Text by Marguerite Rossouw
When Roger Ballen was selected to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale, we immediately realized that his photographs “The Theater of Apparitions” would be the best choice. This series was created over an eight-year period, from 2005 to 2013. It was called theater because much of Ballen’s work can be considered theater. As Didi Bozzini wrote, ‘The embodiment of Ballen’s internal psychological digging leads me to consider his work as a ‘theatre of the mind’ articulated in 5 parts: Theater of the Absurd, Theater of the Real and the Unreal, Theater of the Hidden, The Forbidden Theater and Theater of Darkness. Colin Rhodes wrote about these images in his introduction to the book “These are mind drawings”. Or rather, they are the visual report photographs of a medium somewhere.”
The resulting book was published by Thames and Hudson in 2016 and an animated film ‘Theatre of Apparitions’ was released the same year.
During the time we worked on these images, we groped our way into new territory.
Through trial and error, using various techniques, we were eventually able to establish methods that resulted in imaging of a new dimension. These have been compared to prehistoric cave paintings in which thoughts and emotions were depicted. The images were rarely planned and were instead the result of a spontaneous process in which the choice of material sometimes created magical and inconceivable results. They share a total lack of awareness. They are all born of the unbearable, the unacceptable and even the unthinkable.
Looking at the space available in the South African pavilion, we realized that we did not have enough space to display enough works to make it a full exhibition. Instead, we came up with the idea of showing the work as double-sided lightboxes. As these figures represent the place where dreams manifest, we decided to suspend these light boxes from the ceiling as if they were floating in the air. We made sure the space was dark enough to create the atmosphere we wanted. The resulting positioning of the ghostly figures against the old walls made the exhibition powerful and mystical.
We were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of visitors from diverse cultures and countries. People all seemed drawn to the images and almost everyone felt a strong emotional reaction. They identified with the deeper meaning as part of their own psyche. More than any other exhibit we’ve been to, almost everyone in the room took pictures. The fact that the images were illuminated contributed to the ethereal otherworldly experience.
The fact that Roger Ballen is best known for the strong black and white photography of his other series, namely Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House and Asylum of the Birds, made this exhibition a completely new experience showing the versatility of this well-known artist. As this is the first time Ballen has shown these images in light boxes, it has completely changed people’s perception for this work. It is as if these characters were awakened from a long sleep and brought “into the light”. It was very appropriate because the theme of the South African pavilion was ” In the light “.
In his artistic practice, Ballen is increasingly seduced by the possibilities of integrating photography and drawing. He expanded his repertoire and extended his visual language. During this exhibition, his use of drawing and his desire to explore other paths impose themselves on the viewer who is unfamiliar with all of his work.
The exhibition The Theater of Apparitions by Roger Ballen is presented in the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Marguerite was Ballen’s artistic director for 15 years and was closely involved in the creation of the project.
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Venice Biennale: Roger Ballen: The Theater of Apparitions – The Eye of Photography Magazine
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