“These are spirit drawings.
There is something of theatre in all of this. Not the regular dramatic theatre of proscenium and auditorium in which a codified dramatic performance is witnessed by a detached audience, but the theatre of encounter and participation.
This is the way in which Ballen’s apparitions are made and remade, both individual and as series (acts). Their agency resides in the participatory encounter they demand and the psychological depths they evince.
In Ballen’s apparition, as in carnival, bodies are always immanent, mutable. They exist in states of constant becoming without resolution and as often as not in fluid processes of intermingling. Living, thinking like skulls are fractured and their invisible contents are scooped out by disembodied hand. Ballen says simply, “the work actually makes people generally uneasy because it affects concepts of normality and order.”
Ballen’s figures are primitively rendered. In spite of the nature of his primary medium, photography, in his drawings he never reaches for mimetic representation, preferring instead the directness of the more or less unmediated image from within. In this he is a fellow traveler with the French painter Jean Dubuffet, with whom he also shares an interest in what Dubffet calls Art brut and has come to be known in English as “outsider art”. A contemporary of Artaud, Dubuffet argues that“art is another means of cognition” that traverses the boundaries between dream and reality: “its ways are clairvoyance”. Painting, he says (and this also holds for the drawing process that lies behind Ballen’s apparitions), is also a language and furthermore one that is “far more immediate” than words.
But it is a primal language, closer to the things themselves and almost incantatory in its operations. He claims that painting and drawing “can more or less evoke things at will, that is, with more or less presence.
At any degree between being and non-being.” Moreover, he says, painting “opens wider gates to the inner dancing of the painters mind.”
According to Dubuffet, compliance with social dictates and norms dims and ultimately extinguishes this power, so people who might produce such works in anything approaching a pure form would only be found in places situated outside or in margins of the dominant culture. Dubuffet found his examples of outsider art primarily in the psychiatric hospitals and spiritualist saloons of Europe in the 1940s. Ballen encountered his in the rural dorps (small towns) and inner city ”boarding houses ”and squats of South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. This discovery resulted first in Ballen’s increased interest in incorporating these drawing and constructions in photographs that maintained something of a documentary impulse.
Then, he says, “around 1999, drawing started to come into pictures with a vengeance. It was round about this time that I started to let the people make drawings; I asked people to make drawings on the wall. And then I made this photographs. In a way the issue of Art brut in the pictures wasn’t necessarily a conceptual one but an experimental one.”
The encounter also reawakened Ballen’s own urge to make marks, to draw; a practice he pursues intensively and with immediacy so that his images might carry more or less unmediated messages from psychic depths.
Ballen says his work “is about the human condition in a place. It’s place in my mind. Reflecting the human condition in Roger Ballen’s condition” His drawings are perhaps the purest, most direct expressions of this. However, in spite of the immediacy of their construction and unlike Dubuffet’s paintings, the drawings which constitute Ballen’s apparitions are accessible only in their spectral form- indeed they now only exist in that form- placing a further layer of separation between viewer and thing in itself.
(…)Yet spectral images, these are somehow doubly tantalizing and immediate in their effect. Humans, after all, tend to be drawn irresistibly to ghosts.”