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Metamorphosis — Mirror: A Double Solo Show by Daniel Lee and Roger Ballen

2014.07.13 - 09.14 closed

OCT Contemporary Art Terminal Shanghai is proud to present Metamorphosis Mirror: A Double Solo Show by Daniel Lee and Roger Ballen. This is the sixth exhibition organized and hosted by the Shanghai seat of OCAT, and the first entirely dedicated to the work of two eminent photographers, marking the commitment of OCAT Shanghai towards photography as a crucial medium within the practice and language of contemporary art.

These two influential artists share a penchant for the grotesque, and privilege the mental and physical space of the threshold, the boundaries between humans and the surrounding environment – what is called “nature.”

Daniel Lee (1945) has being living in the USA, precisely New York, for a long time now. He moved there from Taiwan, a territory with a troubled past that has generated at different times waves of sharp awareness of issues such as ethnic belonging and cultural background. Lee’s photographic work certainly falls under the notion of “metamorphosis,” a word he himself uses to describe the process at the basis of his research. His unique imagery can be located somewhere between the medieval bestiaries, Chinese traditional culture, Darwin’s evolutionist theories and their (still) debatable aspects. It also fits the idea of the “mirror,” inasmuch as mirrors activate our subjective consciousness and the consciousness of ourselves as subjects, as the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan argued. Mirrors also entail a certain degree of metamorphism, as they reflect and recompose synthetic images of reality in front of the viewer. Daniel Lee’s signature concept of “manimal” is achieved with a painstaking manual alteration of digitally processed portraits and is precisely this: an artificial synthesis between man and animal aiming at individuating a possible essence of humans, but above all of individuals. Lee’s creatures, featured in the photographic works, installations and animations from the series Manimals (1993), Fate (1995), 108 Windows (1996), Origin (1999), Self-Portrait (1997), Nightlife (2001), Harvest (2004), Dreams (2008), question at first, then reaffirm this essence, whose deepest meaning lies in the belonging to the so-called “animal kingdom.”

The universe of Daniel Lee may evoke the playful absurdity of Hieronymus Bosh’s illustrations, and like that of the Dutch painter Lee’s imagery is ultimately allegorical and eminently moral, even though Lee’s main focus remains the investigation of the liminal, which he made visible in his digital interventions.

Like Daniel Lee, Roger Ballen (1950) has left his country of origin – United States of America – and relocated in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the Seventies. Lost somewhere between his former job (mineral geologist) and the necessity to find stories and extraordinary circumstances that could become the “ordinary,” after a long journey to East Asia – documented in some of the shots of his first series Boyhood – Ballen reached South Africa and stayed there. The works exhibited at OCAT Shanghai are taken from the early series like DorpsPlattelandOutlandShadow Chamber and Boarding House and includes the recent Asylum of the Birds. Made in his preferred medium of square format black-and-white images, the new series is accompanied by the short documentary film Roger Ballen’s Asylum of the Birds (2014), by Ben Jay Crossman.  The collaboration between the photographer and the experimental South African rap-rave band Die Antwoord has resulted in the successful music clip I Fink U Freeky also included in this exhibition.

For Roger Ballen physical places and territories always coincide with psychological realms. In all his photographs, a country crushed by the beauty of nature and the “fury” of a society made of juxtaposed cultures, is intentionally exoticised in an ironic and critical way, with the aim of removing it from any possible narrative encapsulation. Ballen says about his work: "I see my photographs as mirrors, reflectors, connectors that challenge the mind." The eyes of the artist register the dissonances implicit in this forced coexistence and individuate the inner poetic of objects, animals and environments in their silent interaction with people. Eventually, the inanimate is “humanized,” and humans get close to the condition of the inanimate. Similarly to David Lynch, Ballen portrays the “dysfunctional” because the universe is intrinsically dysfunctional; his “outcasts” dwell in a timeless dimension not connoted by anything else but its semiotic truth, yet it can be said that they are at the core of history, in this getting close to the imagery of Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus.

As often the case, the “transplantation” into different social contexts – in an interestingly reversed journey: Taiwan-New York, New York-South Africa – has prompted the two artists to investigate, almost verify, an extended notion of territory. The works presented in Metamorphosis — Mirror form, in their involuntarily game of cross-reference, a pathway that eventually leads to the knowledge of the self through the experience of the other.


