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Castel Ivano : Roger Ballen & Joel-Peter Witkin : The Uncanny Lens / La Lente Inquietante


A joint exhibition by the two most surprising contemporary photographers: Joel-Peter Witkin and Roger Ballen. This is what offers the Castel Ivano in Trentino, Italy.

The Uncanny Lens / La Lente Inquietante is an exhibition aimed at showcasing the photographic works of two renowned artistic figures, Joel-Peter Witkin and Roger Ballen. Both artists are known for their distinctive and unconventional approaches to black-and-white photography, the human condition, the human psyche and the grotesque. The proposed exhibition seeks to encourage an exploration of the unconscious mind through photography. Further, by presenting a selection of these works side-by side, this exhibition seeks to offer a deepened and more nuanced appreciation for these artist’s contribution to Surrealism and to the history of photography.

The reference to the ‘uncanny’ in this exhibition is two-fold: it refers to the eerie quality of the works themselves, as well as to the remarkable and strange visual relationships between these two oeuvres.

This exhibition will consist of black-and-white photographs of each of the two artists spanning decades of their careers. The images from both Joel-Peter Witkin and Roger Ballen have both been said to engage with the ‘darker’ aspects of the human condition, the human psyche and the grotesque. The works have been de- scribed as ‘provocative’, ‘unsettling’ and ‘disturbing’. But it is in the juxtaposition of their photographs that we gain a clearer understanding of each artist’s unique style as well as a deepened appreciation of Surrealistic photography.

This project reveals a profound dialogue established over the years between the two artists. In the juxtaposition of their photographs, we gain a clearer understanding of their unique aesthetic through their stylistic and iconographic references to myth and fantasy.

Witkin’s still lifes often reference pre-existing Western masterpieces and include macabre corpses and body parts, fantastical elements, and religious and mythological imagery. His photographs are planned through sketches, and pictorial approaches such as scratching negatives and printing through tissue to imbue the scenes with a quality of the dreamlike, mystical and occult. In contrast, Ballen’s distinctive visual vocabulary incorporates the use of dilapidated or discarded items, found objects and taxidermy, human mannequins and actual body parts, graphic elements such as wires and art-brut drawings, toys and domestic animals (from birds to cats, to rats).

Despite each artist’s distinctive styles of expression, elements come together as surrealistic, absurd or uncanny mise-en-scenes that, in their formal harmony, venture into abstraction. Moreover, despite the geographical distance and the particular contexts of these artists (Witkin works mainly in New Mexico, USA and Ballen in Johannesburg, South Africa), one finds a striking similarity in the vocabulary of motifs and in the ways in which they are combined.


Born in the US and based in Johannesburg, South Africa for over four decades, Roger Ballen is one of the most important photographers of his generation. He has published over 25 books and recently Thames and Hudson published his book Ballenesque, Roger Ballen – A Retrospective, a major book of his collected works. His photographs are collected by some of the most prominent museums in the world.

His oeuvre, which spans five decades, began with the documentary photography field but evolved into the creation of distinctive fictionalized realms that also integrate the mediums of film, installation, theatre, sculpture, painting and drawing. Ballen describes his works as “existential psychodramas” that touch the subconscious mind and evoke the underbelly of the human condition. They aim to break through the repressed thoughts and feelings by engaging him in themes of chaos and order, madness or unruly states of being, the human relationship to the animal world, life and death, universal archetypes of the psyche and experiences of otherness. Through his unique, complex visual language, and universal and profound themes, the artist has made a lasting contribution to the field of art.

Ballen has also been the creator of several acclaimed and exhibited short films that dovetail with his photographic series. Ballen was one of the artists that represented South African at the Venice Biennale Arte 2022.

He is also the founder and executive director of the Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Johannesburg, which opened to the public in March 2023. The Centre aims to promote an awareness of African related issues through exhibitions and educational programs. Its first show, entitled End of the Game, explores the decimation of wildlife in Africa both through historical artefacts and Ballen’s photographs and installations.


Joel-Peter Witkin was born in 1939, in Brooklyn, New York. Early in the artist’s life, he witnessed a gruesome car accident in which a little girl was decapitated. This traumatic event left an indelible mark on the artist’s psyche and would permeate all aspects of his creative vision and sensibility throughout his life.

Witkin made his first photograph when he was eleven. Edward Steichen selected one of Witkin’s photographs for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art when Joel was sixteen years old. At twenty-one, Witkin enlisted as a Photographer in the U.S. Army, from 1961 to 1964. He holds a B.F.A. de- gree from the Cooper Union, in Sculpture. He was awarded a fellowship in writing at Columbia University. In 1975, Witkin moved to New Mexico. He holds a M.A. and a M.F.A. in Photography from the University of New Mexico.

Witkin creates elaborate tableaux that feature dwarves, hermaphrodites, people with unusual physical capabilities or deformities, mutilated corpses and amputated body parts from the dead, obtained from medical schools, insane asylums and morgues. The resulting photographs are simultaneously hauntingly beautiful and grotesque, as well as challenge established notions of beauty and normality.

Witkin has had over 150 solo museum and gallery exhibitions. Twenty-five monographs have been pub- lished on his work. He has received four National Endowments in Photography. He was made Chevalier of Arts and Letters of France in 1990. In 1996, Witkin was given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 2000, Witkin was made Commander of Arts and Letters of France. Most recently, in October 2022, he was part of a group exhibition titled, Les Choses, at the Louvre in Paris. Four documentary films have been made on his work. Witkin’s works are included in numerous public and private collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the San Francisco Museum of Mod- ern Art, California; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Centre George Pompidou, Paris; Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London; Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among others. The artist currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Roger Ballen & Joel-Peter Witkin : The Uncanny Lens / La Lente Inquietante
March 16 – April 13, 2024
Castel Ivano
Via al Castello, 1 – 38059 – Ivano Fracena (TN)
Trentino, Italy

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