I n t h e M i n d ’ s E y e 

b a r b a r a r o s e

José Manuel Ballester is a Madrid-based artist who is fast becoming known as one of the most original and impressive photographers in the world. His is the generation that definitively transformed photography from a minor to a major art, a shift reflected in the works of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Jeff Wall, among others. Their large-scale photographs, made possible by digital technology and mounted on solid supports, have in many ways and for many collectors
replaced the pleasures that painting once delivered.
Although he began as a painter and printmaker—two activities he continues to pursue along with the photography for which he
is best known—Ballester graduated the University of Madrid with a degree in fine arts not as a painter, sculptor or photographer but as a restorer of Flemish and Italian old masters; he had wished to learn concrete techniques. This commitment to a deep understanding of technique is characteristic of his methodical, intellectual approach. His training as a concert pianist, as well as the fact that his father is a music professor,undoubtedly contributes to his discipline and rigour. The metronome in his studio is a constant reminder of time passing in a measured way. Despite his background in restoration, Ballester’s billboard-sized images place him firmly in the context of modern, supersized digital imagery. However, he is not only a practitioner of the “big photograph” that has superseded the mural-sized New York School “big picture.” He is also a painter and printmaker and, when the occasion demands it, a video installation artist.
Whatever his chosen medium, Ballester’s vision is inevitably informed by his experience as a painter. Every photographer, from the humblest snapshot taker to the most informed professional, “sees” the world and records what is seen. The greatest photographers, however, are not simply visual journalists. They have a transformative vision of the world and what it contains that illuminates and transforms consciousness, altering not only how we see reality, but also what it may mean on levels other than the visible surface. They are not reporters, but visionaries.
José Manuel Ballester’s vision is both poetic and metaphoric; one might even argue ekphrastic. His photographs of abandoned buildings, some decaying and heavy with the traces of those who have been there but are now gone, some just being built and not yet inhabited, their functions still being defined, imply obscured narratives. Whereas the buildings and streets in his cityscape photographs often contain figures, the interiors and exteriors of the huge, towering buildings and skylines he photographs are always empty, still waiting to be filled. They resonate with enigma.
The most critical questions these technological/architectural miracles pose—for Ballester’s images are nearly always of new spaces, often as they are still being constructed—are what these spaces are to be filled with, and for what purpose, and by whom. Such queries may seem irrelevant in relation to the kind of public structures Ballester chooses to photograph. However, they are the heart of the content of his images, which raise unsettling questions rather than simply document a disquieting
reality.
Buildings are static, but their uses are constantly in question. Thus an historic church becomes a chic Madrid restaurant called La Capilla; Les Halles, once called the stomach of Paris, is now a labyrinth of cheap commercial shopping malls. A pawnshop in a Romanesque building once used as a studio by Jasper Johns becomes a discothèque named The Bank. The first cast-iron skyscrapers built for light manufacture are zoned as artists’ studios whose generous spaces end up as the refuge of the rich and famous and the boutiques, beauty spas and restaurants that serve them.
This sudden mutability is a characteristic of the transformative mobility of contemporary life, and this knowledge of functional transformation informs Ballester’s images. We know the mega-skyscrapers he photographs are useful, indeed crucial, to a mass society and a global economy, but we also know they can crumble, burn or become
missile targets.
Ballester’s skyscrapers, airports, elevator shafts and other technological wonders are more imposing than they are friendly, more anonymous and cold than they are intimate and welcoming. Like Vatican City, they are symbols of power as much as of wealth. Like Michelangelo’s great Roman church, these structures are not isolated buildings; they are part of an entire urban structure. Indeed, one may consider the futuristic city (as much as its architecture) to be Ballester’s subject. Silent and devoid of human presence, these immense, empty spaces stand as metaphors for the emptiness and tabula rasa that is the unknown future of their function.
Ballester prepares his projects for many years before realizing them.Given the specificity of his choices of where to roam—Broadway and Times Square in New York and the not-yet-finished streets and highways of the new Chinese city of Chenzen—we can hardly consider him a flâneur. He does not know exactly what he will photograph until he sees it, but he is very conscious of why he wants to work at a specific site that is charged with political and social meaning.
