableaux are an illustration of the real world.”
Visitors to Eastman House have recorded both positive and negative remarks in a comment book inside the gallery. One visitor wrote, “Dark, repressive. I see the thoughts in these images, but wonder how and why this art?” Another described the exhibition as “an awake nightmare.” Some have replied with single words, such as “Freakish,” “Creepy,” “Scary,” and “What?” Positive notes include, “Dark but inventive and edgy,” “Touching and inspiring,” and “Thanks for bringing challenging work to Rochester.”
Puppies in Fishtanks, 2000, by Roger Ballen
If one only visits exhibitions of work he or she already knows, or already loves, he or she gets caught up in old, safe ideas, being trotted out yet again. The role of art may well be to describe the process of engagement, an ever vigilant search for what is not understood.
For instance, if one goes to the theater to see Samuel Beckett, whom Roger Ballen marks as one of the people he pays attention to, that theatergoer might come out and not have the slightest understanding of what her or she just saw.
Ballen’s unique artistic vocabulary, which he composes using a square format, creates visual ambiguities as universal metaphors of the human condition. Our relationship with a photograph can be structured in a lot of different ways. Like anyone off on a trail of understanding, Ballen found the camera a way to mediate, to look more strongly, more intently, to segregate an aspect he wanted to examine or look at, and made a picture of it.
In that vein, German filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “Images are almost impossible. Artists had to dig for them within this damaged landscape, and did so simply because we urgently need images to accord with the state of civilization and our own innermost souls.”
Ballen’s photographs of people and places have a wonderfully rich, magical, if not spiritual, engagement of mystery. His subjects are people who may not be your favorite folks to sit down and have dinner with, but perhaps this is an occasion to engage that challenge and that conversation.
At the Ballen exhibition, a visitor will find things here he or she is not used to looking at, whether it be people or ways in which photographs are created. With the right attitude, this art can be very fruitful for all of us, and the promise of the process rewarding.
View the complete talk ROGER BALLEN: PHOTOGRAPHS 1982-2009 [Parts 1-5] on our YouTube Channel.
Dr. Anthony Bannon is the Director of George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. He has held that position since 1996, previously serving as director of the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center, and director of Cultural Affairs on the campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo, both located in Buffalo, N.Y.
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