Saturday 7 September 2019

Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind Notes on an Exhibition Part 3

As a major new exhibition of work by Roger Ballen opens at the Halle St Pierre Museum in Paris I explore the genesis and realisation of the show I curated in Sydney in 2016

The Theatre of Darkness

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, "Theatre of Darkness." In Parts 1 and 2 I gave an account of the genesis of the exhibition and the curation and hanging process of the main galleries show see . In this part I will consider the artist's creation of the "Theatre of Darkness" in another part of the SCA campus.

Roger Ballen and Marguerite Rossouw drawing on lab coats for use in the
"Theatre of Darkness", Sydney, 13 March 2016

The amazing spaces of the old Rozelle Hospital whose core buildings were designed by the American architect Charles Kirkbride provided inspiration for contemporary artists before the complex became the new campus for Sydney College of the Arts in 1996. Indeed, a number of art-inclined patients produced work during their stays in its hospital days. That said, at least one ex-patient told me that art making was frowned upon when he was there. It was an activity that had to be pursued in secret. He told me of surreptitiously tearing pages out of books in the hospital library to draw on and stealing pens from the nurses. I have seen some of the drawings he made there, which remain in his possession. Generations of art students have taken advantage of the suggestive spaces, both above ground, but also sometimes below. There are, for example, amazing, huge copper tanks below the lawns that were built to provide a clean water supply to the hospital. Now almost impossible to access because of health and safety restrictions, in the early days of SCA's occupation of this location not a few art projects utilised this marvellous subterranean and subaqueous structure. The other famous underground space is a series of vaulted tunnels colloquially referred to as  'The Dungeons.' This was to be the location of the final section of the exhibition, Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind - the "Theatre of Darkness".

Staircase to ground level from the underground spaces
According to legend, the 'dungeons' were originally the location of the entrance of a tunnel that led to this end of Sydney Harbour. In the nineteenth century a public ordnance decreed that the insane could not be transported on the Queen's highway, and so movement of patients had to be by boat. No tunnel can be accessed today, but there is some visual evidence of where the entrance might have been. More lurid tales tell of them as the place where people with what nineteenth-century medicine might call raving madness were contained. Doctors who worked in the Kirkbride buildings insist that 'dungeons' is a misnomer and that no people were ever detained in those spaces; indeed that they were built merely to serve as store rooms. Ex-patients that I have spoke to disagree. So do ex-nurses who were employed there in the 1950s. They spoke of disturbing sounds coming from these spaces, which were, moreover locked and out of bounds. Whatever the truth of their history and purpose, they are certainly eerie and and uncanny. They don't feel like food stores. No wonder that their most frequent uses since the hospital vacated have been as a setting for scenes in horror movies and venue for Halloween parties. A perfect location, therefore, for Roger Ballen to work with.

The first hurdle I encountered, though, was being told a few weeks before the artist was due to arrive that the 'dungeons' couldn't be used because of health and safety concerns. This was on two levels: air quality was poor, we were told, with potentially high mould levels, and there was only a single point of entrance and egress (presumably since the tunnel had been blocked), which was a fire hazard. I suggested practical solutions to these supposedly impossible problems. We would warn visitors of possible poor air quality and offer free protective face masks to any who wanted to use them. And we would only allow guided tours of the 'dungeons' with groups limited in size to the number allowable in the space under health and safety regulations (in this case 20). Little did I realise that this was to be an unintended masterstroke. In the first place, the 'dungeons' were some distance away from the SCA Galleries and difficult to find for someone who didn't know the campus, so a guided tour meant that visitors would be led there and not become lost (the architecture of the Kirkbride complex is notoriously disorienting). Moreover, the requirement for booking and limited access generated a real desire for visitors to see the normally inaccessible spaces. I had been worried that people would miss this part of the show. In fact, we were overwhelmed with bookings and had to add extra slots to cope with demand.

Ballen's first gallery installation work was made only in 2011, beginning with a room in the 
Museum Het Domein in Sittard in The Netherlands. This installation was essentially driven by drawings of personages, rather than three-dimensional representation. Subsequent ones became more sculptural and more sophisticated in their use of objects, sound and movement (there is a brief account of the development of Ballen's installation practice in Chapter 3 of my The World According to Roger Ballen, Thames & Hudson, 2019). In Sydney, Ballen transformed part of the system of textured, raw subterranean cells and tunnels beneath the old Callan Park Mental Hospital into a provocative, suggestive installation that created a fictionalized version of confinement and terror, completed by some of the sounds and perfumes of the underworld.

