Hamiltons gallery, London, presents Roger Ballen’s most recent and highly anticipated body of work The Theatre of Apparitions for the first time as a series. The choice of title reflects the theatrical mechanics in which mental forms of life – dreams, the imagination and memories – act out on stage for the psyche.
A: The Theatre of Apparitions conveys theatrical mechanics that examine the psyche. Why do you think that this deep introspection is important in terms of the changing geographical and political landscape of humanity and the resounding contemporary condition?
RB: If one is not aware of oneself in any real way then it is more than likely that one will be open to being subjugated by political whims. This is dangerous in terms of social movements where demagoguery can take a hold of you. It has everything to do with the divided self – the divided self is a danger to itself and a danger to society.
A: The images act as a sort of expressive documentation of emotions, dreams and memories, inspired by carvings from blacked-out windows in an abandoned women’s prison. How are these biographical narratives reflected within the pieces?
RB: The work is archetypal in nature. It refers to and goes beyond all the points you make – not only to me but for others. The pieces that express this element more intensely will be the ones that have a better chance of lasting through time.
A: Could you describe the process of experimentation with media, for example spray paints on glass that are then removed or drawn upon. How does this method instil a sense of the subconscious and the spontaneous?
RB: For a start, the process is an art as much as it is a science. Over the years I have experimented with many techniques. It was an ongoing process to come up with the format that would best work with the medium. Basically, the images are created on window glass, with spray paint and other materials. There was an important element of the unpredictable element in creating the images because the materials have a life their own. One couldn’t influence this interaction – the end result of the process was essential to the meaning of the images. The process continued when the materials worked in an unpredictable way, creating cracks and forms as result of temperature, chemistry and time. One could not predict the cracks but they became essential to the meaning of the images, and they were a necessity in creating a sense of luminosity in the work.
A: What is the relationship between form and content within the compositions?
RB: Just as when one talks of the conscious mind and the unconscious – depending on how you define those two concepts – you can divide the creative experience, and in the process come to some conclusion. Without form you can have no content and vice versa…
A: How has a background in black and white photography informed the images, combining a contemporary method with innate, almost animalistic images and themes?
RB: This is an interesting question: could someone have done the same works without a background in black and white photography? And more generally, is this series something that someone else could just have done, to begin with? In 2002 drawing entered my black and white photographic practice. The Apparitions images are an extension of my drawing, and looking, that had that entered my life and my photography up to that point. In this sense, in my previous work the act of drawing was only a part of the images. But in The Theatre of Apparitions it seems it is everything. But what do the images have to do with black and white photography, apart from the fact that they are taken on film? It’s for the viewers and the critics to decide. Ultimately, though, of all my work this project is most directly focused on my deepest subconscious, it is totally divorced from any physical location except for the mind. It is a place of the mind. It’s the most deeply psychological – it’s only a psychological project.
A: Why do you think that it’s important for artworks to maintain a conceptual and perceptual realm, as well as one that is visually stimulating?
RB: The artwork has to speak for itself – it is for others to decide about the conceptual and perceptual realms.
A: Is there a sense of a universal language that emerges through the works, and if so, what is the relevance of audience participation / interpretation?
RB: For myself and Marguerite Rossouw who assisted me in the creative process, we would hope that the pictures reveal archetypes; that they open up a window to the collective unconscious. But as far as relevance goes, I can only talk about my experience. Having given birth to the images I hope the series, as an entity, provides passages to other people’s subconscious minds. If the pictures do have any impact it’s a very positive thing. Every artist hopes for any comment of substantial value on the quality of the art. In my opinion, if people don’t subconsciously react then you have a problem. They may say it’s disgusting or disturbing, but if you receive no response you’ve not created a route to participation. More specifically, your comments are similar to others’, that the works could be cave drawings, could be windows to the deeper subconscious. Since many of the responses have something in common, I know the images are having a particular effect on people.
Roger Ballen: The Theatre of Apparitions is at Hamiltons Gallery, London, until 21 April. Find out more: www.hamiltonsgallery.com
1. Roger Ballen, Waif (2012). Archival pigment print. © Roger Ballen courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London.