Exhibition: ‘Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind’ at SCA Galleries, Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney

Exhibition dates: 16th March – 7th May 2016


Roger Ballen. 'Caged' 2011


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery



Taken as a whole, the artist Roger Ballen’s body of work is exceptionally strong. From his early documentary series Dorps (1986) and Platteland (1996) which featured alienated and poverty poverty stricken whites in South Africa struggling with their place in the world after Apartheid; through my favourite series Outland (2001), Shadow Chamber (2005) and Boarding House (2009) which portrayed down and out whites on the fringe of South African society in a surrealist, performative art; to the more recent Animal Abstraction (2011), I Fink U Freeky (2013) and Asylum of the Birds (2014) … through each of these series you can trace the development of this preternatural artist, whose work seems to exist almost beyond nature itself.

The move from documentary photographer to director / collaborator / actor / observer was critical to the development of Ballen’s art. As the text on the Outland web page on Roger Ballen’s website states, “Where previously his pictures, however troubling, fell firmly into the category of documentary photography, these pictures move into the realms of fiction. Ballen’s characters act out dark and discomfiting tableaux, providing images which are exciting and disturbing in equal measure. One is forced to wonder whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation.” From the videos included in this posting, it is obvious that the latter statement is the correct interpretation. Through this thematic development, the viewer may come to understand the nature of the artist’s collaboration with the people, places and things that he photographs. The empathy that these photographs and videos evidence, the interchangeable director/actor roles, and the connection that he has with his subject matter gives insight into the compassion of this man. He never judges anyone. He accepts them for who they are and works with them to create these challenging art works.

Apparently these photographs, “have a singular ability to cause disquiet to the viewer.” Personally, they have never caused me disquiet for I find them quite fascinating. They follow on from a long line of photographers who have observed the marginalised in society, from the circus freak show photographs, through Diane Arbus and Arthur Tress (who also has a book called Theater of the Mind) to Joel Peter-Witkin and Roger Ballen. Much like the earlier Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans, which featured an outsider photographing a world from a different point of view, Ballen moved to South Africa from America in 1982 and has never fully lost that outsider status. As John McDonald observes, “He has been there long enough to be an insider, but retains the probing eye of an outsider, able to see a side of life that native-born can’t see, or don’t wish to see.” And that is the point: all of these artists, with their probing eyes, can perceive difference and accept it on its own terms. They portray the world through a horizontal consciousness (an equal “living field” if you like), not a hierarchical system of privilege, power and control, where some are better, more worthy than others.

But what nature is he investigating? Is it human nature and its ability to survive under the most dire circumstances? Is it the nature of the relationship of the body to its environment, or the human to animals, or the relationship between our souls and our subconscious? It’s all of these and more. Ballen probes these nexus, the strands that connect and link our lives together: our dreams, nightmares and desires. His photographs act as a form of binding together, bringing the periphery of society into the centre (of attention). He creates an extant reality in which we are asked to question: how do we feel towards these people and how do we feel about our own lives?

He achieves this creation through the use of what I call “heightened awareness” – both situationally and subconsciously. Ballen is fully aware and receptive towards the conditions of his environment and his dreams. Instead of a desire to possess the object of his longing and then to be possessed by that desire (desire to possess / possessed by desire) Ballen has learnt, as Krishnamurti did, not to make images out of every word, out of every vision and desire. Ballen understands that he must be attentive to the clarity of not making images – of desire, of prejudice, of flattery – because only then might you become aware of the world that surrounds us, just for what it is and nothing more. He accepts what he can create and what is given to him by being fully aware. Then you are sensitive to every occasion, it brings its own right action.1 His images become a blend of the space of intimacy and world-space as he strains toward, “communion with the universe, in a word, space, the invisible space that man can live in nevertheless, and which surrounds him with countless presences.”2

His photographs become an enveloping phenomenon in which the viewer is draped in their affect… this ‘wearing of images’ is both magical and all encompassing.

We are the people in his pictures. We are their dreams.

Dr Marcus Bunyan



1/ Concepts from KrishnamurtiBeginnings of Learning. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 130-131.

2/ Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. (trans Maria Jolas). Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, p. xxxv.

Many thankx to SCA Galleries for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



“Archetypal levels of the deeper subconscious pervade my photographs… When I create my photographs I often travel deep into my own interior, a place where dreams and many of my images originate. I see my photographs as mirrors, reflectors, connectors into the mind… The light comes from the dark.”


“These pictures are a very complex way of seeing, a very complex way of viewing the world and you know perhaps this went back to the time I was in my mother’s stomach… I can’t really say what exactly is the primary cause of what I do.”


“So the thing is is my pictures, my better pictures or a lot of my pictures, embed themselves deeply in the subconscious, because the mind isn’t ready for those photographs, they don’t have any corresponding experience in some way or another, so the pictures tend to have more of an impact on the person’s deeper mind than something we would normally think of as disturbing because the pictures get into the mind. People aren’t used to having things get in there and stay in there and threaten their image of themselves in some way or another and so that’s why they call them disturbing, they’re not actually disturbing a better way of saying it is that if somebody has some kind of consciousness they’re actually enlightening.”

Roger Ballen






Roger Ballen’s Asylum of the Birds (full film)

To mark the publication of his long-awaited new monograph Asylum of the Birds, photographer Roger Ballen, with director Ben Crossman, has produced this psychologically powerful, unforgettable film that follows Roger into a world synonymous with his photographs, as never before seen on film.





Roger Ballen’s Outland (2015)

Phaidon Press has released a revised version of the iconic book Outland by photographer Roger Ballen. Film maker Ben Jay Crossman takes us on a journey to the Outland to show us the mind inside the mind.






