Wednesday 31 July 2019

Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind – Notes on an Exhibition Part 1

Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind

Notes on an Exhibition - Part 1

On the eve of a major new exhibition of work by Roger Ballen at the Halle St Pierre Museum in Paris I explore the genesis and realisation of the show of his work I curated in Sydney

The exhibition, "Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind" was held in the SCA Galleries at the University of Sydney, Australia from 16 March to 7 May, 2016. It was timed to coincide with the 20th Biennale of Sydney and was a featured exhibition in the 2016 Sydney Head On Photo Festival. It consisted of a themed exhibition of 75 photographs spanning Ballen’s career from 1999 to 2015 and a site-specific art installation.

Part 1 Genesis and Development

The idea for an exhibition came from a conversation with Evan Hughes when I visited him at The Hughes Gallery around March 2015. The famous gallery, founded by his father four decades earlier by his father, Ray had fairly recently begun representing Roger Ballen and the two of us were looking at some framed photographs together. Evan told me that Ballen was looking for a museum venue in Australia for a big show. I said that although I couldn’t offer a museum, I thought I knew just the place to really compliment the work, the SCA Galleries at the University of Sydney, where I worked at the time. I’d established these incredibly characterful spaces, set in the old laundry of the Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, which now served as the location of Sydney College of the Arts. Evan and I agreed that it was worth pitching an idea to Ballen, so I sent a speculative email, including some photographs of the spaces. It was enough for him to arrange a phone meeting and we talked. The amazing exhibition spaces and setting were, as I'd suspected, the hook.

In mid-May 2015 I sent a proposal to the SCA Galleries programming committee, with the provisional title, Roger Ballen – Exploring the Institution, and the following curatorial statement:
"The aim of the proposed exhibition is to introduce the South African artist Roger Ballen to Sydney audiences through a comprehensive, curated retrospective collection, chosen by curator, Colin Rhodes, and a specially commissioned site-specific installation work created on campus by the artist. In so doing, research through art curation and production will engage with knowledge relevant to the SCA research cluster, Space, Place and Country, as well as, to some degree, Self-Taught and Outsider Art. Ballen’s work speaks to both the Callan Park site – bringing its past, as psychiatric hospital, and present, as art school, into powerful collision – and to contemporary international movements in photomedia. Ballen’s black and white photographs are constructed in a unique manner, combining performance, drawing and sculpture. He places subjects and objects within the frame in an ambiguous manner, creating a sense of the uncanny in viewers. Ballen began his career by documenting the inhabitants of rural villages in South Africa in the 1980s. Since then he has moved away from documentary but has continued to focus on people on the fringes of society and the interactions between people, objects and animals. In early works Ballen collaborated with his subjects to focus on unique individuals and their personalities. Over time he has moved towards a deeper exploration of his own psyche and of humanity in general. Works from key series in Ballen’s oeuvre will be included: Boyhood, Dorps, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House and Asylum of the Birds."
The core ingredients of the project would remain consistent, but it would quickly became more nuanced and sophisticated in its aims and thematics as I got know Ballen and his practice better and as his involvement grew. Excerpts from early correspondence shows some of the practicalities and the quick genesis and agreement of ideas between the artist and myself.
From email from CR to RB, 13.07.2015 "I am sending a bunch of photographs of parts of the ‘dungeons’ (installation site) and the parts of the SCA Galleries that have been earmarked for the curated show – these are Callan Park Gallery (a black/white box around 73 sq m floorspace); Gallery 2 (big, top lit space, around 140 sq m); and Gallery 3 (around 130 sq m – light much easier to control in this space – can be blacked out if desired). Please let me know if you need more at this stage. I’ve been toying with a title: Roger Ballen – Exploring the Institution, but if you have some better ideas, I’ll be very happy to hear them.I think it would be really great to explore the relationship between your work and Art Brut/Outsider Art in the show. As you know, I’m also interested in the history of the ways psychopathology has been hypothesised and pictured, especially from the mid-nineteenth century on. The whole nexus of picturing, collecting, exhibition, dialog, etc. would be really fascinating to think about. Needless to say, I really want to write about your work, and bringing in these contexts would allow a bit of a different angle to be presented. Evan and I are very keen to produce a substantial publication."
From email from RB to CR, 14.07.2015 "I am very excited about your proposals and concepts. It would be wonderful if you could express your ideas as they come to you. I am thinking of titles for our show and will send you ideas as they come to mind. Please also send your further suggestions. I am trying to find a few words that express a link between my work and the place of the mind where art brut originates. I would be very grateful if you could send me further images of the exhibition spaces as soon as convenient."
By mid-August Ballen and I had agreed a new title, Roger Ballen – Minds within Minds, conceived as a number of sections I described as ‘theatres.’ I introduced a new curatorial statement that much better served my aims:
"The overall aim of the exhibition is to introduce Roger Ballen to Sydney audiences through a comprehensive collection of works, chosen to present a coherent, though poetic thesis on the multi-layered encounters between subject and audience and the revelations of creative agency.
The guiding idea is that, in his work, Ballen produces visual reports of psychological realities. His photographs are emphatically engaged objects without critical distance. Though they are exquisitely constructed as form, viewers are dragged into them, so to speak; participant in the work, not observer. The physical and imaginative work that underlies the moment of the image making (the capture, if you will) pervades the reality of the photographic object and encourages the viewer to continue and extend that work – viewers become a part of the psychological interior, whereupon it is reintroduced to the world.
The works occupy a kind of psychological neutral place, outside of definition - in French, a lisière; the place in the frayed edges of the fringes of two rugs meeting. In this way they engage with otherwise unfathomable layers of consciousness and, when animated by the viewer, find new ways of folding the world into the self (and vice versa).
I propose to achieve this in the exhibition by conceiving the specific spaces at SCA as ‘theatres’. I am using the term, theatre, in its widest sense here – to describe a place in which to act, and where purposeful action takes place (the dramatic theatre, the operating theatre, the theatre of war, etc.). And to conceive of these theatres as parts of a kind of house – ‘The House of Minds within Minds’, perhaps. I propose 5 theatres:
    1. The Theatre of Daylight (Gallery 2)
    2. The Theatre of Assimilation (Gallery 3)
    3. The Theatre of Rendezvous (Gallery 3)
    4 The Forbidden Theatre (Callan Park Gallery)
    5. The Theatre of Becoming (Dungeons) 
All are suggestive, multilayered metaphors, joined together by the operations of the psyche; by the operations of contemplation and also of desire."
Ballen’s responses were positive:
“I think the suggestion of using the theatre as metaphor is a fantastic idea. The crucial task will be to find a series of photographs that individually and as a group visually and psychologically elucidate the concept that is reflected in the theatre title.  As the photographs were all taken by me, there should be formal links from picture to picture. The choices may have to be initiated around subject matter that is revealed in each image.”
Ballen was really intrigued by the notion of the theatre and thought deeply about it and its relationship to thinking about his work. A period of tweaking the titles of each theatre and ultimately agreeing the definitive title of the exhibition commenced.
From email from RB to CR, 21.08.2015 "I was thinking that each Theatre ought to relate back to an aspect of the human condition or Mind. These titles should also be relevant to my photography over the years. I like your suggestions, but I want to provide others which are closely linked to my imagery.
        Theatre of the Spirits
        Theatre of the Absurd
        Theatre of Darkness
        The Theatre of the Mind talking to the Mind
        Theatre of Chaos and Disorder"
27.08.2015 Further suggestions from RB "Please give some thought to the following theatre titles:
                    Forbidden Theatre
                  The Theatre of Daylight/Absurd
                  Theatre of the Assimilated/Real versus Unreal
                  Theatre of Darkness, Dungeon
                  Theatre of the Hidden"

