Johannesburg, 20 March 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Roger Ballen is an American photographer who has lived in South Africa since the 1970s. Having studied geology and psychology, he has produced a body of work in black and white which resolutely cannot be defined by any movement or trend. His photography presents a universe that is at once disturbing and fascinating, highlighting various flaws in the “rainbow nation”. In his new book, Asylum of the Birds, to be released at the end of the month, the artist takes us to a place that is as extraordinary as it is frightening, where birds and humans become one within Ballen’s powerful and dark compositions. Art Media Agency spoke to Ballen, who gave us a deeper insight into this world.
Could you introduce your new book and explain how the project came about?
Asylum of the Birds will be released at the end of the month, a project that I’ve worked on for about five or six years in Johannesburg. It’s a book containing 91 photographs, mostly taken during the period 2008-2013, all with a black-and-white film camera in this house near Johannesburg.
Graffiti and drawings are constants in your work, but in the last few years they become (with animals) protagonists in your pictures. In your last video, Asylum of the Birds, you ask a man to draw the shape of a face on the wall. How do you decide who is going to draw, and do you ever participate?
It’s almost impossible to know, because every picture is very different. Sometimes when I go to the place, there are drawings on the wall already, and sometimes we have to take off drawings. Sometimes I know the way that certain people draw, sometimes I say to five or ten people, “Just draw a picture of a bird,” or, “Draw a picture of a dog.” Sometimes, the pictures are solely my works. It’s never the same for each picture – it’s such a mixture of everything and there is no set rule. I have to work with the drawings, and they are a step in the picture. Sometimes the drawings come at the end of the photo, sometimes they start right at the beginning. But the difficult thing is that the drawing doesn’t make the photograph. If you look at the history of photography and people documenting graffiti, for example, that was exactly what it was, a documentary – like what Brassaï did, documenting graffiti in Paris. I used the drawings to create another level, an additional layer of meaning within other meanings within the photographs – so the drawings have a multi-dimensional purpose.
Could you explain about the birds – was it difficult to take photographs of birds while they were moving?
The symbolism associated with birds spans a great diversity of cultures. They’re creatures which link the heavens with Earth; they’re signs of peace, signs of beauty, signs of something which is above the human condition. I think in every culture you go to, birds have the same archetypal meaning, and these birds then come into contact with the Roger Ballen world through The Asylum of the Birds world, and the metaphor of the photo is then created.
We interpret your work as a journey in search of your own language. I believe you were inspired from some of the most important photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt or Paul Strand, but are always trying to speak through an experimental language that is completely unique. But can we still see a reference to Surrealism? Parallels could be drawn between the Surrealist video Un Chien andalou and your Asylum of the Birds, particularly in the scene with the cutting of the eyes: did you try to find a relation with this, or is it just how we have interpreted it?
I’m aware of these films and what Dalí did, but everything in my work has really come about through working with the people and the place in my imagination. I don’t really have any interest in trying to be surrealistic, I just work according to my own rules. Obviously I’ve been exposed to art history and I see a lot of art, and I’m not actually sure what art means anymore – a lot of people call themselves artists and I don’t even know why they would even want to use that word anymore. I work according to my own aesthetic, my own rules, my own intuition, my own conscious mind. I’m not really inspired by anybody’s work, I just find my own meaning in what I do.
I guess there was something that came out of Surrealism and the eyes, but I didn’t start specifically looking around Johannesburg for a man who had a glass eye to take out. I had known the man for many years in the Asylum of the Birds house, and had seen him take the glass eye out of his head a number of times, so I thought this would be an interesting thing to incorporate in the movie.
There are some references to the past and to big photographers in your work, but in the end your language is completely unique and experimental.
I would say that the biggest inspiration for me is to look at a blank wall. To create something from nothing is the whole aspect of life. Life comes from nowhere, it comes from the dark, as I said at the end of the film. Life comes from nothingness.