ROGER BALLEN: PHOTOGRAPHS 1982-2009 Part 3: Outland

Roger Ballen talks about his past projects leading up to his current work in the celebrated exhibition ROGER BALLEN: PHOTOGRAPHS 1982-2009, on display at George Eastman House from Feb. 27 – June 6, 2010. Hear more from the curator of the exhibition, Eastman House director Dr. Anthony Bannon, discussing Ballen’s work in ‘Embracing Difficult Art’



His raw, black & white images are alluring, fascinating and disturbing. He is one of the most important and exciting photographers of the 21st century. The intriguing work of Roger Ballen is coming to Australia, to Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), this March in the artist’s first major Sydney exhibition. Staged to coincide with the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind is a provocative exhibition of 75 contemporary works created by the artist over the last two decades.

Professor Colin Rhodes, Dean of the University of Sydney’s contemporary art school and curator of the exhibition, said: “For a long time Roger Ballen’s photography has trodden a path where others are too timid to tread, toying with our innermost dreams, nightmares and desires. The raw, atmospheric exhibition spaces at Sydney College of the Arts [the site of the former Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital] are the ideal setting to articulate this core aspect of Ballen’s work.”

Born in New York in 1950, Ballen has lived in Johannesburg since the 1970s. His work as a geologist took him across the countryside and led him to explore, through the camera lens, the smaller South African towns. His early photographs of the hidden lives of people living on the fringes of society made considerable impact, receiving acclaim from American writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag among others.

Through the medium of black and white photography, Ballen has achieved a unique integration of drawing, painting and installation that have been compared to the masters of art brut. His peculiar and somewhat shocking imagery confronts the viewer and drags them into the work. Viewers are participants in the work – not merely observers – taking them on a journey into the recesses of their minds, as Ballen explores his own.

Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind consists of five sections that see people, birds, animal and inanimate subjects become the ‘cast’ in an exhibition that is hard-hitting, psychological theatre. The Sydney exhibition includes a new installation work created onsite at SCA by Ballen in response to the site’s mental health history, in the labyrinth of underground cells of the former Rozelle hospital.

The show includes Ballen’s award-winning music video ‘I Fink U Freeky’ (2012) by South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord, which has received over 76 million hits on YouTube and earned a cult following. In addition, the public will be able to access his equally remarkable video works Outland and Asylum of the Birds.

The worldwide impact of Ballen’s work was celebrated in major retrospective exhibition at Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of African Art from 2013 to 2014. It was this exhibition that drove Rhodes’ interest to bring Ballen’s work to Australia.

“When I first saw Ballen’s work en masse, I was struck by the role of drawing in his photos and what seemed to me a relationship with Art Brut or Outsider Art. The artist’s interest in and knowledge of Outsider Art is a key part of understanding the growth of Ballen’s identity as an international artist,” said Professor Rhodes.

Roger Ballen will present a public talk in Sydney at SCA on 9 March, ahead of the official opening of his Sydney exhibition on Tuesday 15 March. Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind is showing at SCA Galleries from 16 March to 7 May 2016. A 96-page book will accompany the exhibition featuring Ballen’s photography and an essay by Professor Rhodes.

Press release from SCA Galleries


Roger Ballen. 'Bewitched' 2012


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'Untitled' 2015


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'Twirling Wires' 2001


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Twirling Wires
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'Mirrored' 2012


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery



Ballen has no qualms about creating dramatic scenarios in his search for “archetypal” symbols that speak to the viewer’s subconscious. He began as a documentary photographer but over the years his pictures have become filled with drawings, paintings and sculptural brac-a-brac, created by the artist himself, or by his subjects. In works such as Collision (2005) or Deathbed (2010), there are no figures, but the human presence is implied by a face drawn on a pillow or the broken head of a doll. The walls in both photos are covered in crude drawings and dirty marks – signs of previous occupation…

[Ballen] argues that these images are primarily psychological, not sociological. He wants to address that deep, dark part of the mind that Freud called “the Id”. As a concept it’s more poetic than biological – a shared repository of instinctive drives that remains buried under the trappings of civilisation…

Despite the extreme nature of her work, Diane Arbus remained within the documentary tradition, whereas a figure such as Joel-Peter Witkin constructs his own theatrical tableaux in the studio. Ballen’s work is somewhere between these two poles. The subjects of his photographs are society’s misfits, but his approach is shamelessly theatrical. His figures are not posing passively, they are collaborating with someone who has won their trust, creating a form of ad hoc performance art in bare, filthy rooms…

It’s more interesting to ask what Ballen feels when he enters such environments. To take these photos he has immersed himself in a world of violence and madness. If he has built up a rapport with his subjects it is by treating them not as freaks, but as people with their own sense of dignity. He refuses to buy into conventional distinctions about what is normal and abnormal, presumably as a legacy of his early exposure to the counterculture and the anti-psychiatry movement.

John McDonald. “Roger Ballen,” on the John McDonald website April 7, 2016 [Online] Cited 25/04/2016


Roger Ballen. 'Lunchtime' 2001


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'Take off' 2012


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Take off
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'Cat and Mouse' 2001


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Cat and Mouse
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'School Room' 2003


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
School Room
Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery


Roger Ballen. 'Portrait of sleeping girl' 2000


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Portrait of sleeping girl


Roger Ballen. 'Deathbed' 2010


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)


Roger Ballen. 'Three hands' 2006


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Three hands


Roger Ballen. 'Head inside shirt' 2001


Roger Ballen (South African born America, b. 1950)
Head inside shirt



SCA Galleries
Sydney College of the Arts (University of Sydney)
Kirkbride Way, off Balmain Road, Lilyfield (enter opposite Cecily Street)
Phone: +61 2 9351 1008

Opening hours:
Monday to Friday, 11am – 5pm
Saturday, 12 – 4pm (during exhibitions)

SCA Galleries website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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