Boarding House (review)
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Roger Ballen, Girl in White Dress, 2002. Courtesy the artist Roger Ballen Boarding House Berlin: Phaidon, 2009 Let me begin by describing a picture. It is gray-­ toned. A girl in a white dress is looking anxiously at a runny, spray-­ painted spot on a bare wall; her left hand is lightly touching the wall; her right hand appears on the brink of grasping something in the air. There are several such spots and other spray-­ painted marks and drips on the wall she is facing. Except for its grayness , the wall could be part of one of Cy Twombly’s paintings. Traces of damp mark the wall’s bottom periphery , suggestions of distant mountain ranges in Chinese landscape paintings. The edge of the girl’s shadow falls across the division of carpeted floor and wall, crossing the vertiginous boundary separating the horizontal and vertical; the real and illusory; the solid and ghostly; body and no-­ body. The carpet is old; its mottled pattern brings to mind the worn-­ out carpets of decaying hotels. On the wall to the left and behind her, there are more spots and marks, as well as a smiling face drawn on a piece of paper, perhaps by a child or the photographer himself. Below the smile the artist has scribbled “Me” in a child’s hand. This self-­ marking is created en abyme; to quote Andy Warhol, there is nothing behind it. Rather than mark identity and sense, this drawing, like the other traces, traits, contours, orli, and splendores in Roger Ballen’s photographs  — ­ what the American art historian James Elkins calls nonsemiotic elements — ­ remains ambiguous. All that is visible is gray surface. “The whole thing looks senseless enough,” as Franz Kafka writes of the creature Odradek in his short story “Troubles of a Householder” (1919), “but in its own way perfectly finished.”1 Still, no answers are forthcoming; it therefore seems fitting to recall that the Latin phrase in camera means “in a chamber” — ­ that is, in private. While Ballen’s photographic room of perpetual decline appears to reveal or expose its subject, its meaning remains private, obscure. This is what gives it its atmosphere and texture of imperviousness, even futility. The girl in a white dress is trapped in an accursed cave, a depressive shadow chamber, an apocalyptic corner haunted by a Thing without representation . What is this Thing, which persists here and elsewhere in Ballen’s Boarding House? The French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva defines the Thing as “the real that does not lend itself to signification , the center of attraction and repulsion.” Following the French Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval, Kristeva describes the Thing as “an insistence without presence, a light without representation: the Thing is an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time.”2 The Thing is not an object, but a shadow that the depressed narcissist or melancholic mourns. The Thing obscurely illuminates Ballen’s serial tableaux, like a black sun. It is bright and dark all at once, but figures grayly. It is insinuated by a dripping spot on the wall, a piece of wire or twisted string, “not merely knotted but tangled together.”3 Like Kafka’s Odradek, the Thing survives the decaying room and its inhabitants. Hardly visible, it is a mute presence of absence, a broken doll, a scrawl on a bare wall, or a rusting piece of metal. Kafka describes it as “only a broken-­ down remnant.”4 The Thing shadows the melancholics and depressives cornered in these rooms. It is mostly imagined, but insistent. A light without representation , it has paradoxically inspired a long lineage of art making and interpretation. One of Ballen’s depressive forebears is the American photographer Diane Arbus, although Ballen’s deliberate staging, especially in his recent work, signals a break with her. It is as if Ballen restages Arbus, magnifying the suffocating aura of “distance, however near at hand” that envelops her subjects.5 What kind of private Nka • 129© 2010 by Nka Publications Schoeman reviews fantasy is Ballen living out in these moody, atmospheric framings and manipulations of the forlorn other — ­ the marginal, the entropic, the oblivious? Furthermore, the photographs from Ballen’s previous...