Roger Ballen: an introspective on a retrospective

The artist reflects on the revised edition of 'Ballenesque', his work and humanity

16 December 2022 - 08:04
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dons the eponymous Roger's mask, as featured in his 2020 monograph 'Roger the Rat'.
Roger Ballen dons the eponymous Roger's mask, as featured in his 2020 monograph 'Roger the Rat'.
Image: Marguerite Rossouw

“When you're thinking as an artist, the most important thing is that the pictures have an impact on people. Impact and staying power.”

This statement à la Roger Ballen, the US-born, Joburg-based photographic artist whose name has become synonymous with stark black and white images of near-uninhabitable spaces, depictions of the human id via an anthropomorphic rat, photographs of an anomalous City of Gold, audiovisual representations of the mind and installations decrying mankind's destruction of the natural world. 

The impact and staying power of Ballen's art is evident in that a revised edition of his 2017 monograph Ballenesque has been released. 

Speaking to me from his recently constructed Inside Out Centre for the Arts on Jan Smuts Avenue, Ballen, in his rich, measured timbre, describes Ballenesque as a “recollection of my life in photography”.

The reason for a new edition is threefold, he explains.

The publishers sold out the book, the paperback is less expensive than a hardback and he's embarked on other projects since the original issuance.

“There were some big, important projects since 2016, namely Roger the Rat, the drawings I did during lockdown and the colour photographs. So there was a reason, even if they hadn't looked to do another edition, 'cause I had made some progress on other projects.” 

As for publishing his drawings and colour photos as separate entities?

“Definitely the colour photos as a separate book,” he responds with a kinetic nod. “I have over at least 100 excellent colour photos now. And then I have a new project, which is a little bit secretive, that I'm doing in colour, which I think is also quite powerful.”

As the trite adage goes, one should never judge a book by its cover. Judging I'm not, curious I am: Why did Ballen decide on Baffled as the cover image for the revised edition?

Numerals as answers appear to be the dish du jour, with Ballen citing two reasons behind the decision: “The first is, the colour makes it different from the previous [edition]. The second is that it really incorporates a lot of the so-called Ballenesque: you have drawing, you have animals, you have mannequins.

“It has a sense of installation, but photography, because the snake and figure are moving. And there's a bit of humour in it, so it has all the elements. And it's a good photograph. It works perfectly. It's coherent. It incorporates a lot of the aesthetic issues that surrounded Ballenesque thinking.”

Aesthetics aside, Ballen cites the accessible nature of the image — “It's a picture for everybody” — as further motivation: “A 10-year-old could appreciate it.”

As inclusive as “everybody” can be, as unknowable viewers of his work can be too. 

“In these days you don't really realise who your audience is,” he says, referring to Instagram (“I don't know 99% of my followers”) as an abyss of anonymity: “Some of them write remarks to me all the time, some of them I never hear from.

“Maybe they're overpowered by the pictures or maybe they have no interest in what I do,” he muses. “So it's very hard to judge. I don't really have a particular audience.”

For someone au fait with Ballen's oeuvre, the inclusion of his previously unseen lockdown drawings in Ballenesque elicits an (in-person) remark in relation to his writing that “drawing is pure Roger Ballen”.

The artist, who initially garnered recognition for photography, elaborates on this written proclamation: “Photography is the eye seeing something in the physical world, some of which — if I were to photograph you — what I photograph and what fills you is the chair, is the wall,” Ballen gestures in my direction opposite him in his spacious office. 

Whereas photography incorporates corporeality, drawing embodies the psyche ...

“Everything's a total transformation of the mind through the hand, through the pen or the paper. It's a much more direct process. So I can sort of do a drawing of my dreams, but I can't do that in photography,” the psychological artist explains.

Ballen furthers that his lockdown drawings originated from “my subconscious relationship to my situation at the time”.

Of the seven lockdown drawings featured in Ballenesque, the salience of two, specifically, left an impact: Overwhelmed and Disconcerted

Other than attaching these emotions to a global cognitive response to the onslaught of the pandemic, it also elicits a question as to how Ballen decides on titles for his work.

Titling, he responds, is important for two reasons. 

Practically speaking, it makes it easier for someone with a sizeable archive to identify pictures. 

“If somebody says 'I like the cat one', but I took about 50 good pictures of a cat in my career, it makes it easier to say 'Oh, it's the one on the chair',” he says of the identification process. (Bonus points if you include the date and location of the image ... ).

Second, titles “accentuate the meaning of the work in some way or another and add to the layering of the interpretation. It creates a pathway into the picture”.

Ballen's mention of a cat is fortuitous as it brings the conversation to an integral part of his work: animals.

Felines, muroids, avians: you name them, Ballen's featured them.

A black and white image of a dead cat, titled Dead Cat, New York, 1970, was “my first encounter with animals”, he recounts in Ballenesque.

recounts the photographer's first encounter with animals.
'Dead Cat, 1970' recounts the photographer's first encounter with animals.
Image: Roger Ballen

How have his encounters with animals changed over the decades?

“In the same way the photographs have changed,” he responds, referring to his first book, Boyhood (published in 1979), in which he depicted a “more harmonious relationship between animals and non-human animals. There weren't many animals”.

Come 2001's Outland and 2005's Shadow Chamber, and harmony had (d)evolved into hostility.

“It's not a harmonious situation. Animals are sort of in these unnatural spaces, alienating spaces, and the relationship between the animals and the people is not one of friendliness or togetherness or assistances.

“That's what you see in the exhibition here.”

The exhibition in speaking? Ballen's conversion of a room in his centre into a visual condemnation of trophy hunting. (Think mounted animal heads, photos of a near-unrecognisably slim Winston Churchill posing with a kill, colonial safari-wear and books depicting — and propagating — carnophallogocentrism). 

