American photographic artist Roger Ballen has spent most of his adult life living in Johannesburg documenting what he calls his “interior”. The startling image-making intercourse with the darker layers of Africa that this entails delivers more than a Roger Ballen Interior; it is the kind of art that hits so hard that it demands a confrontation with the viewer’s interior, too. Having worked for many years as a geologist, Ballen’s work asserts the need to descend to the disturbing dimensions of human experience in order to mine the baffling anatomies of instinct that animate us all. On the cusp of the release of Asylum of the Birds his twelfth book, Ballen talks to Aesthetica about how his artistic evolution is currently in the mood for a party.
A: Your journey with this book began at an asylum in Johannesburg.
RB: Yes. In 2003 I found this place. It’s a spread out house full of itinerant people and animals. There are pigs, cows, rabbits, big and small birds, roosters and chickens pecking at everything, pigeons flying around people’s heads and landing on people when they’re sleeping, ducks laying eggs under the sink and jumping into people’s baths. It’s a place of madness and refuge for all these creatures, animals and human. It’s a disturbing, comic place, where humans seem to become animals and animals seem to become human. Most visitors would not last an hour there but I spent five and a half years working in this place with its inhabitants.
A: What attracted you to them?
RB: Their temporary home is a vortex of life. It’s so alive and surreal and like my pictures it is conscious and unconscious, real and fiction – the distinctions all get blurry.
A: The body of work you’ve created in this vortex of life gives us the most complete vision so far of the Roger Ballen World. It seems that you were in the mood for a party.
RB: My work keeps evolving, and yes, I would say that this period I’m in now is the most complex and sophisticated part of the project so far. What was simpler before; singular drawings, more empty space, has been filled out with a lot more drawings, more characters, more animals. I’m still an enigma to Roger Ballen and Roger Ballen is still an enigma to me, we are still searching to find Pure Roger. But in this continual evolution, we have met with a lot more information. The work in this book was made as an interactive process with the inhabitants of the asylum. I would go there everyday and use what was available. There might have been a painting on the wall or drawings on the wall. There might have been clothes or strange objects lying around. I would make a composition out of these things, as well as add things that I had brought myself, make my own drawings, add a person or an animal. A bird would fly into frame and we would catch it and try to make it sit still. It was spontaneous but also scientific in the way I always work, where street photography and conceptual art come together.
A: You’ve brought it to something that feels like a bacchanalian underworld, a place where the ghosts of everyone, the souls of the dead and the unborn, intermingle in the life cycle.
RB: That’s true. Can I use Ghosts of Everyone, and Where Souls of Dead and Unborn Intermingle, as titles for my next photographs? As a geologist, I travel downwards in the mineshafts towards the core of the earth and in my art, I travel downwards towards my interior, which if I’m lucky, gives way to where the common human experience can be touched. At the asylum, chaos and design, sophistication and primitivism, tragedy and comedy, are all there, living side by side continuously. Sometimes I would feel as if it was a place where the roof had been blown off and everything had been rained on and eaten up and reborn in an organic process. It all reduced to soil. Life and death come together in the soil.
A: How did you capture the mystery of all that in these pictures?
RB: I take hundreds of pictures and I don’t know if I’ve got “the one” until I develop the film, print the images, and study them. I know when a photo is alive when it punches me in the stomach and it stays in my stomach. There is just no doubt, it runs me right over, like being in the ring with Mike Tyson and getting knocked flat on my back. Something comes together, some mysterious thing, and for some reason life is in it. It’s something you can’t explain. You set the scene, you work scientifically at the composition, you have your intention, and somewhere along the line you hit it. This thing that burns and pulsates, is enigmatic and invisible, but is unmistakably The Lifeforce. I’ve seen it being recognised in the eyes of others too. Like the x-ray clerks at the airport. I travel with my photographs in a led-lined briefcase and get stopped all the time at airport security. The clerks ask me to open the case and every time I do, they get so excited. They don’t know what they’re looking at but they call their colleagues over, and a crowd forms. I see them looking at the work with those eyes, and I know it has hit them in that place – a place that art-going crowds might not be as familiar with but that the African culture is so open to. It’s something to do with instinct and the wisdom that is wrought from hard life experience and a comfort with absurdity.
A: The birds in the book add a special dimension to this absurdity.
RB: Yes, the key to this work is the presence of the birds. They are an archetype for the link to heaven. They are mysterious and majestic, and at their best they gives us love and hope.
1. Film courtesy of Roger Ballen, Ben Crossman and YouTube.