By mid-October we had settled together on what would ultimately be the final titles for the ‘theatres’:

                 Theatre of the Absurd
                 Theatre of the Real vs Unreal
                 Theatre of the Hidden
                 The Forbidden Theatre
                 Theatre of Darkness

There was a suggestion of further change on 2 November, in an email from Ballen’s Artistic Director, Marguerite Rossouw. Further discussion brought us back to the October list. However, the 2 November message did contain the suggestion for what was to become the definitive title of the exhibition:
"First of all, Roger came up with the title he would like for the show. He would like the show to be called 'Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind.' These are the titles of the four theatres that we think might make the most sense. Attached are some examples [of photographs] for Theatre of the Absurd. The other examples will follow in separate emails.  
    Theatre of the Absurd
    Theatre of the Hidden
    Theatre of Assimilation
    Theatre of the Ethereal
I will send you examples of images that we suggest to be used in the different theatres. Please let us know your thoughts on the changes and as soon as we have the final decision, we will start selecting the relevant number of images for each theatre."
Approximate numbers and sizes of works to be included was decided between mid-October and late-December 2015, including five extra large pictures that would be printed by us in Sydney. The method for selecting work was for the artist and I to choose from a large sampling of images corresponding to each theatre grouping in order to reach agreement on around eighty images that would be sent from Johannesburg in January 2016 to allow time for framing in Australia. This worked well. There were a small number of cases in which I, and sometimes Ballen, would suggest images in one grouping should be shown in a different 'theatre'. Similarly, during the actual hanging of the show a small number of images were further moved from one 'theatre' to another.

My notes from October 2015 indicate some of the ways I was thinking about the show’s conception:
The idea of a series of pictures is surely important here? The books are at least as important as the shows (possibly more so).
I’m interested in the local/national/international knowledge nexus around all this. Was Ballen's encounter, travelling as a geologist, a privileged one (i.e. an encounter that others from the cities would not really have had the opportunity to have in everyday life)?
Artists do what they do. That is all. That is right and proper. There is no ‘must’; no ‘appropriate’. Inappropriate is often better. The best art usually delivers problematics to the culture.
Themes: Human interaction. Levels of connection with photographic subjects – when is a person a person? What is the relation of the person’s personhood to the photographic image?
Theatre. It will be difficult to avoid Artaud. It may be that I need to read some Bakhtin as well. [Samuel] Beckett is important.
Of course, I took my concept from [Unica] Zürn’s ‘House of Illnesses’, so for me the different theatres correspond to her ‘rooms’. For Zürn, the ‘house’ is also a body – her body, metaphorically or literally inhabited by other characters. I need the ‘theatres’ to be metaphors … but for what?

There are two drawings I made among my notes that embody the idea of the exhibition’s ‘theatres’. They have a debt to the surrealist artist and poet, Unica Zürn. As with her 'House of Illnesses', they literally embody concepts that will then be committed to narrative conceptual ends. These drawings also indicate a certain flow or movement that I was envisioning for circulation of the audience in the gallery. The image that incorporates a found, vernacular photograph specifically relates this embodiment to the grounding of Ballen's characteristic photography practice.

An interesting way of devising curatorial strategy, perhaps, though I have always found thinking through drawing extremely useful.

There is also a tiny sketch that indicates another influence on my thinking which, though strong, somehow never made it in any substantive way into my subsequent analysis of Ballen and his work in the book we published to accompany the show, namely the Magic Theatre featured in Hermann Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf (1927), where the main character, Harry Heller experiences, as though real, the fantasies that exist in his mind.

In Part 2 I will publish photographs of work in progress on the installation of the show, together with a plan of the hang, documentary shots of the final hang, and the explanatory room sheet available to exhibition visitors.