Given that Roger Ballen’s Boarding House is one of my favourite books this year, I was looking forward to seeing the body of work on the walls of a gallery. It is currently on view at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue location (which makes for an interesting experience this time a year, when one steps from the surreal world of very high-end consumerism into the equally surreal world of Boarding House). Boarding House is by far Ballen’s strongest achievement so far - a sentiment I’ve also heard from literally every person I talked to about the work.
There is a haunting and slightly disturbing quality to Ballen’s photographs, even though I always like to caution people that that is not what the work is about. It’s not about cheap visual thrills - even though there certainly are many to be had. Despite the photographs’ visual appeal, the viewer needs to expose her/himself to them for a while, so that their many different layers can unfold. This might be why for me the photographs seem a little bit stronger in book form than on the wall (and, as an aside, the images in the book also seem to be a bit more contrasty than those currently on view).
But regardless, looking at Boarding House means stepping into a strange world. One must resist asking whether anything was posed, one must resist asking how things were done, because not only does that ruin the experience, it also does not do the artist any justice.
Of course, photography - especially these days- seems to invite such questions; and too often work is almost solely being judged by the sizes of the prints, by the production costs of the work, or by some other irrelevant technical criterion - all of which has little, if anything, to do with the art of conceiving a photographic body of work.
So the strange world of Boarding House is what it is, not more, but certainly not less; and it’s hard to find other photographic artists who have managed to create equally unique and compelling images. It is important to realize that Ballen’s work stands out in more ways than one, and I want to include the artist’s ambition here.
This exhibition is certainly not to be missed.
PS: DLK’s review