Roger Ballen – Roger the Rat

Review by Gerhard Clausing

Roger Ballen is taking us on another trip – this time viewed through the mind of an alter ego named Roger the Rat. This creature is a life-sized human-animal combo who wears the mask of a rodent and serves as the tool of Ballen’s mysterious puppetry. The fixed expression on the rat’s face is a mixture of curiosity, eagerness, audacity, and smugness, a set of traits that facilitates the creature’s gleeful approach to an unfolding circus full of preoccupations and desires, shown in a portfolio depicting formidable adventures in a fantasy world heretofore seemingly unknown and unseen.

Is this our darker side that is paraded in front of us here? Is it our subconscious and unconscious that rear their uglier sides? Is it a criticism of male-dominated societies that are often marked by crudeness and violence, bent on annihilation of the “other,” and on the destruction of the environment and of human decency? Is this a mirror that the artist places squarely in front of us to show us the hidden, forbidden, Jungian shadow that we find hard to acknowledge, but that we know is deep below the surface and can materialize at odd moments?

Could be all of the above. This quiz item has no single easy answer, so let’s examine the details that Roger Ballen’s puzzling panorama presents to us.

Roger the Rat is an enterprising fellow. He likes women, wants to raise a family, but since he has the appearance and reputation of a rat and causes ladies to shriek when they see him, he may have to settle for mannequins, dolls, other animals, and bits and pieces he finds in his disheveled outsider world. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he resorts to aggression and violence, or uses drugs and torture to subjugate others. In fact, Roger the Rat feels superior only when the whole environment does his bidding and others are his victims.

Haven’t we seen such absurdly crass behavior in the real world – leaders who demand total allegiance and subjugation, governments that incite violence and destroy critics and perpetrate other assaults on democracy, celebrities who use drugs or pressure to take sexual and other advantages, and individuals who use excessive violence to overpower (some) others?

Ballen’s situational tableaus are exquisitely conceived, constructed, and photographed. Many props aid in making particular statements – drawings, additional masks, other animals, pseudo-human body parts, and many more, portraying a world out of joint. The titles of the images always appear on the left-hand side of the double page, with the images always on the right. The frontispiece, which shows the artist himself, is the only exception. The image titles can be viewed as interpretive hints, as they certainly point the viewer in the right direction, such as “Pinned Down” and “Gotcha” and “Ouch” for some of the ones shown below. An essay by Roger Ballen provides further insights into rat life.

Needless to say, as is the case with all metaphorical narrative, it is necessary for each observer to find his or her own meanings in what is presented. What may be an absurd fake world to some may represent crass reality to others. And then again, some hidden fantasies may never come to fruition, but may be the stuff of dreamworlds, or populate the realms of art. We marvel at the puzzle presented here and would encourage you to spend time with this project. As a universal mirror it may expect you to muster some courage if you look for a multitude of connections.

Other reviews of Roger Ballen’s books that were featured in the PhotoBook JournalBallenesque, The Theatre of Apparitions, Asylum of the Birds, and Boarding House.

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Roger Ballen – Roger the Rat

Photographer:  Roger Ballen (born in New York City; lives in Johannesburg, South Africa)

Artistic Director:  Marguerite Rossouw

Editor:  Nadine Barth

Publisher:  Hatje Cantz, Berlin, Germany; © 2020

Essay:  Roger Ballen

Language:  English

Hardback, illustrated cover, stitched binding; 128 pages, paginated; 9 x 9 inches (23 x 23 cm); printed in Europe by Graspo CZ, a.s.; ISBN 978-3-7757-4819-3

Photobook Designer:  Anja Haering, Hatje Cantz

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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