Roger Ballen, Asylum of the birds
06 21 … 09 21 2014


Asylum: a protective place or, one the contrary, synonymous with imprisonment. All of this ambiguity is contained in one of Roger Ballen’s (b.1950) latest series of photographs. In 2008, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he lives, he discovered a unique house peopled with individuals and birds flying freely, as well as rats, rabbits and ducks. The walls are covered with signs and drawings. The strange place shifts between surrealistic atmosphere and pure art installation, like Roger Ballen’s images, between purity and chaos.

A strange place on the outskirts of Johannesburg shelters a diverse community. Men and animals cohabit, swarming among piles of dismantled, sparse objects vainly searching for a use. The place is like a cross between a junkyard and a zoo. It is an extraordinary location, ideally suited to the particular imagination of Roger Ballen.

Roger Ballen has lived in South Africa for over thirty years. He is an American photographer who made a name for himself in 1994 by painting the raw, pitiful portrait of the rural experience under Apartheid (Platteland, Images from Rural South Africa [1] ). Even then, Ballen went way beyond the simple status of documentary photographer to forge a unique and disturbing style. He shoots people within their everyday environment. He also establishes an aesthetic vocabulary where graphic signs abound as do formal elements that link his work to art history and to which he lends as much importance as to the portraits themselves. Over time, his images provide a more complex reading, through the accumulation of objects, the graffiti and the growing presence of the animals. The eye focuses on the tight framing of the square format and wanders in search of an explanation. Roger Ballen invents a language and causes unrest. He is passionate about psychology and seems to depict our subconscious in his pictures.

The best pictures are the ones you don’t have words for…” Ballen works from instinct, he plans nothing. In 2008, he found a place that suited him, a place where the poverty-stricken, the criminal, the mentally ill are piled together, away from society, crowded in with animals of all kinds. A sordid and filthy hovel with graffiti on the walls, an unreal and unhealthy place that provided a new backdrop for the photographer’s explosive aesthetic world.

Asylum of the birds. A revolting refuge where chaos and freedom reign, a meeting point between life and death, between humanity and animalism. For five years, Roger Ballen assembled the rejected objects, carcasses, masks and figurines, composing with the freely wandering animals. Man is present but often in a fragmented way: a screaming head here, five outstretched hands there… a headless body, a man in a cage, masked figures… The symptoms of madness brought together in images that could be seen as nightmares. The omnipresent birds flap their wings freely at the risk of becoming victims of this insanity. As a bright symbol of freedom and peace, the doves confront the darkness of humanity, the beauty and the ugliness. The relationship between man and animal depicted here is one of adversity.

Roger Ballen claims to explore the dark side of the psyche, the different layers of the subconscious that he superimposes in his photographs, like so many geological strata [2] . His work bears witness to a world of ambiguity, where black is not necessarily synonymous with evil or darkness, but of good. For Ballen, “life comes from the shadows (…) it comes from nothingness ”.

Book :
Roger Ballen
Asylum of the Birds
Thames & Hudson, 2014
ISBN : 0500 544 298

Video :

[1] This series was shown at the musée Nicéphore Niépce in 2002.

[2] Roger Ballen is a trained geologist.