“There's nothing nice about the whole thing. The history of humanity in terms of the natural world is one of devastation and conflict and exploitation, and worse than any war: man with the natural world. You just don't see any natural land any more. It's not only climate change,” he darkly comments.

In his 2014 filmic accompaniment to Asylum of the Birds, Ballen's near-disembodied voice states that “birds are the one thing that connects us between heaven and earth”. 

“There's a myth to human interpretations of animals,” he relays. “We don't know what their mind is. It's really something I admire in a lot of ways and it's challenging: you can never get there, I dunno how they think,” he says with awe cum perplexity. 

On the topic of birds and myths ... 

The revised edition of Ballenesque is dedicated to Ballen's mottled pigeon, Icarus. 

His winged companion is no longer a permanent fixture in Ballen's office (as he was in Ballen's former work space in Parktown North). How is our avian amigo doing?

“I'm glad you asked, this shows we have a long friendship. You're the only one who ever asks about Icarus.”

The artist animatedly mimics how, every night when he gets home, "[h]e goes crazy. He goes from the top of the cage, he jumps down, then jumps back to the top of the cage. 

“I'll tell him you wish him the best,” Ballen smiles. 

The artist's phone rings. A quick glance at the screen: it's his wife, fellow artist Linda Ballen. 

He lets her know he'll be home around seven.

Speaking of home: a number of pages in Ballenesque are dedicated to The House Project, published in book form in 2015, which encapsulates his symbolisation of the mind. 

“The mind is the house, the house is the mind. The house is a place where you express yourself,” he explains. “It's a metaphoric concept of what 'house' means. The house becomes a metaphor for entering the mind.”

He specifically references the works done in Shadow ChamberBoarding House and Roger the Rat: “They're all in these houses that have a certain claustrophobia.”

The literal interpretation of “claustrophobia” is evident in Ballen's visual depictions of confined spaces, yet it is the commentary he delivers on the societal confines to which humankind is subjected which remains with you: the staying power, as it were.

A concrete interpretation of chronotopia is relevant to the conversation as Ballen's Inside Out Centre for the Arts served as the antithesis to claustrophobia during lockdown.

“I think I was really lucky because this building was half-built and I had a place to go. I was climbing the walls at home. The timing couldn't been better. I was really fortunate,” he says of the space which offered him the opportunity to create and stay sane inside insanity.

A dissection of the human psyche in as much as it is a critique of societal expectations, Ballen’s work explores the subconscious, his and ours, using an un-PC rat, the eponymous Roger.

As comprehensive as the revised edition of Ballenesque is, as veritable the truth of books being unable to capture sensory experiences remains.

Yes, we're talking audiovisuals. 

Has Ballen ever observed someone watching his films and noted their reactions?

“No,” comes the near-immediate response, “but this is a very good point because a few people who are very good friends of mine and who own a lot of my books have never seen the videos before and they said the videos really helped them understand the work.

“The videos seem like they're objective documentaries, but they're art movies. But they [first-time viewers] said they really gave them another perspective on the work because it makes sense. I mean, the video is sound, it's narrative, whereas a photograph is a two-dimensional object that can't talk. So it added a whole other dimension of ... of ... what word can I use?”

Ballen cogitates his answer before replying with " ... positioning the work and putting it into some perspective. It puts them into a novel, almost. The person is a part of the novel and can now read through it.”

In the foreword to the chapter on his colour photographs, Ballen, who holds a PhD in geology, but seldom goes by the title “Doctor” (“Unless someone from the bank is calling”, he jests), writes that "[t]he move to colour was unexpected, to say the least. It could be compared to an earthquake, when layers of rock that used to be side by side suddenly find themselves in some other place”. 

Was this written statement a subconscious dig at his topographic acumen? 

“No,” comes the prompt response. The answer is a stratified one, with Ballen explaining that “as you work, you're adding layers and getting higher. You're building a foundation. Maybe it takes you to a core place or maybe it takes you backwards, or maybe there are diagonal faults and you're never here or there”.

His phone rings again. “Be quiet now!” he gently scolds, before muting the inconsiderate interrupter.

It was Ballen's interest in the study of the Earth which initially bought him to South Africa in the mid-80s, publishing Dorps in 1986, followed by 1994's Platteland

(1988) depicts one, of many, likeable people Ballen features in 'Platteland'.
Chopping Wood (1988) depicts one, of many, likeable people Ballen features in 'Platteland'.
Image: Roger Ballen

In a talk during the Joburg launch of the revised edition of Ballenesque, he mentioned he didn't make enemies of the people he met, photographed and featured in Platteland. “We liked each other.”

What, according to Roger Ballen, makes someone likable? 

“Well ... "

He pauses.

I think it's being friendly and not aggressive ... Having a sense of humour ... I mean, humour plays a big role in liking people, initially.

“If somebody's interested in what you do and you're interested in what they do, or you have some shared commonality, I think that's what ultimately ends up creating the friendliness or a long-term relationship,” he thoughtfully concludes his synopsis on companionship. 

Our conversation reaches its denouement with an off-kilter mention of Ballen's favourite word. 

The word in speaking? “Nothing.”

“It is the best word,” he straightforwardly states. "'Where are you going?' 'What do you know?' It's the most profound word.”

He should consider titling his next book or series Nothing, I propose.

“I'll sleep on that. I think it's an excellent suggestion.”

Ever the fan of books featuring an author's John Hancock, I ask Ballen to sign my copy of the revised edition of Ballenesque.

A drawing of a cat complements his autograph. 

“Ag, sweet!” I proclaim, venturing, “Has anyone ever described your work as 'sweet', Roger?”

His fleeting smile says it all. 

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