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Personal Politics: Roger Ballen and Joseph Beuys

Added on by Sara Distin.

I was super excited to see Roger Ballen's work at the NY Photo Festival a couple weeks ago and was disappointed to miss his lecture. I was even more disappointed to see that the prints in the show, curated by Kathy Ryan, photo editor of The New York Times Magazine, appeared to be mediocre digital inkjets rather than his typically flawless silver prints. On the upside, Ms. Ryan featured numerous works in black and white, including those by Ballen, Horacio Salinas, and Stephen Gill. But this is all beside the point. Ballen's work came to mind again when I was looking at drawings by Joseph Beuys at Zwirner&Wirth uptown.

Handyman (1996), above, and Head Inside Shirt (2001), below, by Roger Ballen are courtesy of Edelman Gallery.

I am not really familiar with Beuy's work and know very little about Ballen except that he started making documentary photographs in South Africa and switched to a more personal photographic exploration of "the interior." (Jorg Colberg has an excellent interview with Ballen about this transition at Pop Photo.) I also know that the feeling of both the documentary photographs and the more personal photographs is similar; both are dark, surreal, and a little absurd. I think it is these qualities, in addition to the use and arrangement of "found" objects, that reminded me of Ballen when looking at Beuys.

I like America

While Ballen has moved from his more "political," documentary work, Beuys is an overtly political artist, with works including the installation, I like America and America likes me, 1974 (still above). Looking at the two artists together makes me wonder if there is a difference between "political" works and "personal" works aside from the designation given by the artist. I wonder about this especially now, when political and social realities are incredibly absurd. What is the difference between the two? Is is possible for "political" works to function on a "personal" level, and isn't it true that the most successful political works are so because they effect people personally? And aren't successful "personal" works achievements because they effect people other than the artist universally, in spite of political, social, racial, and ethnic divides?