Portrait of Roger Ballen 2015

Roger Ballen was born in New York in 1950, moved to the Republic of South Africa in 1974 and has lived and worked in Johannesburg for 35 years, he is one of the most important and most influential photographic artists of the 21st century, his works are best known for the psychologically powerful and masterfully composed images that exist in a space between painting, drawing, installation and photography.

CAFA Art Museum presents the first solo show of this important photographic artist in Beijing on the afternoon of September 2, 2016.  A Journalist from CAFA ART INFO interviewed the artist on the eve of the opening of the exhibition.

Interview Time: August 30, 2016

Interview Venue: CAFA Art Museum Café

Interviewee: Roger Ballen

Interviewer / Editor: Lin Jiabin

On-site interpretation: Egami Etsu

Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Started as a Geologist in South Africa… 

In the 1970s, after receiving a doctorate in mineral economics, Roger Ballen became a geologist in South Africa, the job involved visiting the small towns in South Africa, and he began to use the camera to record the explorations. Hereafter, the artist’s style began to evolve from the documentary photography to the aesthetic state of “documentary fiction”. Ballen’s characters act out an absurd tableau in the series “Outland” (2001) and “Shadow Chamber” (2005). The line between fantasy and reality in “Boarding House” (2009), “Asylum of the Birds” (2014) and the later works have become increasing blurred.

You were born in New York and later moved to and lived in South Africa for many years, you have shot a great deal of images of white people who live in South Africa, what is your original creative thought? How does this migration, geo-cultural difference influence your creation?

Roger Ballen: I really took a lot of pictures of African white people and animals from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. I think it is important to realize that I am not a political or cultural photographer, but a psychological photographer. My goal was never to make a statement about white people in Africa, while my goal was to make a commentary on human conditions.

You used the documentary approach to photograph the rural towns in South Africa in the early years, and then the style gradually changed, more prominently expressing peoples’ awareness of existence, what reason prompted your creativity to change?

Roger Ballen: Yes, my early works were more of a documentary and the later works were visualized, the change came very slowly, step by step. If you want to ask me why I changed the style, in fact, it is similar to how many artists changed their style, I just wanted to give people a strong mental impression. I would like to present a visual relationship, the reality and fiction in photography is composed with more impact.

Your later works of photography use a way of setting, how do you think of the relationship between this surreal and absurd effect the truth of the real world?  

Roger Ballen: What’s reality? Reality is a complex concept, reality is infinity, and we are unable to fully understand reality, but only partly see it.

The Unique “Roger Ballen” Style

“He likes to take photos in a filthy plastered room. The dirtiest and most chaotic rented house, the walls which have graffiti, only some essential furniture such as a bed, sofa, chairs…” In his enigmatic sets people are absent or where they do appear it’s as disembodied hands and feet interacting with animals. Ballen has invented a new hybrid aesthetic, revealing the absurdity of the human condition.

Your photos have a unique style, for example, they are often square black and white photographs, in the background there is always a wall full of winding wires, ropes, and a lot of graffiti … they are mixed with the wall, all of them use a flash to take the photograph in the interior space. Why do you use this design?

Roger Ballen: I am sure that nobody takes a picture as I do, I am the only one. I love to take square pictures, because I think square is a perfect form, I can make a very tight and perfect composition within a square, refusing any unnecessary thing; black and white photography has its uniqueness, it does not depend on the color to really express the situation. Color can cover the authenticity, adding color would create the effect of “reproduction”, and I would like to eliminate the unnecessary things, to make it more concise, more real.

When you take a photo, how do you make the model achieve the state that you want? 

Roger Ballen: I never ask my model to do very much, I just watch. Sometimes the important thing in the picture is the eyebrow and sometimes we express emotion through our eyebrows. Like many fragments, you have to find and seize the expression at that moment, catching it instantly because it is fleeting.

“Theater of the Absurd”: Absurdity Neither Resides in a Man nor Resides in the World

“Roger Ballen: Theater of the Absurd” exhibition will be held in CAFA Art Museum on September 2, associate researcher of the Department of Curatorial Research at CAFA Art Museum Dr. Cai Meng served as the curator.

“Roger Ballen: Theater of the Absurd” is presented in the social container – art museum where the knowledge is produced, when the two different absurd from the internal environment and external environment of the “container” encounters each other, what is the wonderful relationship between the embedded structure and the tension of discourse?

– Cai Meng

Would you like to introduce the exhibition opened at CAFA ART Museum this Friday?  

Roger Ballen: It is a very special photographic exhibition, our team worked together to show an effect, which will refresh the view of conventional photography. Here all my photographs are not hung on the wall, but placed on shelves standing in the hall, the wall and floor will be all painted black. In addition, it will present two videos, a music video and the video “Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind”, which was recently created in the same year, as well as some installations, these things will be placed in a special room of the exhibition hall.

What works are presented in the exhibition?

Roger Ballen: The show mainly spans from the mid-1990s to now, it is a review of works created in the past 20 years.

The exhibition is themed “Theatre of the Absurd”, what do you think of “absurd”?  

Roger Ballen: Since the mid-1990s I started to create this kind of work of absurdity, in fact, the word absurd is clearly in line with my work. I have no idea of the meaning of “absurd” in the Chinese context and I want to question how do you explain the “absurd”? For me, “absurd” probably refers to the attitude of “life is meaningless”, no matter what we do, it makes no sense, anything that we do is absurd, and it is a cycle of “nothing”.

We can see a narrative in your photography, and photographs give people a feeling of theater, why are you interestrd in the “sense of theater”?

Roger Ballen: Yes, the narrative of photography is a “visual” story, rather than a linguistic or oral story, it is a visual relationship. This visual story flexibly expresses the visual field, this story is neither necessary, nor described by language.

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