The Earth Will Come To Laugh And Feast
Leafing through any collection of Roger Ballen’s photographs is a bit like making love under a mirrored ceiling: none of it looks attractive, but it all feels terribly exciting.
For decades, Ballen has provided a consistent window into a mind that is beautiful and troubling, endowing the explosive work of a provoked provocateur. The images are unsettling, intentionally so: a world where doll heads and fractured homes stand in for the fragility of the artist and viewer alike, a reminder that the grubby, grimy corners of life are all a lot closer to us than we’d prefer to mention.
Ballen’s iconic, dystopian pictures, including most if not all of those presented here, have appeared elsewhere and often, though powerHouse—which has risen in the last decade to be one of the photo world's consistently finest publishers—presents the volume with the high-value dignity they enjoin for all their work. Well-made pages grant a silkiness to the photographs that contrast well with the dangerous, tenterhook scenarios they propose. The book, itself, is lush, heavy, well-made: were it not full of pictures of broken toys, broken rooms, and broken people, it would be the sort of thing one would be grateful and enthusiastic to be handed as a gift.
It is as loving a presentation of Roger Ballen’s photographs as has ever been printed.
The praise ends there.
In The Earth Will Come to Laugh and Feast, Ballen’s photographs are presented in an uneasy “collaboration” with poems by the Italian poet Gabriele Tinti, who inexplicably gets the higher billing. If Ballen’s work is powered by electric dreams, Tinti's only musters static cling. In fact, clinging is all they do, clutching with purpled knuckles onto the images’ opposing pages and feeling a bit like a series of ekphrastic responses from a college intro to poetry course. It seems the professor has provided Ballen’s images for inspiration, and the students must offer their written reply, with Tinti here erring to publish his homework for all the world to see.
The Italian language, robbed of the breadth of vocabulary on offer to anglophones, still enjoys lush, flurid, alluring prose in a tradition that stretches from Petrarch to Pavese, but in whose soil Tinti never really manages to muddy his soles. Unfortunately, a literal, word-for-word English translation lets the reader know that these poems are capable of being bad in two tongues.
There's little effort to explain what's going on here: no foreword or afterword, nor even a thesis statement. The only glimmer of reason on offer is in an interview with the two creators proffered as the book's end paper, and in spite of Ballen’s gracious declaration that Tinti completely understands the work, Tinti uses the entire book to offer him a muscular rebuttal.
There is a long, and uniformly positive, history of the ekphrastic prompt in contemporary poetry. However, Tinti does little to demonstrate what, if any, relationship there is here between this poetry and these photographs, or this poet and this artist. Ballen’s photographs ask questions the text fails to answer, and even the attempts feel like a funhouse mirror version of Ballen’s intent. Tinti’s poetry manages only to understand the ick-factor of Ballen’s work and naught else, with such flat-falling lines as “the gangrene of your toenails climbs up your soft body,” and “at dawn I spewed everything, a compact pus full of blood.” One imagines the art critic who looks at Picasso and sees only shapes.
In reality, the poetry could be removed entirely without lessening the book’s positive attributes.
The selection of images here is well-chosen and, one suspects, the “greatest hit” choices by Ballen himself; they’re fine centerpieces for his long body of work, and powerHouse’s production values shine in showing them. Psychologically complex and always intriguing, the book would still be a fine addition to the library of any lover of the dark arts, or axe-wielding lunatic, or photography enthusiast, and no other fact about its presentation can change that.
Still, those who love Ballen’s photography should know that there are plenty of other volumes on offer, often with similar or identical work: most notably Thames & Hudson’s masterful but pricey Ballenesque from 2017, which showcases more than 300 of his images across the breadth of his long career, and their more affordable The World According to Roger Ballen, released earlier this year and focusing on his wider connections to the world of art brut and the impact of broader contemporary influences on his work. Both are to be recommended, and neither comes with the excess baggage of the failed arranged marriage found here.