Roger Ballen and The Making of The Room

Roger Ballen’s art is violent. It startles you, kicks you in the stomach, and then makes you cry. Ballen says these works of haunting black and white worlds peopled with strange characters, dirty walls, dead or living animals and spooky art naïve scribbles, are a photographic documentation of his ‘interior’, a half-century of deep and sincere soul-searching. Captured in art, this very personal exploration has the uncanny effect of smearing the viewer’s nose through the darkness of their interior too – giving the violence of the work an irrefutable quality that can only be called beauty. 

Ballen recently attended a retrospective exhibition at the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Centre in Copenhagen, in which the accumulation of his oeuvre was shown on three stories in a restored 13th century church. On the top floor he created an installation called The Room, continuing a practice he has begun of collecting detritus and thrown-away objects from the streets of the cities hosting his exhibitions, in order to fabricate a 4D experience for viewers, inside Roger’s world. He recounts the making of The Room for us here.

                                                 —Caia Hagel

THE BELIEVER: Roger, how did you find enough garbage on the clean streets of Copenhagen to create The Room?

ROGER BALLEN: When you go searching, you never know what you will find. On my first day I found this old baby carriage outside the Salvation Army, I was very happy about that. Then my breakthrough came on my second day, when I found a guy who makes stuffed animal sculptures using real animal heads. He had a whole suitcase full of dead bird bodies that he said I could use.

BLVR: Are you the kind of person who just meets the one guy in the world with the suitcase full of dead birds?

RB: Yeah. It’s part of the way I work, interacting constantly between my conscious and subconscious minds. It’s what I’d be doing where I live in Johannesburg, walking around looking for materials, combining a scientific, rational way of working with an intuitive, emotional way. You could make me dizzy and I’d still do the same thing. Doing it in Copenhagen just adds another layer: it’s the Roger Ballen aesthetic interacting with Denmark.

BLVR: What else did you find?

RB: I found pillows, dolls, old mattresses, a chair, a Venus bust and some dingy shelves. I had other dead animals like small crocodiles and a stuffed rodent. Then I got the spray paint out and spent about a day and a half working, dirtying the walls, spraying everything, making the drawings of the spirits with the eyes and the teeth that go white, arranging the birds and the baby carriage, making it another zone.

BLVR: How was it mounting this zone in a 13th century church?

RB: Well, because it was such a large and majestic space, I was a little scared at first. But the museum did an excellent job adding walls and dividing up the work so that there was space between them, which expanded their meaning. The architecture seemed to wrap itself around it all and lend it a spiritual essence, a 4th dimension.

BLVR: How does it feel, when you live and work in such isolation most of the time, to accompany your work into the world and be among the audience as it speaks to them? What were you thinking on opening night?

RB: There were about 400 people at the opening. I was thinking as they walked through all the living pictures on the walls, the films and The Room, that it’s very gratifying to diarize, to fossilize your life in this way, to have your work express your essence like a living organism that people can walk through and experience sensually.

BLVR: Your speech was one of the best the Copenhagen art crowd has ever heard. What did you tell them?

RB: I don’t remember. I never prepare a speech. I never think when I give a speech, except for “don’t embarrass yourself or others”, meaning “remember the names of the people you have to thank”. But then my mind goes quiet and I talk. It just comes out. I think I said something at the end like, “This is my diary, this is my distilled essence, and I’m hopeful that with your experience tonight with the pictures you see, that they will become part of your diary, and your essence, too.”

BLVR: That’s really intimate.

RB: Yeah, you’re right, it is. It helps my work to get into other people’s heads. I hope my images do that in a way, like a dream that’s haunting and mysterious and connects us all at the level of the human condition. Life on the planet and in our galaxy is so complex, I don’t hope to have any substantial effect in it, but if I can touch a few people deep in their psyche, by making my personal subjective journey concrete for others, then I am very happy.

Roger Ballen: Retrospektiv is on view at Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen, through November 3, 2013. Watch I Fink U Freeky, Ballen’s music video collaboration with Die Antwoord.

Caia Hagel’s Process Interview with Roger Ballen appears in this month’s issue of the magazine.