Theatre of the Mind

Roger Ballen shines light on the darkest shadows of his subconscious in his new monograph The Theatre of Apparitions. In an edited extract from the preface Ballen reveals where he hopes the work will take us…

Traditionally speaking, photography documents and validates our perception of physical reality. For me, throughout my career, the camera has always been by definition the camera obscura, a kind of opening into the dark chamber of my murky interior. The images that make up the photographs in this book are a combination of our inner and outer worlds.

The first of these kinds of images was taken in an abandoned women’s prison during the shooting of my film Memento Mori in 2004. A former prisoner had painted over the windowpanes of one of the cells and had then drawn figures into the black paint, leaving herself completely isolated with only the barren cement walls and dim light to comfort her. Shortly after this discovery,   I began to create images similar to those  in the prison using glass  windows.

Early in 2007, Marguerite Rossouw began working with me as my photographic assistant and took a great interest in this project. She had extensive experience in painting techniques, as well as a profound understanding of my aesthetic. Consequently, the creation of these images was a combined effort. Through trial and error using various techniques – some more successful than others – we were eventually able to establish methods that culminated  in imagery of a new dimension.

We experimented with numerous paints, epoxies, emulsions, brushes, etc to allow us to achieve the otherworldliness that we desired. As we wanted to produce images that could be photographed immediately, we were not concerned about preserving the works, which allowed us to reuse the same glass windows over and over again. Therefore, I had a very short period of time to photograph the finished image before it would disintegrate. Like most other photographs, these ones preserve the transient.

The world within these pages, and the images that arise out of them, are old. Inhabiting a kind of amniotic darkness of the womb, the images
occupy a perceptual realm – a fragmented world of part-objects where fears of annihilation and chaotic perceptions merge reality and fantasy, self and other. These silhouettes are flickering archetypes originating from a collective unconscious of humankind. They call to mind weathered, Palaeolithic cave painting: some of the recurring relationships within this book – that of human and canine, bird and beast – invoke familiar, primordial bonds in the viewer. They operate as a kind of mythological ‘memory fossil’; they hark back to ancient shamanistic visions and sacred symbols that we have inherited and embedded within ourselves through process of evolution.

The visions presented are glimpses of parts otherwise invisible to the eye; the stuff of dreams made perceptible to us through the power of the photographic lens. Now embodied as living artworks, they are reminiscent of cave paintings and, like the unconscious itself, they are timeless.

In keeping with my profession as a geologist, these works deem me an excavator of the mental. This is a journey deep into the psyche, like the journey of the Aborigines who penetrated the remotest parts of the Australian outback, not to find dreams themselves, but the origin of dreams instead.

It is my hope that the images in this book will connect viewers to their core selves, to crack their defence mechanisms, to unite one part of their mind to the other, to find the spirits that live inside us and realise that what we refer to as reality is essentially delusionary.

Ladies and gentleman, I invite you into my theatre, where adventure awaits for the eyes.

The Theatre of Apparitions is published in hardback by Thames & Hudson, priced at £24.95

Face Off, 2010
Face Off, 2010
Black Hole, 2013
Black Hole, 2013
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