Juan Pablo Ballester

Galería Ray Gun

Spain, which during the Franco era forced its political dissidents into exile, has more recently become a land of asylum. This transformation has aroused conflicts, however, especially those generated by politicians who promote racism and xenophobia and place all kinds of obstacles in the way of any tolerance of unfamiliar cultures. Juan Pablo Ballester (born in 1966), a Cuban artist living in Barcelona, is very familiar with all of this. His work, expressed here principally through photography (sometimes he works in video as well), conveys the complex problematic of exile. And yet that is not really the central theme of his new series of ten Cibachromes, “En Ninguna Parte” (Nowhere), 1999–2000, even though its title denotes the transit through which the exile passes, as if he lived a type of limbo.

The main thread that runs through “Nowhere” is, rather, the palpable presence of some young men of menacing aspect. The artist met them—boys who have passed beyond adolescence without yet reaching full maturity—by chance on the street in his central Barcelona neighborhood. They form part of a vaguely defined urban tribe who, mistakenly or not, are perceived as dangerous and violent. Membership is signaled by their clothing: warm-up pants decorated with the Spanish flag, track suit and/or jacket, Barcelona soccer club jerseys, bootlike black sneakers—the uniform has become a familiar sight in large Spanish cities whose youth culture is dominated by the language of soccer. The boys’ short hair ominously echoes the look of skinheads, although they do not identify themselves politically with any particular group. Even the presence of their vicious-looking dogs conveys an image associated with a rootless underclass prone to purposeless violence. They are products of a society without aspirations, utopias, or projects that promise social change.

The virility of these young men’s poses, the firmness of their gestures, the focus of their gaze communicates to the spectator an intimidating air that, at the same time, does not veil a certain erotic tension bordering on exhibitionism—a drive that asserts the desire to be seen as powerful, a markedly macho inclination. Ballester, conscious of how misleading first impressions can be and of how value judgments are so often based on superficial, flippant, or hasty thinking, maintains that, appearances to the contrary, there’s nothing dangerous about these boys—knowing full well the commentaries and morbid fascination his images would provoke. Moreover, he shows them in the interior of his apartment, on the stairs of his building, or on the terrace, visually trapped behind bars or yielding to the scopophilia of the artist. For an instant, the power of art seems to beat out other realities, if only through the artifice of situating people in a space foreign to them. In some manner, they are also in nobody’s land, although they are dressed in a shield of signs (posture, attire, and so on) meant to protect them from the dangers of the street and its inhabitants. A charade of masculinity that sells and seduces. And it is here that risk resides.

Juan Viente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Michèle Faguet.