IN­NER MIND

Roger Ballen presents life’s ab­sur­di­ties through black-and-white images in Beijing, Deng Zhangyu re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at dengzhangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Roger Ballen’s dis­tinc­tive style of black-and-white images are mostly de­scribed as “weird” by view­ers be­cause of the provoca­tive themes.

Peo­ple can now get a glimpse of his artis­tic works at an on­go­ing show in Beijing. The ex­hi­bi­tion hall of the art mu­seum at the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts has been trans­formed into a gray-col­ored theater-like area. Ballen’s pho­tos are ei­ther sus­pended in the air or mounted on tilted wooden frames, some as high as 4me­ters. To echo the show’s ti­tle, Theater of the

Ab­surd, Ballen has dec­o­rated a part of the area in the style of his pic­tures. Other than putting up his pho­tos on the walls, he has painted the walls in parts, too, and has in­stalled an­i­mal sculp­tures on the floor. There are chairs for vis­i­tors as well.

“It’s great! There are few times in my life­time that things have been so in­ter­est­ing,” the 66-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher says about his first show in Beijing.

Ev­ery year, Ballen holds shows in dif­fer­ent cities across the world. But he calls the Beijing show “unique” as it tries to ex­plore a more in­ter­ac­tive space with the au­di­ence.

Fan Di’an, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts, says: “When I walk into the show space, I am both a vis­i­tor and an ac­tor of the ‘theater’.”

Ballen’s works are a mix of draw­ings, in­stal­la­tions and pho­tog­ra­phy. His square pho­tos al­ways in­clude wires, an­i­mals, dis­carded stuff and graf­fiti on walls, bear­ing a dis­tinc­tive aes­thetic.

The show fea­tures pho­tos he took in South Africa in the past 20 years as well as two videos, in­clud­ing the mu­sic video I

Fink U Freeky that he co-di­rected for the mu­si­cal duo Die Ant­wo­ord.

Cai Meng, cu­ra­tor of the show, says he met Ballen in 2013 at the Pingyao In­ter­na­tional Pho­tog­ra­phy Fes­ti­val, where the Jo­han­nes­burg-based artist won the big­gest award of the fes­ti­val in North China’s Shanxi prov­ince.

“Many con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese pho­tog­ra­phers are in­flu­enced by him,” says Cai.

Ballen was born in New York and moved to Jo­han­nes­burg in the 1970s.

He started his work in South Africa as a ge­ol­o­gist and then kept record­ing life in towns and vil­lages by tak­ing pho­tos, with por­traits be­ing his main sub­jects. Since 2000, Ballen has changed his ap­proach to tableaux, an ab­stract way of pho­tog­ra­phy that com­bines in­stal­la­tions, sculp­tures, films and pho­tog­ra­phy.

It’s com­mon to see an­i­mals in his pic­tures — rats, birds, geese, snakes and even lions are in­cluded in his “crew” list since Ballen calls him­self the di­rec­tor of his pho­tos.

“Birds fly fast. Cats are the worst to con­trol. I just take pho­tos spon­ta­neously when they move, maybe a good one or not. It all hap­pens nat­u­rally,” says Ballen.

“I can speak cat lan­guage in or­der to knowwhat they’re think­ing. But cats never tell me what they want,” he says, jok­ingly.

An­i­mals in his pic­tures add a sense of re­al­ity into his fic­tion­al­ized vis­ual works, he ex­plains.

Ballen says each pic­ture needs thou­sands of steps for prepa­ra­tion, even though the shoot­ing takes only 15 min­utes some­times.

To set up a back­drop for his pho­tos, he vis­ited nu­mer­ous flea mar­kets in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, hunt­ing for things he wanted for his film­ing.

Prior to his Beijing show, he spent days vis­it­ing flea mar­kets here look­ing for stuff he needed to build his “set” for the show.

“I’m a world ex­pert on flea mar­kets now. But it’s hard to find some­thing unique,” he says, re­veal­ing a sense of hu­mor, which can some­times be seen in his works.

On the theme of his Beijing show, he says it is through “ab­sur­dity” that he un­der­stands life. Life is mean­ing­less, he says philo­soph­i­cally. No mat­ter what we do, we can’t change our des­tinies.

Cai, the cu­ra­tor, says Ballen ex­presses the work­ings of the hu­man mind, a con­sis­tent style that the pho­tog­ra­pher has pur­sued in his pic­tures to re­flect peo­ple’s thoughts.

Ballen’s strong love for black-and-white images goes back 50 years to when he first used cam­eras to take por­traits of peo­ple. The sim­ple aes­thetic ap­proach fol­lowed through his ca­reer.

“It’s not sim­ply black and white. There are lots of grays in be­tween,” he says.

It’s not sim­ply black and white. There are lots of grays in be­tween.”

Roger Ballen, US pho­tog­ra­pher, says of his strong love for black-and-white images

Scream, a photo by Ballen.

Snagged, a photo by Ballen.

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