Metamorphosis and Mirror: Two Ways of Learning

Metamorphosis is a process, the result of change, the movement from a form to another through different stages. Like a mirror it is a reflection, one that can be likened to what photography accompolishes in its technicalities as well as metaphorcially.

The earliest theoreticians of photographic languages have argued - among them Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Krakauer - that photography stops the fleeting moment and crystallizes it, securing it to eternity and at the same time fatally separating it from reality. This is not only because reality evolves and a photograph doesn't (at least not in the same conventional way), but also because a photograph, any photograph, has the power to become paradigmatic. Photography actually builds a certain discourse about reality, and the work of Roger Ballen and Daniel Lee helps us understand how this happens.

This exhibition is conceived as a dialogue between two artists and their personal experience: they both left their place of birth and relocated to a country far away. For Roger Ballen the starting point was New York and the destination Johannesburg, whilst Lee found his destination in New York, coming from Mainland China (first) and Taiwan. These circumstances are not incidental and have played an influential role in the work they create and who they are as photographers.

The works presented in Metamorphosis Mirror are representative of a body of work made by the two artists throughout the last twenty (Lee) and thirty (Ballen) years. In both these artists' processes of cross - referencing and reflection, they form a pathway that eventually leads to the knowledge of the self through the experience of the other.

(Mariagrazia Costantino)

Pioneering the Media, Eternal Philosophizing

Long time has passed since people started using cameras. Perhaps many photographers will agree that since the existing landscape reflects the limits of the world, in order to convey their own views it is not possible to just rely on reproducing the world itself. However, creating the virtual and modifying the real require much more complex capacities then those requested in searching and reproducing a landscape: an artist must first of all, through imagination, turn a certain point of view into some sort of aesthetic, then through a strong capacity of manipulation and execution, express it accurately in the form of an image. Kant called “geniuses” those able to accomplish such a fortunate relationship.

This is why I admire the artist Daniel Lee: he is among the first, in the art world, who has foreseen the possibility to use photography for creating virtual landscapes. In the early 1990s, most people still viewed computer as an unwieldy monster, and it was still unclear what could be done with it besides managing the data. Daniel Lee, who at that time already resided in New York, was keen of embracing this medium. To render the virtual landscapes in his work, he used photography, sculpture and computer graphics software as tools to make his own “lenses” completely different from those of an ordinary photographer, reaching an unlimited realm. Only many years after the appearance of Daniel Lee’s synthesis of creative photography, in China has appeared this art-related term "new media;" after many years again, China started using the concept of "cross-media" to accurately define the work of Daniel Lee. It is therefore evident how Lee himself was ahead in terms of acuity, creativity and awareness.

However, Daniel Lee does not wish viewers to pay too much attention to the media he makes us of. In his view, the core that can truly embody the artistic value of a work is "language" itself, rather than the instruments that are made with.

In 1999, Daniel Lee’s "Origin" series came out in the West: we could use the term "shock" to describe the impact it exerted. The series "Origin," through a poetic language and topics spanning from arts to science, further pushes Darwin's theory of evolution – starting ​​from fishes and through the stages of reptiles and apes ends up with the appearance of humans. Using his rare drawing ability and skills in imaging software and starting from photography as basis, Lee perfectly conveyed this romantic vision of science and pondered from an artistic point of view about the first of the three big philosophical propositions: "Where do I (human being) come from?”

From 1994 to 2007, Daniel Lee created the masterpiece series "108 windows," "Judgement” and "Night Life," based on his own experience, reflection and cultural background, drawing from mythological and religious elements, even adding the study of behaviour, like in the meditative “call” of the cadenced bell strokes in “108 windows,” whose virtual faces make viewers to confront with their own mind. In this creative stage, Daniel Lee used various “beasty” metaphors to describe the human nature, proposing a deep investigation into the “animal” side of human nature and the big philosophical question: "Who am I?”

In recent years, in the series such as "Harvest", "Dream" and others, Daniel Lee started thinking about the possible influence the development of genetic science will exert on the future of mankind. From the perspective of an artist engaged in the “future" as a theme, making his own evaluations and predictions, he sees this almost as a duty, though not necessarily to be realized. These thoughts concerning the future can be clearly classified under the last philosophical dilemma regarding the direction of human being, i.e. "where am I going?"