Ballester’s recent large-scale photographs are digital images altered through computer manipulation. They do not reproduce the space as it is but rather interpret it in terms of spatial volumes accentuated through digital enhancement, distending or deepening space to a degree never before possible. Thus they create a new kind of space for photography, a space that is closer to the illusory perspective projections of old master paintings than they are to “straight” photography.
Ballester’s photographs of public spaces and cityscapes are not, in that sense, any more “realistic” than Madame Bovary is as a sociological study of provincial life in 19th-century France.
Among the properties of photography that Ballester uses to great effect is that of enlargement. The scale of his oversize formats is not arbitrary: it serves to impress the viewer with the inhumanity of the scale of contemporary architecture which, like that of ancient Rome and of the ideal cities Rudolph Speer intended to build for the Third Reich, dominates the individual, who necessarily becomes part of a crowd in such iconic spaces. In his recent photographs, including the Broadway series, he enlarges details digitally until they become brilliantly coloured blurs, their original source unrecognizable. With the extended artificial palette digitization provides, Ballester emphasizes the unnaturalness and brilliance of the mechanically mixed hues
brightened by the computer screens where they are born.
Although architecture remains Ballester’s principal subject, his recent work, including studies of his obsessively ordered library
enlarged to the degree that books become unrecognizable rectangles of brilliant colour, abstraction is a secondary theme that is becoming increasingly important to him. With the breadth of his knowledge of the history of photography as well as of its technological potential for transformation, Ballester on the one hand reaches back into its pictorial past to reclaim its ability to absorb qualities once exclusive to painting and on the other hand reaches forward into its future as pure abstraction of colour and light. The careful staging of studio-based pictorial photography informs his precise, formal style as much as the
extended artificiality of digitized colour characterizes his subtle palette, which can also be adjusted to his satisfaction.
Since we have come to believe that photography is defined as a document and record of reality, it is surprising to realize that what Ballester pictures is not that world but his interpretation of it, made possible by the transformative potential of computer manipulation. As much as pictorial photography staged and lit static subjects, Ballester transforms and interprets the visual world into a personal vision. Today there are many photographers of buildings, a theme that lends itself perfectly to the formalist needs of photography, as artists like Charles Sheeler and Alfred Stieglitz showed us. However, one is hard put to think of other photographers of the city itself as object. In this context, the city displaces the hero as the transformative personage.
There are many analogies between Ballester’s cityscapes and Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which purports to be a narration but ultimately transforms New York into a palpable object that is crystallized, present all at once as an object rather than as multiple moments of tranches de vie. This idea of the city as object is an inversion of the Futurist vision of the city as a blur of forward motion. Time is definitely a dimension in Ballester’s vision, but it is time artificially stopped, images held in
suspension in a concrete way rather than as fugitive moments such as the Impressionists wished to capture.
Largely because of economic considerations, contemporary art is obliged to redefine itself as an object or installation destined for museums and public buildings. Architects, the princes of the fine arts, often dictate what their vassals, the painters and sculptors, create to embellish their more and more daring edifices. Their activities interact directly with commerce and are based on the latest innovations in engineering technology. In the Renaissance, painters and sculptors also practiced architecture as a second discipline. As vast sums of money and technological know-how is now required, today that is no longer true; painting and sculpture are reduced to ornaments in museums of colossal scale. With a few exceptions, most notably Renzo Piano and Rafael Moneo, architects, by deciding on the dimensions, materials and properties of exhibition spaces, are increasingly usurping the terrain of their fellow artists, fulfilling Ayn Rand’s prophecy, so dear to
Frank Lloyd Wright, of the architect as master of the universe.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons Ballester has concentrated on architecture as subject is the primacy of architecture in contemporary culture. As city after city demands a logo or brand to proclaim its identity, the architect and the patron become the decision makers who decide what the environment will look like and how it will be used. In an explosion of global competition, new cities are springing up and older ones are transformed to keep up with social and technological change. Parks, plazas and all manner of public works, including purely commercial malls and towering office buildings, efface the human scale that cities once had. Among the most popular of these structures are cultural centres like music halls, theatres and especially
exhibition spaces.
