This catalogue accompanies the exhibition Roger Ballen: Outland held in the Collector s Room at Fried Contemporary June/July 2015

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2 This catalogue accompanies the exhibition Roger Ballen: Outland held in the Collector s Room at Fried Contemporary June/July 2015 Published by Fried Contemporary 2016 Copyright Fried Contemporary and the Artist Fried Contemporary Pty Ltd 1146 Justice Mahomed St, Brooklyn, Pretoria Interview conducted by Johan Thom

3 Outland roger ballen 25 june - 23 july 2015 Signed by the Artist Edition of / 20

4 installation view

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6 installation view

7 installation view

8 IN CONVERSATION WITH ROGER BALLEN BY JOHAN THOM Johan Thom (JT): The collection of photographs on display in the Collector s Room, was primarily curated around aesthetic concerns, these would include formal aspects of the work, such as the use of line, light, dark, shadow, composition and so forth. From a curatorial perspective we felt that the social, cultural and political dimensions of the work have been explored in great depth already. There is the question of ethics, of the power relations inherent in the work between the photographer and the subject matter. Curatorially we accept these as positions, but the questions that I want to ask during this interview, albeit rather shortly, is to expose, if only partially, something of Ballen s artistic working methods and processes. For example: making, conceptualising, selecting and generally creating the imaginative world that has become the hallmark of his artistic output since the time of publishing Outland. I m interested in speaking to him not as a photographer but as an artist. I m not interested in the photographs as photographs, primarily, but as artworks. So I wonder, Roger, if you would be kind enough to just take us through the initial steps of putting Outland together, how you found yourself, at the doorstep of this particular vision and what that meant for you at the time. Roger Ballen (RB): Well, first of all, I would like to thank you and Mika for inviting me here. It s a great pleasure always to show in my own country. It s really nice to get into a car or train and be there in 30 or 40 minutes and sleep in your own bed at night. So it s a great pleasure to be here, it s nice to see the

9 Posing 2000 Edition of 10 1

10 installation view

11 audience and nice to see so many people here. I think one of the advantages of the book being republished gives you time to meditate on what the book was really about. So as you might know, before Outland there was a book called Platteland. Platteland was an extremely controversial book in South Africa at the time and showed a group of white people living on the fringe of society and it opened up a can of worms. People didn t like the idea that a so-called foreigner would show those aspects of society. Well, they exist everywhere. But the book is ultimately psychological in nature, that s always been the premise of my work. I have never seen myself from the day I started this business as a cultural, political photographer. My work is about exploring the psyche, the human condition, digging below the surface and finding those elements that I m not familiar with. It s an existential challenge and as you say it s a technical challenge. The photographs I take are psychological in nature, they re visual metaphoric statements. In the beginning of 97 something drastic happened, I started to interact in a theatrical way with the subjects, with the place. Theatre, and this is what it is, looking back this became apparent to me. When I started thinking what this project was about, why it had so much impact, why it continues to have impact. Most people who see the pictures now, don t know anything about the country, the people, the place. But the pictures have impact. They get into 3