The inscription located in front of the Temple of Apollo, "know thyself," triggered a series of reflection about life, death and ultimate knowledge. The deductions of Socrates and Plato have been interpreted have philosophical proposition, but they do not appear to be conclusive; the Bible says that God knows the origin and the destination, but not how. The lack of consensus about crucial questions – "Where do I come from?” “Who am I?” "Where do I go?" – has generated the urge to eternal philosophizing. As an artist, Daniel Lee tries to answer these three philosophical dilemmas through visual art’s sensorial mode from his own cultural and historical background. Whether they are the integrated media he makes use of or the views expressed, within a context in which the conventional concept of photography collapsed and detached as it is now from a purely informative function, they all become art forms like painting and other languages. Using the virtual images proper of myth, deconstructing world’s reality and tracing back the source of mankind, photography eventually turns into an allegorical tool.

Such is to me an artist worth of respect: one who has the courage to be at the forefront, an exploring attitude, excellent technical skills, the ability to make existential reality and grand culture overlap, transcending the times through media and concepts, and crossing cultures and national boundaries through his works and his own experience.

(Lian Zhiping)

Roger Ballen’s Fictional Documentary

If compared to our usual visual habits and grammar, the snakes biting human hands, fishes swimming inside dinner plates, smashed dolls, chaotic graffiti, hidden bodies, and every little corner inside Roger Ballen’s works is filled with conflict between "things" and "words," so that people’s viewing experience is deliberately ruptured, implying the loss of interpretative common sense and validity.

This disorder and unpredictability is presented in Ballen’s square format black and white photographs, charged at the same time with the ghostly, magic quality of myth.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Roger Ballen has attracted widespread attention for a documentary photographic series about South Africa, but soon afterwards he began to deliberately confuse the boundaries documentary and fiction in his photography, using "phantoms" instead of "facts," insisting that "there is a world inside them, and I faithfully recorded that world", therefore giving rise to a new critical moment in the relationship between documentary and fiction.

Traditional photography has always been firmly defined as one far from the “live ground,” not to mention the “documentary.” Contemporary photography is less clear about this: isn’t in fact the richness and multiplicity of aspects one the key points of contemporary art?

Roger Ballen himself stated: ‘Isn’t after all the photographer's work all "fictional documentary"? Are we sure that within those photographs that appear as eminently “documentary” there is not trace of the author? There is no photographer who does not leave any trace in this world!’

Documenting through fiction is form of installation. The creative attitude of Roger Ballen gets close to that of an installation artist, who creates a particular space, arrange a dramatic plot, elaborate pictorial elements such as props, and like a painter focuses very much on tone, texture, lines … so although each work actually depicts scenes of everyday life, it shows and takes to an extreme a sense of devilish paranoia and violence arising from the banal.

In his most representative series "Shadow Chamber" and "Boarding House", the imbalance in the composition, riddle-like lingering oppression, the suffocating atmospheres, the silent images conveying a manic noise … all these sign of exhaustion and decay which cannot be found in books, are metaphors pointing at the necessity to resist against powerful chaos, and struggle with the order of reality.

Because many of Roger Ballen’s subjects are photographed as if they were suffering from some disease, he has been criticized for "marketing the poor." To the accusation of being “politically incorrect” he replies: “I’m not selling poverty at all, in fact, all the subjects I photographed were not from low-income population. Inside a good picture, at least mine, maybe you may see a person, an object, but what I’m saying with it is not related to that person or that object.”

Obviously, this “person” and “object" mentioned are all metaphoric symbols related to anthropology, psychology, and even mythology. This multi-disciplinary creative approach derives from Roger Ballen’s own academic background: he obtained a Bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and received a Ph.D. in Mineral Economics from the Colorado School of Mines becoming an exploration geologist and later a professional photographer and artist.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss maintained that geologists and psychoanalysts make use of models to represent the properties of the material or psychic world. If so, Roger Ballen’s own model is his fictional-documentary photography.

Today, Roger Ballen is a high-profile figure of international contemporary photography. His works have been collected by many important Museums and Art Institutes, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London, New York’s MoMA. All the works exhibits in this show are the original versions exported by Roger Ballen from the United States.

(Lian Zhiping)

Entry Price


Opening Time

2014 07.12(Saturday) 18:00


Lian Zhiping, Mariagrazia Costantino


Roger Ballen, Li Xiaojing (Daniel Lee)


OCAT Shanghai


OCT Land (Shanghai) Investment Ltd.