In the course of around ten days Ballen worked with his artistic director, Marguerite Rossouw and a team of artist volunteers, including graduate students and alumni of SCA (Priscilla Bourne, Daisy Knight, Georgina MacNeil, Nikki Walkerden, Richard Kean and occasional others) and another amazing Australian visual and performance artist, Wart, to produce from scratch a compelling and affecting set of interrelated vignettes. Materials were quickly gathered. There was much hunting around still-deserted buildings on campus. Richard Kean drove Ballen around Sydney to thrift stores and recycling centres. And there was a certain amount of dumpster-diving. Then, led by Marguerite, the group set about transforming some of the underground spaces according to Ballen's vision.

Early stages of work on Theatre of Darkness. l to r Priscilla Bourne, Daisy Knight, Nikki Walkerden, Marguerite Rossouw, Roger Ballen, and Wart

Theatre of Darkness, installation photograph

Theatre of Darkness, installation view through cell door peephole

Theatre of the Mind, sofa with artists' clothes and equipment during installation
The spaces already some bore marks of previous film shoots and parties. A cell door, for example, was a prop left over from some movie. To this Ballen added another genuine door from an old isolation cell in one of the still-deserted buildings above ground. As always with his work, real and unreal interact and merge. Similarly, some of the walls had drawings on them and, in places, sets of numbers scratched on the wall, suggesting strange calculations, all from visual art or filmic activity postdating the time of the hospital. To these Ballen and some of the others added their own drawings in chalk and charcoal so that they could be easily removed subsequently.

Wall drawings by assitants, "Theatre of Darkness" 

Wall drawings by assistants, "Theatre of Darkness"
Large drawing on a cotton sheet by Roger Ballen hanging from a barred window, Theatre of Darkness
Marguerite Rossouw can conjure the sense of a human body from very scant means and although there were quite a number of personages in the "Theatre of Darkness", none were constructed as a complete collection of body parts. Rather, the body - and its lifelikeness - was inferred, to great effect.

Roger Ballen and Marguerite Rossouw, figure in a cell, work in progress, Theatre of Darkness

Roger Ballen and Marguerite Rossouw, figures calling to the light, Theatre of Darkness
Figures calling to the light, in construction

Roger Ballen and Marguerite Rossouw, medical room figure in progress

I had wondered at the beginning whether Ballen would use the installation to make photographs (I know now that his art installations are intentionally quite distinct from the conditions in which he makes photographs), but in the end he decided to make a short and powerful film, Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind. Once again, this was an art school affair. The same group of assistants acted and helped in the filming, and the work was produced by SCA alumna, Tanja Bruckner, with sound design by staff member, Shaun Hay. It was released on YouTube to coincide with the opening of Sydney's HeadOn Photo Festival. The film can be viewed here Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind. Film, 2016, 2.09
Katherine Gillespie's review of the film in Vice, from 12 May 2016, can be read here Roger Ballen releases terrifying two-minute horror film

Ballen in the Theatre of Darkness during the filming of "Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind"
The completed "Theatre of Darkness" installation was a thrilling, disquieting and uncanny experience for viewers. Lighting levels were very low and the various were tableaus obscured and difficult to see. This only added to the intensity of the experience. Viewers had to peer and get close to doors and dirty curtains, where they might otherwise have kept a comfortable distance. They had to really look. And besides the abiding musty smell of the place, unnerving subterranean sounds disturbed the quiet. All of this was impossible to document in photographs, but the film at least suggests something of the feel of the thing.

A year later Ballen spoke to me about the experience of making the show in Sydney.
RB: The show we made was unique because it was made in a particular environment that reinforced the notions of the imagery in some ways. The whole architecture around it. It wasn't just a sterile environment. It's always hard to judge what people will think and what things will look like; how they’ll react. But the gallery we showed in was a very special place and the installation was part of the exhibition, so there was an added layer to what we did. I guess it expanded various notions of the aesthetic.
CR: Did the experience of the Theatre of the Mind change anything for you? 
RB: I think the thing that played a big role in it – its one thing to go to an exhibition and to make a talk to the students or whatever, but it’s another thing to go to a place and be creative. So making a video left a very strong impression on me because I delved deeper and I integrated my experience in that place with my photographs and my own history and to a degree the history of the place. So it left a very strong impression.
You asked me earlier what I look for in the work – I look for what challenges me; what I don't have an answer for. When I do it, I can’t necessarily comprehend the meaning of my own work and it sometimes takes months or years before I come to some coherent emotional and intuitive relationship with the pictures I did. So these works I’m doing now have that element in them that is challenging me. And it is because they challenge me that I continue with the work, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.
Today, an important new exhibition of Ballen's work has opened at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris - see Le Monde Selon Roger Ballen About half of the show consists of an interlocking series of installations constructed especially for the ground floor gallery over the last four weeks by Ballen and Rossouw, with assistance from museum staff. As always with the installations, this was an iterative process that was impossible to pre-plan in any but the vaguest detail. Constructed on site, especially for this space, they are truly site specific. However, it is a sign of the maturity of Ballen's installation practice today that the works draw their character entirely from within, without reliance on the fabric of the building or some previous incarnation and use.

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