Wizard of Odd

Roger Ballen’s Theater of the Absurd

Sitting in an office at Gagosian several days after his opening, the 51-year-old photographer, bearded and gangly, talked about his work as if it were a lover no one had bothered to ask him about before. Ballen was a psychology major at Berkeley before getting his Ph.D. in geology at the University of Colorado, and his conversation tended to veer into heady issues before it got back to earth. He was on solid ground when it came to talking about the people in his photos, and one thing just led to another.

"Most of the people in the Outland series I've gotten to know for some period of time," he said. "My previous photography had been made by driving around a lot, meeting people, and maybe never seeing them again. It was all in the countryside, driving and moving. The idea was that I almost had to go back to nature to find the source. But I started to look around the neighborhoods in Johannesburg, and began to find places that I could work in. I decided to stick to that area, and I started going back to the same house over and over again, and developing a different kind of confidence and a different way of seeing. I was going into a barren room week after week, and that required another approach. I couldn't be passive anymore. So I began to take the courage, first maybe to put a mark on a wall when it needed a mark. Or change the wire from this side to that, or put something else up there or take something down. It started to become more interactive.

"I was setting the scene. Sometimes I feel like a man who makes installations. I feel like I'm a painter; I feel like I'm making sculpture. And after all the painting and sculpture is done, then the photograph appears. You can set the thing up, but there's a point where events take over, and that's where the real creative moments come. It's something you can't conceive of before you walk in there. It's almost a collective creativity, which is much greater than my individual creativity, but without me being there, would the event have ever occurred?

"I want to be where Beckett is": Ballen's Untitled (Dirkie on bed) (2000).
photo: Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York
"I want to be where Beckett is": Ballen's Untitled (Dirkie on bed) (2000).

"I can't tell you how important it is for me to watch for the accident. Ideas come from watching the accident or the movement, and that becomes the thing that jumps the picture, and you can build on that. Somehow, you have to get a leap of the imagination. Ultimately the pictures are about one thing, and it's my imagination. I have to stretch my imagination; I have to build this thing in a place with chaos. The room hasn't been set up for me. The photograph is a reality imposed on another reality.

"Unless you do something that's completely abstract, once you're dealing with people in a place, it's almost impossible to strip out everything, but that's the line I'm going in. I want to be where Beckett is. I want to strip to the core of the humanity, not strip to the core of South African society. Is my work fact or fiction? Nobody would say of Beckett that this is about Ireland. But I'd like to get out of everything that has to do with South Africa. If it ends up having to focus on the dot on the wall, let it be that.

"The people that you see in these photographs mean different things to different people. I get myself in all sorts of dangers by trying to characterize these people in words, but I would say they're people who feel trapped, feel paralyzed. Think of the characters in Beckett's plays, the figures in Bacon's paintings. They're people who can't control events any more.

"But people tend to look at them and say, 'Oh, they're poor, they look like they're institutionalized.' People say, 'Well this man is exploiting these subjects!' The actual relationship is about as far from exploitation as the man on the moon. I've known these people for so many years. They drive me crazy about taking pictures and coming up and having me to dinner and this and that. I've helped their families. I send some of the kids to school. I pay for funerals. I'm involved with these people on every level. I give the pictures to the people, and they love the photographs; they find them funny, usually.

"The people have a certain presence, and a lot of people find it a very disturbed presence. But I feel I'm succeeding as an artist if people walk out somewhat disturbed. Some people spend their whole life trying to avoid being existentially disturbed. I want to get underneath that mask and make a sense of disturbance. For me, the image is like a virus-tipped bullet. The virus gets into the cell and takes over the cell and makes it duplicate on its own formulation, and good art does the same: It goes in and transforms the mind. If it doesn't get inside, it doesn't work. You gotta get inside.

"Ultimately, all you're seeing out there are self-portraits. All I'm trying to do is define my own shadow. There's nothing more and nothing less to those images."

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