The consequence is that today there are thousands upon thousands of new, vacant exhibition spaces to be filled with, most logically, video and installation art, which can be spread out to occupy vast areas. It is both cheap relative to painting and sculpture as well as ephemeral, the better to attract easily bored crowds who require constant stimulation with novelty. The triumph of uninhibited technological innovation and the rapidity of its pace permits dimensions previously unimaginable.
Indeed, these buildings are going up so fast that their functions are not yet clearly established. Obviously they are containers, but containers for what? The blurred line between what is public exhibition space and what is private, intimate space becomes confused and interchangeable in a technological culture constantly recording actions and conversations as well as the places where they occur. This blurring of functions fascinates Ballester, whose photographs of a hotel room and new art exhibition spaces were the subject of Habitación 523, his 2005 exhibition of mural-sized digital images printed on linen at the Palacio Velazquez in Madrid.
Among the museums Ballester has photographed are the Moneo enlargements of the Prado, the new galleries of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the new Jean Nouvel wing of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the renovated areas of the Tate Modern. The New York suite contains images of P.S. 1, the contemporary showcase of the Museum of Modern Art, as a ghostly space empty of exhibits or spectators. Here once more the changing nature of the functions of architecture is relevant, since P.S. 1 (as its name implies) was once a public high school that closed when the neighbourhood was abandoned.
As an artist, José Manuel Ballester is as enigmatic as his photographs, which are more impersonal than his paintings that tend increasingly to be melancholy grisaille studies of buildings and city streets. Like Flaubert, he has no other definition of himself than what he has created. The absence of human figures accentuates the mural scale of Ballester’s empty spaces. In New York he captures the glamour of the dazzling lights from the immense advertisements glittering in the night. The individual advertisements for entertainment, products or corporations are coldly equalized. The point of view dramatically emphasizes their
dominance over the spectator and their cumulative power over society and its needs, which they convert into unrealizable desires that become the dreams of the masses.
Among his recent subjects is his library, which he contends represents the artist’s world. It represents the contents of his or her mind. In this connection, the publication of the contents of Jackson Pollock’s library in volume IV of his catalogue raisonné is particularly illuminating. Ballester’s library, not surprisingly, is full of books on painting and photography as well as rich in technical and scientific literature. He has become especially interested in 19th-century travel photography
of exotic sites in the Near East and Asia. The contrast between the primitive states of colonial societies dominated by their Western colonizers stands in stark relationship with the recent and sudden transformations of these societies as they rapidly appropriate technology developed in the West. His library includes neatly ordered archives, categorized by place and date, that serve as reference material for his touristic voyages. The archive is of course the most specific form of the index on which so much recent theoretical literature is based. His reflections on identity and diversity in the new cityscapes arising throughout the world play a part in the images he chooses to capture and isolate.
The crisis of urban planning that the current architectural orgy has created is certainly one of the implied themes of Ballester’s images. Today, an improvised favela in Brazil is as much part of the city as the towering glass and steel skyscrapers. Ballester will soon photograph Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Brazilia, the city designed from scratch by Le Corbusier to become the new capital. Then he goes to India, where, as in China, the poor, living on the edge of slavery, huddle in inadequate habitats at the base of the fabulous new towers—just as they once did in the shadow of the towers of medieval cathedrals. Ballester’s attitude towards his subjects is neither critical nor approving. It is observant and pensive. The stillness of the spaces he
photographs is as palpable as the light that filters through them. It is as if the artist is putting the brakes on the speed of a technology changing so quickly we have no time to stop and ask where it is going and for what reason as we scramble to be the first to jump on the train before it has even departed. Norbert Weiner defined cybernetics as “the human use of human beings.” Today we are not so sure whether advances in technology necessarily mean progress or a new dark age characterized
by dependency on a fragile system controlled by the few and used by the many.