12 people s brains and stay there, so the question is, what are they saying, what s the message, if you can make a message out of visual reality. The message, I think, would be pictures. They mimic a kind of absurdity, they make a kind of human absurdity, human existence. JT: I think there is something very interesting that you touched on there. If we can briefly touch on your book, Platteland, and the question of ethics of foreigners you say coming to South Africa and them representing a whole group of people in an unflattering light, or what was considered an unflattering light back then but simply being part of reality. But I think that question of what images do and why they are powerful and why they manage to communicate something valuable to people across cultural boundaries. I think that is an interesting one and as someone who is involved in art myself, I kind of feel like it s worthwhile stopping there and saying, okay despite all of these big issues, that are very much part and parcel of our lives right now in South Africa, there is discretion of the image, what does it do, how does it communicate. I was quite interested in what Pieter Weiermar, wrote about your works in this edition of Outland. He calls them still lives or radical still lives that fuse bodies and objects. And that is probably the best description that I ve heard of these works, exactly because it goes beyond the question of merely portraying something or representing something. Meaning with representation you always have that question that you are standing in for something else in the interest of a particular group and you are standing in for that interest. And so there is that argument about art that it represents or stands in for that particular group of people in a kind of political sense. But I think if we stop and we think about these images, let s say as still lives or very much a stage composition and what they present us with. Then there is a much more complex issue that arises. So I guess that s a different way for me to come to the question of journey or imaginary journey, beyond merely representing that, we are looking at an imaginary journey. You said something very quickly about, the absurd, the nonsensical and I wonder if you can take us through that, maybe your own feelings about the influences there, or people, artists, writers, that have influence your vision so to speak of the world and the way that you represented your art. RB: Well, first you have to start with your mind. You know you go to every museum in the world and you read every book, it doesn t mean you are going to produce a good artwork. When I was a young man, I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town, that s how I got here. When I talked to most people who were travelling, all they could talk about was the food. So first, you have to start with your own brain and your own mind, your own interior and try to find a core of that, that s the real beginning. If you can t find that, you ll never find anything in your work.

13 Horse head on drawers 1998 Edition of 10 5

14 Caught 1997 Edition of 10

15 My mother worked in Magnum. I found Plato s cave quite interesting. I m a Geologist. I worked many years here as a Geologist. I like walking around the planet. I like Picasso. But when I come back to this body of work, I very clearly remember people who used to say that my work is like Diane Harvest s. Nothing in particular inspired me to produce these works. It takes a lot of hard work, concentration, talent - I guess. But if one were to put a finger on somebody who may have been the partial impetus for the work, it was people like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Inoesco and Harold Pinter. So I guess those could be related. People who might or might not have had influence on me. If I ve never seen a Beckett, never seen an Inoesco, never seen a Pinter, it doesn t mean I still wouldn t have created the same work. I don t know really, to tell you the truth. JT: I want to say about the photographs themselves. I think maybe a couple of years ago people would have been very insulted by this. I think the works are very un-photographic, they are photographs but they are not photographs. They are very flat photographs, from a classical perspective they wouldn t be considered good photographs, because you would always have to consider elements such as perspective. Which means you always have to have a background, a middleground and a foreground and these works aren t operating on that level. They remind me of paintings. I know they are black and white so there is the absence of colour but simply if you are thinking about, and this is not a formalist argument, but it is a question about form, they are flat in a way that is quite self acknowledged. RB: Every artist develops a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of transformation which somehow or another reflects some sort of phenomenological relationship they have to the world. It s like everybody s handwriting is different, why is my handwriting different than yours or how did my handwriting evolve, I don t know. I really don t know, so I think on just a more practical level about these pictures. Why did the style evolve the way that it did? I have been working in very confined, very squeezed, very claustrophobic spaces for more than thirty something years. And I ve been working with a square format camera. I was just telling somebody before the exhibition started that I ve had my camera since It s a Rolleiflex 6x6 film camera and it still works! I m having trouble with the lighting because the battery is dying very quickly and I can t find new batteries, so yesterday I missed a few shots because the batteries were dead. It has became a bit like an old horse, and maybe I am too. I am a black and white photographer, I take pictures the way I do and that s it. You can t separate all these things, they are all part of a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of transformation. It s hard to say what if the pictures were in colour or what happens if I use a digital camera?. I don t know. With a digital 7

16 Child under chest of drawers 2000 Edition of 35

17 camera, like any camera, it can give me anything I want. So I ve used digital cameras and I ve created pictures just as good as my square format, so I m happy to tell you that it is not only the camera that does the job. JT: It s actually very interesting the question that you have been working in confined spaces. These type of material things do leave their traces on your artworks. It s always nice to have a peep behind the scenes. With that I want to start drawing things to a point and start with the use of wire in your works. So all the works in here basically has some semblance of wire in them. This is one of the questions from Mika, the director of the gallery and the primary person responsible for the curation of the works. When she looked at the works, she was very interested in the wire. I guess her feeling was quite intuitive as it reminded her of drawing marks, or the capacity of drawing. As doodles can go through different surfaces and connect them. But I think the idea of wire function both in a formal way and a conceptual way. So before we discuss the conceptual idea of wire, coming back to the idea I mentioned previously that things are fused in the images, I wonder if the wire isn t working in that way as well. If it s not working as a formal means to fuse different surfaces or different depths, if your think the wire is always dark in the way that it is exposed and if you look at areas that are dark like a door or a shadowy area, then suddenly the wire kind of connects with that purely from a tonal value but then it functions 9

