Is astonishment a path to personal truth? Roger Ballen constructs unique photographs that live in a liminal zone between the hauntingly beautiful and the deeply disturbing. Square in format, they are imaginative arrangements of elements that trigger particular cues in the subconscious — wholes made of freighted parts that can evoke everything from the darkest of fairy tales to the strangest of dreams. But all of them are signposts on Ballen’s life-long artist’s journey of self-revelation.

In his latest series, Asylum of the Birds, Ballen incorporates the inhabitants of a Johannesburg shelter for society’s castoffs — the homeless, the indigent, the mentally challenged, the schizophrenic. For many years he has explored such realms in South Africa, his adopted home. They are places not for the unwary or faint of heart — asylums of the marginal. He has had to gain their acceptance over time, until they freely enter his creative crosshairs. “I work with them in such a way that they benefit also, so it’s a two-way relationship. You have to win their trust, get to know them, and they have to get to like you. I’m like a father, a doctor, a priest, a lawyer, health-care worker, social worker. Some of my best friends live in the Asylum of the Birds.”

The son of a Magnum Photo editor, Ballen first began photographing at age 13. Born in New York, he arrived in Johannesburg 30 years ago and has never left, except to travel extensively around the world. His evident influences are wide-ranging — Dubuffet and the realm of Outsider Art, Brassaï’s photos of primitive graffiti, the graphic lyricism of Miró and Klee. Perhaps because of the universality of the human subconscious, one may also be reminded of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joel-Peter Witkin, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, and any number of ethnological art forms like African masks or shaman fetishes. “In Southern Africa there are a lot of these bushmen paintings all over the place, and one is struck by cave paintings. But at this point in my life, it’s ninety percent self-discovery through photography and ten percent other people’s influences.” Apart from Ballen’s wide knowledge of art and photography, he was trained as a geologist. “That had a major impact, looking at rocks and at the earth for thirty years. Nature is greater than any art, so looking at rock formations and so on beat any museum.”

Ballen’s pictures are so resonant and fastidiously staged, they operate on a deep pre-rational level. One has the sense of his having captured both madness and divinity at the same time. Their openness to subjective interpretation often gives them the power of both Symbolist art and Abstract Expressionism, while synthesizing all of Ballen’s methods. “Asylum of the Birds is a maturation of my use of drawing, sculpture, installation-making, painting . . . integrated through photography.” It was a five-year project, and there is a distinctive arc from the earliest pictures to the later ones, but they’ve never been easy to create. “You don’t realize how many thousands of steps are in each photograph. It all looks so simple and clear, but boy it’s difficult.”

Roger Ballen, Asylum of the Birds, is on view at Galerie Karsten Greve in Paris until January 3.


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