In the earliest maps of the world cartographers would fill the gaps in their knowledge with pictures of men with their faces in their chests, or a creature using one gigantic foot as an umbrella. An inscription would read: “Here be monsters”. This could serve as the title of any exhibition by Roger Ballen, although the unknown territory is not geographical, but within the mind.
Diane Arbus made her reputation as a photographer of freaks and misfits but her images seem demure alongside those of Ballen. Arbus’s subjects were deviations from the norm but still embedded in the heart of American life. Ballen’s are outcasts. Deranged, dirty, and frightening, they are figures from a horror movie which is all the more disturbing because they are not the creations of a special effects department.
A classic Ballen image is Head inside shirt (2001), which features an apparently headless child of indeterminate gender. The headless child would be disturbing enough, but it is holding an animal toy in one hand, and shares the room with a dark, insect-like form that looks like it might once have been part of a chair. Like all Ballen’s work the image is disturbing, but the composition is precise and formal.
Some will remember Ballen’s photographs from the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, presented in a dingy room on Cockatoo Island. Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind is not part of this year’s Biennale, but it lurks at Sydney College of the Arts Galleries like a shadowy presence, threatening to upstage the bigger exhibition. Nothing in the current Biennale is so confronting, nothing leaves such a strong impression.
To increase the feeling of unease a series of small, dark cells underneath the building have been used by Ballen and SCA students to create installations that hint at the campus’ earlier life as the Callan Park insane asylum. Each cell is filled with mementoes of imaginary occupants, vaguely resembling sculptures by Ed Kienholz. The objects and sounds tell tales of misery, loneliness and degradation; the walls are covered with graffiti – demonic faces and figures that underline the hellish nature of the place.
What is it with art schools in Sydney? SCA is a former mental institution, while the National Art School, a former goal, must be the only college of art where people have been hanged on the premises.
In reality the cells beneath SCA were probably used for some less sinister purpose such as storage, but there is still a lot of truth in this fictionalisation. Mental institutions have always been places where people have been dumped and forgotten, their rights as citizens suspended.
Ballen has no qualms about creating dramatic scenarios in his search for “archetypal” symbols that speak to the viewer’s subconscious. He began as a documentary photographer but over the years his pictures have become filled with drawings, paintings and sculptural brac-a-brac, created by the artist himself, or by his subjects. In works such as Collision (2005) or Deathbed (2010), there are no figures, but the human presence is implied by a face drawn on a pillow or the broken head of a doll. The walls in both photos are covered in crude drawings and dirty marks – signs of previous occupation.
Ballen’s career reverses the usual process whereby an artist from the provinces travels to the centre and makes a reputation. Born in New York, in 1950, he had an early introduction to photography from his mother, who worked for Magnum, the world renowned photo agency. During his childhood he was introduced to the work of figures such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Elliot Erwitt and Bruce Davidson, and often got to meet the photographers.
Ballen started taking photos from an early age, but went to California to study psychology and became caught up in the counterculture. After spending time travelling he published the book, Boyhood (1979), which featured images of boys from around the world, as a kind of veiled autobiography of his own youth.
A surprising next move saw him train as a geologist in Colorado, which led to a job in Johannesburg in 1982. There he found his spiritual home, and has remained in South Africa ever since. He has been there long enough to be an insider, but retains the probing eye of an outsider, able to see a side of life that native-born can’t see, or don’t wish to see.
Over the past 30 years Ballen discovered subjects in small, remote townships and in the Johannesburg suburbs that were completely foreign to most middle-class South Africans. When he began to publish his photos in collections such as Platteland (1994) and Outland (2000), he stirred up violent controversy.
This was not how white South Africans imagined themselves, and not the image they wished to see projected to the world. Ballen was not entirely prepared for this reaction. He knew his photos had the potential to shock and disturb, but he never intended them as political statements or slurs on his adopted homeland.
He argues that these images are primarily psychological, not sociological. He wants to address that deep, dark part of the mind that Freud called “the Id”. As a concept it’s more poetic than biological – a shared repositary of instinctive drives that remains buried under the trappings of civilisation.
There have always been artists who have explored this territory, from Breugel and Bosch to Goya, Alfred Kubin and the Surrealists. Like these artists (and indeed, Alfred Hitchcock) Ballen frequently uses birds as symbols of menace. Think of the owls in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, and look at the birds that jostle for space with humans in works such as White Eye (2011), or in his collection, Asylum of the Birds (2014). One can discern a tradition of the Grotesque – often defined as a kind of fascinating ugliness. Pushed far enough, a truly grotesque image exerts the same magnetism as a work of beauty.
It has been easier for painters to make such images, as their only constraint is the individual imagination. Until recently photography has been fettered to reality in such a way that one is always left wondering about the circumstances in which the picture was taken.
Despite the extreme nature of her work, Diane Arbus remained within the documentary tradition, whereas a figure such as Joel-Peter Witkin constructs his own theatrical tableaux in the studio. Ballen’s work is somewhere between these two poles. The subjects of his photographs are society’s misfits, but his approach is shamelessly theatrical. His figures are not posing passively, they are collaborating with someone who has won their trust, creating a form of ad hoc performance art in bare, filthy rooms.
In his extensive catalogue essay, Colin Rhodes argues that Ballen’s work should not be circumscribed by “the classic bourgeois question” – “What do the people you’re photographing think about it all?” If these people felt upset or humiliated by Ballen’s photographs, it’s unlikely they would participate in these staged scenes.
It’s more interesting to ask what Ballen feels when he enters such environments. To take these photos he has immersed himself in a world of violence and madness. If he has built up a rapport with his subjects it is by treating them not as freaks, but as people with their own sense of dignity. He refuses to buy into conventional distinctions about what is normal and abnormal, presumably as a legacy of his early exposure to the counterculture and the anti-psychiatry movement.
It may seem that Ballen deals with an intensely marginal world, but his meeting with South African rappers, Die Antwoord, resulted in a video clip, I Fink U Freeky (2012), that has scored 76 million hits on YouTube. This clip is screening at SCA, along with two other short films, although everything is available on-line. The manic energy of the song, combined with Ballen’s striking visuals, is grotesque in every sense. Like it or not, one can’t look away. It seems to confirm the artist’s view that we have a need to get in touch with our so-called dark side. 76 million viewers can’t all be wrong.
As Ballen intones at the end of one of his films, “the light come from the darkness,” and if we don’t know the darkness how can we ever be sure that we know the light?
Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind
Sydney College of the Arts Galleries
Until 7 May.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 9th April, 2016