18 like a drawing or a mark an abstract mark across the different surfaces. And then somehow you have bodies, objects, surfaces like walls all connected by a single wire. Is there any particular reason you started working with wire. And I d like to say this again, if you look at the book on pg 4, there is an image called Bedroom of a railway worker and that s a 1984 work where this element makes a prominent appearance. I don t think at that point you would have developed it but it is certainly something that has become quite prevalent in your practice or a motif that is there. RB: I don t know how many people here know my later work, there is a lot, a lot of drawings in it. People sometimes say well, where do you get this idea and I say I got it in the houses I worked in, because a lot of the places I worked in, the children would draw on the walls or somebody would draw on the walls. I then started to work with these drawings on the wall in the houses and Johan mentioned the Dawking project of 1984 Uptown, there was a photograph called Bedroom of the railway worker and that was the first successful so-called wire picture that I took, but it didn t come from me taking a wire and trying to move it along the wall, it was a documentary photograph in its own right. So the wire came from my experience of taking pictures and then I kept transforming these things gradually over time to the point where wire became like a pencil. The interesting point of what Johan says, because you ve got to understand how people look at pictures versus how they look at paintings for example. If you take the painting of a Miro the Spanish painter, and his lines sort of looks like wires, but they re lines in the painting, when you look at it it s a line. But when you look at the wire in a photograph it s a wire, it s not a line. But as you say, it has a content meaning and it also has a formal meaning, so it s a connector, like in Miro, it connects the space, fuses the space as you say. JT: I was struck by the kind of historic function of wire in South Africa, so there is that conceptual usage. We are the proud inventors of razor wire and it therefore has a political history. In some way, it s difficult to look at these wires without remembering that sense of violence. An image such as Spellbound shows a figure holding a roll of wire. There is tension there, the wire can at any point unravel. Wire also connects as much as it divides. With regard to the more violent aspect of wire, there is also an image of a skeleton hanging from wire. So I think there is something to be said for the history of wire in South Africa, the way it divides landscapes, the way it divides across the space. Is this game that you are playing not going both ways? The connection and the division. Is there something to that effect, conceptually that you think about with the land for instance? RB: You know when I take pictures, especially now maybe, I go in silence and I leave in silence. I don t actually try

19 Convertee 1998 Edition of 10 11

20 Curled up 1998 Edition of 10

21 to think of any words that I m trying to depict in my work, I just do the work. I think if my work matches a word, then it is probably no good as a photograph. So I have always said, commonly, that the best pictures are the ones I don t understand. The best pictures are the ones that don t have any words. The best ones are the ones that keep challenging me time and time again. So if I were to depict a concept, I might as well not have taken the picture. JT: Thank you very much, I think there is something about that position as an artist. To operate on another domain from that of language. For me language is very much like the wire, it connects us but it also separates us. Images are important as well, because we can look at them and experience them. 13

22 Hoodwinked 1996 Edition of 10

23 Mimic 1997 Edition of 10 15

24 Mother and son 1998 Edition of 10

25 Protectors 1998 Edition of 10 17

26 Show off 2000 Edition of 35

27 Spellbound 1999 Edition of 10 19

28 Squeezed 2000 Edition of 35 20

29 Stretched 1998 Edition of 10 21

30 Cat in Fishtank 2000 Edition of 35 22

31 Dejected 1999 Edition of 10 23

32 Missionaries 1999 Edition of 10 24

33 Mother and son with pets 1998 Edition of 10 25

34 Fried Contemporary 1146 Justice Mahomed Str (formerly 430 Charles Str) Brooklyn Pretoria 0181 T: e:

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