The Theatre of Apparitions broke new ground for Ballen, although the project began in an abandoned women’s prison, where he came across drawn images ‘carved’ on painted blacked-out windows by a former inmate and ‘took a photo’. The photo ended up in his book Boarding House, 2008. ‘It was then like a snowball going down a hill’ he explains, as he began to recreate the drawings: ‘sometimes these things dissipate, sometimes they gather momentum.’
His work started to veer away from the traditional world of 3D photography, moving in a new direction that he felt ‘a keen affinity for – but it took a lot of steps – I kept learning and discovering new avenues’. His previous series – Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House, Asylum of the Birds, typically lasted five to six years: ‘The Theatre of Apparitions’, he tells me, ‘took eight years. The pictures and marks are now the levers and inspiration … they create their own momentum, you don’t know what comes next …’.
For Ballen, his art has always been ‘a journey into the mind, into the core of the self’. He describes his assistant and collaborator of the last ten years, Marguerite Roussouw, who brought many things to the project including her knowledge of painting techniques, as ‘a very creative person, who really identifies with my psyche, subliminally and subconsciously – with whom I share a profound visual and psychological understanding.’ The spectral ‘apparitions’, mainly the result of a spontaneous process (and now existing only as photographs), are scary, raunchy, primordial, touching, otherworldly, and – for many – will be the stuff of nightmares. But for Ballen, ‘The more that I can find the dark place, the better – for me it is a poetic place, for a lot of people an anxious place. I get a thrill from trying to visualise that place – while fully understanding that it could be an illusion or a delusion. We’re all clueless’.
Through these pictorial explorations, Ballen is looking for ‘meaning, coherence, some answers to no answers …’, and his viewers ‘will participate in it, whether they like it or not, because the imagery is dealing with the subconscious mind.’ ‘The best art’, he explains, ‘is something that gets in my mind and infects it faster than I can blink.’
The camera is still a vital part of the process: ‘I have been taking pictures for at least 50 years. I feel like I’m able to reduce more and more complexity into simplicity and make a statement that has psychological effect. For some people the camera is a tool to reflect society, to reflect the political environment, or to reflect fashion/people – for me it is a tool to explore oneself – and a tool that I have talent with.’