At the beginning of Asylum of the Birds, you say that you define yourself as a photographer and artist. Do you think that there is always a huge debate between photography and art?
There could be a lot of painters that aren’t artists. Just because someone is using oil paint, that doesn’t mean they are an artist. An artist is actually somebody who transforms the world in a visionary way: to me, that’s what an artist is. There aren’t very many true artists that I see in contemporary art, and in my opinion most contemporary art doesn’t transform the world in a meaningful way. It uses repetitive concepts that don’t go very deep.
Your images often feature dark and disturbing qualities. Did you use this as a way to attract people’s attention?
No, I don’t take pictures for anybody except Roger Ballen. I’m not interested in trying to figure out how people are going to react, when people say one thing, I’ll never know if they actually mean it. I’m not interested in taking pictures for anybody except myself. I hope that the pictures will help people to better understand themselves, that they’ll have meaning for other people and contribute to other people’s lives, but honestly, there are 7 billion people on the planet, and I really have no idea how the pictures will affect people in any way. My show that’s on at the moment in Stockholm is called “Roger Ballen’s Theater of the Absurd”, so I feel that there is a lot of comedy, humour and absurdity in the photographs as well. When people say the pictures are dark, I would say that means that they’re scared of themselves. Why are they so dark? Usually it’s because people haven’t been able to confront themselves in any way.
Looking chronologically at your work, you started by taking portraits of people, and now there is a certain disappearance of the body and the human portrait. The protagonists here are the birds, and, more generally, the ambience of the photo, with maybe some parts of the human body featuring. Did you plan this transformation, or did your language gradually evolve?
The transformation occurred over thirty or forty years. My last show, “Lines, Marks and Drawings” at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., shows the development of the drawing over the past thirty or forty years. It happened gradually – it didn’t happen all of a sudden. The inspiration or idea came about when I worked in people’s homes, where people are allowed to draw on the walls or make marks on the walls. So I took pictures and then I used the lines, marks and drawings in people’s homes as part of the photographs. That was really the beginning of the process.
Did you know the people that you photographed in the boarding house in Asylum of the Birds?
Yes, I spent five years in a boarding house, and if you’re in a place for five years, you get to know most of the people. Some people come and go, and sometimes they stay there for the whole time, so you have to get to know the people. For them to trust you and like you you have to develop a relationship with them, otherwise you’re not going to survive in those kinds of places. If you don’t know how to operate in the kind of places I’ve worked in, within five minutes, you’re out. People don’t want to work in these kinds of places – they’re bad places, they’re unstable, they’re full of people who are running away. They’re violent places: there’s a lot of criminality, people who are psychologically unstable, and there’s a lot of poverty. So if you don’t know how to operate and you don’t know how to get along with and work with people, you’re unlikely to last longer than a day.
Your first work, like Dorps and Platteland, revealed the hidden side of white society during the last period of apartheid. The images opened up a deep wound in the country, and your work received lots of criticism. What do you envisage for the future of South Africa? How do you see the evolution of white society after apartheid and now?
The first thing is that I am not a politician: I never have, never was and never will want to be a socio-political photographer. My viewpoint has always been psychological, and that’s why a lot of the pictures are so strong, and over the years have had an impact on people’s subconscious. Fundamentally, they are psychological images that deal with the human condition, the subconscious, the imagination, and the other side of the mind. I would never want to say that my opinions on social and political problems have any real influence on what I do. I don’t really want to get overly involved with politics – for me it’s a waste of the time and energy that I have left on this planet. The only politics that I’m interested in are the politics of the mind: how one part of the mind speaks to the other part of the mind, how one part dominates the other part, how one part of the mind reveals itself to another part, how one part subjugates the other. That’s what I’m interested in, how the mind talks to itself – the politics of the mind, not the politics of South Africa. I’m not naive – I have degrees in psychology and geology, and I’m a well-educated person – but my energy has to be geared towards the issues that are most relevant to me, which means the psychology of the mind, the psychology of my own existence, and the psychology of the human condition.
