The following interview is taken from The World According to Roger Ballen and was conducted by Martine Lusardy, director of the Musée de la Halle Saint Pierre, Paris, in March 2019.
MARTINE LUSARDY: You have chosen to present your new exhibition at Halle Saint Pierre, a museum – or rather an anti-museum – dedicated to unusual forms of creation. Here, art brut has a privileged place, and Jean Dubuffet, its inventor and theorist, is a major reference. You are yourself a scholar and, at the same time, an autodidact. What a affinities do you have with works that Dubuffet defined as ‘an artistic operation that is completely pure, raw, reinvented in all its phases by its author, based solely on his own impulses. Art, therefore, in which is manifested the sole function of invention, and not those, constantly seen in cultural art, of the chameleon and the monkey’?
ROGER BALLEN: I remember visiting a Van Gogh exhibition in 1968 and realizing that art could be more than mere representation – that it could be a means of exploring the deepest levels of the mind, which cannot be described using ordinary language. In 1973, from February to June, I went into a painting craze, working almost non-stop, producing one work after another. I met a man by the name of Albert, who was the rst person to make me aware that my work was fundamentally psychological. After seeing my painting The Last Supper [page 17], Albert became frenetic, expressing his opinion that I was to be another Van Gogh because I had penetrated the psychological core of humanity.
Besides being made aware of the subconscious mind through individuals such as Jung and Freud, I was particularly influenced during this time by the cult writer and psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who showed me that the word ‘insanity’ could be viewed multi-dimensionally, and that the definition of normal had been manipulated by a corrupted value system. As a young man, I began to seek out the insane in whatever form it occurred, whether in others or in my own mind. The id, the core self, the animal side, became the ‘mirror’ for revealing ‘truth’.
In 1982 I began working on a photographic project titled Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa. Early on, in a place called Hopetown, frustrated by the blaring sun, I knocked on the door of a stranger’s house and was invited in by a man who worked for the railways. At that defining moment, I went inside – literally and metaphorically – and never returned to the outside.
Beginning in so-called outsider homes, I found the motifs, the subjects and the spaces that I would gradually transform into an aesthetic – what’s become known as the ‘Ballenesque’. On the walls of these homes I found wires, photographs hung in an uneven, incoherent way, children’s drawings, grease, and dirt stains. In many cases, instead of having paintings or posters on the walls, the children – and even the adults – would simply make drawings directly on the walls themselves. Why is it that most people want white walls in their houses? I found inspiration in places where toys, plates, paper and dirty laundry had been strewn around, and where animals roamed freely. I was drawn to take photographs in places characterized by chaos and disorder, where the norms of social order were not apparent, or had been abandoned.
It is clear to me that the foundation of my art from the last decade or so has its origins in my experience of photographing in these locations, which I have often referred to as the ‘Outland’. There, where the comic is linked to the tragic, where madness is the norm rather than the exception, I was able to create the basis for my vision.
ML: Dubuffet, at the same time as he reveals the existence of other artists, of another artistic practice, indicates another place for art: ‘Art is where we do not look for it, where we do not think about it.’ In fact, one finds the art brut artist in all the places that society assigns to psychological or social distinctiveness. Art brut inverses the poles of social values: madness, ignorance, old age – all are positively charged. You have a special connection with the margins of South African society, which you have included in your creative process. Aren’t you a marginal creator yourself?
RB: It seems to me that I inhabit an anomalous position as both an outsider and an insider. I am an insider in the sense that I am well educated, travelled, and aware of the nuances of the photographic/art world. In my daily routine, I move from order to chaos, routine to breakdown, from organization to subversion … I’m living in Johannesburg like a first-world person, and then, in a matter of minutes, I can be in what might be characterized as the Third World. This experience has a metaphoric aspect to it, because such a world can be seen as a place of the id, where the human condition can be unmasked. The first world can be viewed as the ego, a place of repression and alienation. My life in South Africa can be seen in terms of the relationship between my id and my ego. When I photograph, my id seems to take precedence; and when I go home or to my office, the ego dominates my mental state.
The locations I work in are often violent, chaotic places. People who have spent time in prison, in mental institutions, or who struggle to find the means to feed themselves dominate my environment. Over the years, I have not come across a single person in the Outland who has ever been to an art gallery or museum.
Read the full interview in The World According to Roger Ballen