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Theatre of the absurd

A new photo book by Roger Ballen delves into our uneasy desires

‘Ascension’, 2013, from the series, ‘Asylum Of The Birds’. Courtesy Roger Ballen and Photoink
‘Ascension’, 2013, from the series, ‘Asylum Of The Birds’. Courtesy Roger Ballen and Photoink

A corpse keeps growing alongside large mushrooms, which eventually take over the stage even as a seemingly dehumanized couple converses amidst the chaos. In playwright Eugène Ionesco’s Amédée Or How To Get Rid Of It, the world is embodied in the grotesque; its ordinariness is what is absurd. It is in line with this thought, that Roger Ballen, an American photographer who has lived and worked for most of his life in South Africa, engaged with outcasts in a Johannesburg suburb, making them actors in the house they inhabited. Alongside dead and living animals, graffiti and found objects became the props and background for his photographs. Asylum Of The Birds is Ballen’s theatre of the absurd, with a disturbingly thin line between reality and performance.

Undeniably Hitchcockian in tenor, Ballen’s work isn’t just eerie or graphic, but also a telescopic peek into the human mind’s darkest, most secret desires and fears. The house or the asylum, whose location remains a secret, is the grand set in which the inhabitants perform for Ballen as he directs his psychological masterpiece. In a new book, Nothing Is More Real Than Nothing, Asylum Of The Birds and Ballen’s new work, The Theatre Of Apparitions, come together.

This book is not for the faint-hearted.

In The Theatre Of Apparitions, Ballen takes his quest to unravel the desires of the human mind a step further. Taking a cue from prehistoric cave paintings and his own experience of having visited an abandoned women’s prison, where inmates had drawn on blackened-out windows, Ballen experimented with spray paint to first darken the glass and then carved on it with a sharp object, letting light in. Each drawing was then photographed in black and white (a form Ballen is loyal to), resulting in a starkness that reinforced the ghost-like nature of his creation.

Nothing is More Real than Nothing: By Roger Ballen, Photoink and Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, 80 pages, 1,500.

Writer and photographer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi asks in his essay in the book, “The characters in the Asylum Of The Birds (a fine photo novel of sorts) are independent—but are they in frank ownership of their fractured life?" Shanghvi’s query is an extension of an existing dialogue on the alleged exploitative nature of the photographs, since people living on the margins of society continue to remain there despite being at the centre of Ballen’s epic. Does Ballen need to rescue them from himself?

When one looks carefully at the images from the Asylum series, there is an affiliation that is hard to miss. No matter how absurd it might seem to see a pigeon perched on a headless person wearing an overcoat or an Edvard Munch painting-like scene where a scream is not just a pictorial trope but also a real condition of decay, Ballen’s visual depictions (his style fondly termed Ballenesque by peers) are almost shamanistic, rooted in the viewer’s subconscious as much as his own. The work is not complete unless it sinks into the uncharted realm of the mind.

Undeniably Hitchcockian in tenor, Ballen’s work isn’t just eerie or graphic, but also a telescopic peek into the human mind’s darkest, most-secret desires and fears-

Seven acts make The Theatre Of Apparitions an organized indulgence in a range of human emotions. From “burlesque" to “ethereal", he exposes repressed urges, forcing us to confront what’s inside during our interaction with his subconscious. There’s a discomfort in his conjuring, theatre and technique, especially in the act “Eros", where the visuals are sexually bold and at great distance from the societal construct of accepted morality. Act 5, “Melancholy", is most reminiscent of Munch’s sketches, which were like psychological talismans, those that aggravated the viewer’s responses to his work. In fact, the pages of photographs that comprise all seven acts, when turned like those in a flip book, summon a spectacle of unspoken desires just on the edge of being discovered. Ballen’s conjuring of images and wiping the glass clean to create a new set of drawings is incredible and as ephemeral as the mind’s hidden pursuits.

This is photography put to an almost immortal task—that of documenting the deepest urge before it is replaced by the next. This is Ballen’s telepathic whisper to his subconscious, unafraid of its public appearance in the photographs of a book.

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