It’s really interesting to see how you work under a lot of criticism from the society of the time. Is politics always innately a part of art?
It’s a nature of this society, and unfortunately people can’t see beyond that, and the media can’t see beyond it. Even in contemporary art, most of the art magazines and art newspapers are about the celebrity artists. Most of the business of producing and selling art has, in my mind, been completely diverted, and the spirit and poetry of art has been lost somewhere in the last twenty years. It has all become quite an obscene business.
You moved to South Africa thirty years ago to become an artist. Do you think you would have become an artist if you had stayed in the United States?
You know, I really couldn’t say – I could have become the next Bill Gates [laughs], I could have become the next Picasso, and I could have never taken another photograph. We don’t know what could have been, it’s impossible to know. Everything in life is so circumstantial, one thing leads to the next, which leads to the next, which leads to the next. It’s like the human body: it’s made up of billions and billions of cells. Human life is made up of endless sequential experiences – speaking to you now, I don’t know where that will lead, it may lead me one place or another, who knows.
You have had great commercial success as an artist. What are your views on the art market today, and how your works feature inside this market?
I think the art market is an extremely complex business, it’s not like other sectors which are fairly easy to quantify. It’s very driven by fashion, by taste, by celebrity, by timing, by certain people who have a lot of money – so it’s not an easy business to analyse. I think it’s almost beyond analysis in some ways. You look at certain pictures like photographs that might sell for $2 million, but have certain fundamental compositional problems within it, and then you’ll see a really great photograph that can’t fetch more than $1,000 at auction. I don’t know why a Damien Hirst picture of dots that he didn’t even make sells for millions of dollars, and why a great painting or photograph, in my mind, can’t even sell. I don’t even begin to understand how it works: as I say I think it’s dominated by fashion and wealthy people. All you can do is try to produce the best works you can, try to get people to see it, do your best to promote it, and sometimes it takes off and sometimes it doesn’t.
Would you see yourself as a photographer inside the South African photography tradition, like Santu Mofokeng or David Goldblatt? Or do you prefer to be an outsider?
I don’t see myself at all within any tradition here. I really haven’t had any contact with these people – in fact, some of them have caused problems for me because they have been so politically oriented, so I really don’t have any relationship to any of these photographers. A lot of the younger people really look up to me and appreciate what I’m doing, and people endlessly want to study with me and work with me. People like David Goldblatt and people in that group still see me as a threat, because David didn’t like what I did in earlier times, and doesn’t understand what I’m doing now, so I really have kind of stayed out of the whole photography scene here. I work very hard on a foundation, whose purpose is to promote the understanding and education of photography in South Africa. I’ve dedicated time, energy and money to this, to publicly recognising photography as an art form.
The situation in South Africa right now is changing on a political and social level. Do you still want to live there?
I don’t really like the way the world’s run anywhere, but it’s because of human problems, not political ones. It’s human beings which cause the problems, and human beings are what they are. The worst atrocities in the whole history of humanity have been in Europe, fifty or sixty years ago. What the people in Europe did was terrible, and what America did in Vietnam was terrible, and what Russia is doing in Ukraine now is also terrible, and what Rwanda does in the Congo is also terrible. That’s the world we live in and it’s never been any different, and probably never will be in my opinion. There is no utopia: you have to find truth, work hard and find meaning in your own way. This country has problems, but as far as I’ve seen everywhere else also has problems which relate to the human factor. If I had my way, I would love to live in a place which had a beautiful sea I could go diving in every day, and there would be nice, green mountains behind me and I could look at the fish and watch the insects fly by me, and I think that would be a pleasant place. But you know, whenever you’re living in big cities with a lot of human beings around, you run into these similar problems. Sometimes they get worse and we have wars, and sometimes they get better and are more peaceful, but human history is just one circle, based on our instincts. South Africa has problems, but it has good things as well.