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Roger Ballen and the Theatre of the Absurd

Posted on 21 Feb 2017

Alison Cole talks with celebrated photographer Roger Ballen about another of his forays into the theatre of the absurd.

Roger Ballen's work explores the deep recesses of his own mind and the chiaroscuro of the human psyche. [Credit: Roger Ballen, 2016. Photographed by Maquerite Rossouw]

Roger Ballen – the acclaimed American photographer who has lived and worked in South Africa for most of his five-decade career – has created a striking and delightfully unnerving body of work: The Theatre of Apparitions. Exhibited in Spring 2017 at Hamiltons Gallery, London, this series is the subject of an immersive monograph.

Ballen (b. 1950) describes this series as both a departure and a culmination of his work, which has always reflected deeply, empathetically – and with dark humour – on the human condition. Ballen is probably best known for his ‘series’: complex photographic projects that have typically focused on people on the margins (the outsider, the isolated, the untameable – labourers, witchdoctors, the mentally ill and physically impaired, animals and birds) using notoriously unsafe locations (squatters camps, mine dumps, scrapyards). From photojournalistic beginnings, the last 16-20 years have seen Ballen introduce drawings and theatrical devices into these tableaux vivant: the pictographs, in particular, providing a deeper means of penetrating the human subconscious and exposing the ‘theatre of the absurd’. The series have also been explored in short films, further expanding the aesthetic of each project.

Ballen describes his apparitions as ‘inhabiting a kind of amniotic darkness of the womb’. [Credit: Theatre of Apparitions: Assembly, 2011. © 2016 Roger Ballen]

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.’

For Ballen, such images are ‘hallucinations making up for that which is lost, contact with that which we desire but do not possess’. [Credit: Theatre of Apparitions: Guardians, 2011. © 2016 Roger Ballen]

Autumn 2017 saw the publication of a retrospective of Ballen’s career – entitled Ballenesque. How then would Ballen sum up ‘Ballenesque’, or ‘Rogerworld’ as he sometimes calls it? ‘It’s an aesthetic, a way of expressing myself, that seems to be separate from other art, integrating drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, through black and white photography. It reflects on the subconscious and an understanding of the human condition. It takes thousands of little relationships to get a good picture.’ If his latest images bring to mind cave paintings or the fantastic world of Jheronimus Bosch, then Ballen welcomes that reaction. ‘Those works have deep, archetypal meaning – they are products of experience and our evolutionary/biological responses to an experience that we aren’t even beginning to get to the bottom of.’

I alight on one image from The Theatre of Apparitions: a fragile, tremulous Muse – which he says has the ‘sense of an angel’. ‘There’s an illusion that when you die you go to heaven and everything’s going to be alright’, he says: ‘But my apparition Muse is still carrying the same anxiety as when one’s walking the earth.’

Alison Cole

The Theatre of Apparitions

Roger Ballen

Asylum of the Birds

Roger Ballen Out of stock