When asked why architecture is his principal subject, Ballester answers that architecture provides the scenario of our lives, its theatre and its actions. Humans must live in an artificially built environment because we can no longer really live in nature even if we think it is
ideal. The city, he says, is an artifical construct we make to improve our lives. But then the question arises of whether they are improved. His is a questioning acceptance of contemporary reality. He sees and makes us see that the spaces destined for art, culture and leisure are in a state of crisis as a result of technological advances that generate new problems without necessarily solving old ones. The emptiness he pictures questions the profound changes in cities that technology brings about. The negation of time leaves space for reflection, the need to pause, think, understand and imagine the future—and its consequences. He intentionally omits the anecdotal so that nothing detracts from the sense of grandiose spaces like the new museums built for collections that are now too expensive to acquire since the funds to purchase them have been spent on the building in which they
were meant to be housed. The museum is par excellence the spacewhere the public meets the private. Those encounters now take place not in the serenity of the Roman forum but in the bustling museum
café or the artificial nature of its garden.
Another characteristic of Ballester’s style is his incredible sensitivity to colour as well as space, both of which relate to painting. He pairs red with yellow and white, or prints a doorway in orange on an orange field. His characteristic receding views through doorways recall the receding space of Raphael’s School of Athens. He alludes to classical formats but he does not pretend we live in a society of patrician philosopher statesmen.
For two days Ballester walked around Broadway, feeling its pulse from hour to hour before taking out his camera. He wanted to feel its rhythm and the effect of the bombardment of flashing lights and competing images. In these mobbed streets, the photographer is anonymous. That anonymity becomes both a protection and a stage to define a point of view that expresses emotional content, whether it is an elevator shaft seen from below and digitally stretched to create curved spaces or the
chaos of messages and corporate logos on Times Square. Ballester pays special attention to deep space, sharp focus, light, volume, space, texture and colour. These are, of course, essentially the elements of painting, not photography. Empty space becomes a pretext for painterly volumes and a type of space associated with painting. Ballester speaks of his sense of a debt to Titian, which we may see reflected in his sensitive use of a diffused and soft light in studies of interiors, especially in the photographs printed on linen. He is conscious of the sheer quantities of boxes as well as of the brand names they bear: a corporate global society of mass transport piled on the docks of China’s new cities. Like the huge ads that blink like beacons on
Times Square, he turns them into rectangles of coloured light that recall Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.
It is this double consciousness—of the troubling reality of the present as well as of the history of art—that distinguishes Ballester’s work. Ballester’s approach to his subjects parallels that of the explorer who seeks new adventures, never knowing exactly what he will see on a safari. Perhaps his camera is a gun that brings home a new trophy to grace a wall.
Ballester says that art is an instrument for self-examination, not an end in itself. It is a heuristic tool that teaches you to know yourself and consequently to know others and to compare cultures. In the United States, for example, a democracy that emphasizes freedom and openness, he is surprised that you need a permit to photograph public spaces. But in China, presumably a closed dictatorship, he wanders around and photographs anything that catches his eye without official
interference. And his photographs of the new city of Zhengzhou, while exotically beautiful, are particularly disturbing; the function of what he records is even more unknown and unpredictable than that of the wonders of the Western world.
Spatial and colour manipulation as much as point of view may define personal style in photography. Ballester’s style is also marked by a keen sense of detail. He creates a sense of scale through the relationship of intricate parts and apertures, solids and voids. The unexpected bulge that contrasts the flatness of photography, the sense of being inside as well as outside structures: Ballester sees each city as a personality requiring a different palette to express its identity. The result it not the
fleeting Impressionist “moment,” but an indefinite suspension of time while global expansion quickly changes the functions of the buildings and cities whose forms he captures. The cumulative body of his work speaks to the existential issues of Gauguin’s three questions: Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Ballester gives no answers, but he makes us aware that there are critical decisions waiting to be made.


Barbara Rose is an American art historian and critic, born in 1938. Her first book, American Art Since 1900 was published in 1967. She has published over twenty monographs on artists and numerous exhibition catalogue essays and articles.

PHOTO CHARLES
PHOTO NICHOLAS