in the Category: art

Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen has been photographing for over forty years. Famous for his unsettling portraits, he is moving to other imagery as birds ‘symbols of heaven and purity’ and rats, standing for ‘chaos, dirt and breakdown in Western society’. The photographer has quite something to say about the latter: ‘Fly over Europe, there’s nothing left’ and ‘life is chaotic. We can get run over by a bus later today or die of something else tomorrow.’ Don’t worry, when we visited his current exhibitions at Centrale we were still able to make jokes, too.

Interview by Antoine Grenez, text and translation by Milena Maenhaut
Photos shot in Brussels by Antoine Grenez

You left America for South Africa more than thirty years ago. Did it change your relation to photography?

I first visited South Africa in 1973. I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town and spent a few months in South Africa. Afterwards I hitchhiked from Istanbul to New Guinea. When I finally came back to America to pursue a PHD in geology it was 1977. Five years later I officially moved to Johannesburg. I’ve been here for 37 years now. If you’re living in a place for that long, it has a big effect on what you do. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I had moved to, you know, Zurich (Laughs).

You’ve studied geology and psychology. Can we see your work as a bridge between those two disciplines?

Studying the earth as a geologist is a science, not an art. Yet geology gives a sense of the primeval and universal, too. From a metaphorical point of view, the study of the earth is an influence because nature can be a role model. Nature has the complexity and clarity that art and human beings don’t have. The same thing goes for psychology. It’s a very scientific and statistical discipline but Freudian psychology, Jungian psychology or philosophical psychology can be poetic and stimulating.

Nature has the complexity and clarity that art and human beings don’t have

How did drawing enter your photographic work?

Between 1982 and 1994 I lived in a lot of people’s homes. In some of them the children or adults would draw on the walls. I started to place my subjects near or within these drawings. This went on for a long time, until about the early 2000s. Then I actively started to seek out drawings, ask people to draw or draw myself.

You make installations too. How do they interact with the photographs?

As you can see at the exhibition, the installations evolved out of the photographs. The videos are also results of photographic products. Photography has always been the core medium.

You try to reflect on the human condition and the subconscious in your work. What have you learned in your past forty years of experience about that?

I learnt a long time ago that most people aren’t in contact with their subconscious. They try to avoid it. I’m not the first one saying this: the subconscious ‘animal’ mind rules human behavior and rules society. Until there’s some reconciliation between the subconscious and the conscious mind we’re not likely to see any major changes in human endeavor.

Using animal imagery is totally different. People don’t know how to deal with it

Human subjects are disappearing from your work. Why?

Around 2002 I stopped shooting portraits. People search for faces in photographs to decide the meaning. Is the subject poor or rich, sane or insane? Using animal imagery is totally different. People don’t know how to deal with it. That’s why I love to work with animals. There is something special about them, they’re mysterious. They create ambiguity and allow other elements in the picture to establish a story.

In this exhibition you work a lot with rats and birds.

Birds are symbols of heaven and purity. Rats are symbols of chaos, dirt and breakdown in Western society. It’s an interesting combination. I worked with both for five years and tried to bring their meaning together.

Should we reconnect with nature?

There’s no possibility to reconnect with nature. It’s finished. Fly over Europe, there’s nothing left. There’s no nature, just a few parks here and there, a dog and a cat in your house, a flower pot in the backyard. Most people’s relationship with nature is in front of a computer screen. You can vote for the green party, but it doesn’t matter. There are too many people on the planet, there’s too much economic development, too much media. Even the most pro-environmental people are exploiting the planet.

Some people consider your work as dark and chaotic. Does it reflect your inner self or the society?

It’s a reflection of the inner self of the viewer. People are so undeveloped psychologically the pictures threaten their status quo. They call my pictures dark because they can’t deal with chaos, because they don’t want to admit that life is chaotic. Yet it is. We can’t control our destiny. We can get run over by a bus later today or die of something else tomorrow. That’s the human condition.

There’s no possibility to reconnect with nature. It’s finished

When someone asks you to prove that you’re real, what are you going to do? You can’t say anything, you’ll get lost. Those are profound concepts we have to try to ponder in the short life we got.

You’re having two exhibitions at Centrale this winter. The Theatre of the Ballenesque and Correspondances, in which your work interacts with that of Belgian artist Ronny Delrue. How does that happen?

Ronny used some of my pictures and I used some of his drawings. We combine elements of each other’s work, so there’s an aspect of montage in our collaboration.

You will do an intervention during the show of South African band Die Antwoord, with whom you collaborate a lot. What draws you to them?

I basically started Die Antwoord. They say that I’m the father of their band. Almost fifteen years ago they saw my work. It convinced them to give up everything for a year and reinvent themselves as Die Antwoord. They took my aesthetic and transformed it into music and performance.

They took my aesthetic and transformed it into music and performance

Collaborating with Die Antwoord introduced you to another audience. The first time I saw your work was through Die Antwoord when I was young.

The collaboration had a huge impact on the amount of people interested in what I do. One video we made had 150 million hits. No exhibition could ever reach a million people. Die Antwoord was very good at videos and one of them went viral. At that time I didn’t even know what YouTube was. There were a lot less things going on in the media back then. It was easier to go viral. Now things go viral so much it has almost destroyed the uniqueness of imagery. From McDonalds to Coca-Cola to politicians: everybody is trying to find a way to get attention through their phones.

What can we expect from the intervention?

I will be showing some videos in which I try to link my aesthetic to Die Antwoord. I’m almost 70 years old, there’s no point for me to go on stage and dance (Laughs). I think everybody would leave if I did.

Roger Ballen – The Theatre of the Ballenesque
Ronny Delrue & Roger Ballen - Correspondances

14 Nov 2019-14 March 2020 - Centrale for contemporary art, Brussels

Free for members in December.
Become a member here or (for former active members) re-subscribe to our digital membership to continue your membership.