Exploring the dark voids of the mind with Roger Ballen

The acclaimed South Africa-based photographer travelled to a 19th Century psychiatric asylum to create his haunting new film

Set in the dungeons of a 19th century psychiatric asylum built in Sydney to house the mentally insane from all over Australia, Roger Ballen’s new short film titled Roger Ballen’s Theater of The Mind is a haunting exploration of the darkest parts of human consciousness, depicting the zones between sanity and insanity, dream and reality, as well as the authentic and the inauthentic experience. The 2 minute long film begins with the photographer himself giving a lecture on his work. In midstream, his narrative is interrupted and he is dragged to a dungeon-like asylum where caverns of horror are opened up revealing its inmates. Ballen explains that his mission is not merely to shock and provoke, but to make people question their own sense of self and extend the consciousness of himself and the viewers.

The work follows Ballen’s dark music video for I Fink You Freeky for Die Antwoord, as well as his more recent video works, the equally haunting Asylum of the Birds (2014) and Outland (2015).

We caught up with Ballen to discuss the shadowy, unfathomable depths of the human mind, and how this darkness plays out in his works. 

How did the film come to life?

Roger Ballen: I was invited by Sydney College of the Arts, to do a photo exhibition called Roger Ballen's Theater of The Mind and I informed them that I was quite interested in making installations at the time and they said "Oh we have a great place you might be interested in. It's the old psychiatric dungeons below the school". The school and the dungeons had been built around 1880 as a psychiatric hospital and the dungeons sort of had been left untouched. And so when I got there, while working on the installations, it just occurred to me that this could be a great possibility to make a video. But it's one thing just to film a video, another thing is to actually have a narrative that works. We created these scenarios in each one of these rooms, but there still wasn't a narrative. But the thing really came together when the people at the university showed me a video they had recorded of me giving a talk a few days before. I was up on the stage in the video and the word "Mind" had been projected on the screen, and I saw what would become the first part of the film.

So the lecture in the beginning of the video is actually a real lecture that you did?

Roger Ballen: Yes it's 100 per cent real. On my second day in Sydney, so I gave the lecture before I even thought about making a video.

In the lecture you ask ”Who is the mind?” and ”Is the mind somebody else?” - In Buddhism the mind is not necessarily considered you, but the clear, empty mind is more a representation of your true self. Is Buddhism or other philosophical religions something you have ever been interested in?

Roger Ballen: When I was younger I was quite interested in the philosophy of Buddhism. For a lot of my life I have been interested in phenomenology and the philosophy of the mind, and I have been interested in Freudian ideas and Jungian ideas. I don't think this concept of the mind came from exactly one thing that I have been involved in. The more I think about it, the more I think of different concepts, the more profound it is to me. Here I am, talking to you but what's happening? You know, if you look at the brain, all you see is just tissue. And how this is all combined to consciousness and what is the basis of consciousness, this is something we can't even talk about. It's so complicated. Philosophers have been talking about this for 2000 years and gotten nowhere, science in 2016 still can't interpret consciousness or find the source of consciousness.

“I guess the purpose of art for me is, not only to extend my consciousness, but to extend the consciousness of others and extend it in a deep way” – Roger Ballen

Since the film starts with a lecture, do you have some mission to educate the audience - What is the purpose of the film for you?

Roger Ballen: The purpose of the video is actually to make people question their own sense of self, their own sense of identity to better integrate their interior with their exterior. So the video, hopefully, will push people to question their own sense of being and come to better terms with their identity, and I guess that's a good step forward if you want to make a better world. I guess the purpose of art for me is, not only to extend my consciousness, but to extend the consciousness of others and extend it in a deep way. Not just making people say "Oh this is a pretty scene, isn't this great", it's about extending the deeper levels of consciousness. To allow people to get to know themselves better, that has always been the purpose of what I do.

How would you describe the video?

Roger Ballen: It's very intense and it might be shocking, it's a penetrating video. There are very few people who can see that video and then forget it. Those who see it will remember that video. The video will implant itself into people's minds. I'm sure, because I have shown some people the video and they always walk away like, their eyes are open, they are still a little bit numb. So I know it works. That to me is a sign of good art.

You have told me that creating art is a very personal experience for you, like a diary writing exercise. So about the psychological issues, is mental illness something you have had close in your life?

Roger Ballen: I would say instead of psychological, it has always been an existential process. It's about coming to a better recognition of who I am, It's a journey into myself and this is an infinite journey, it doesn't end anywhere and it maybe doesn't begin anywhere. But it's the way I have always been. Since my teens I have tried to delve into myself and explore myself and art has been my tool to do that, and I'm lucky that I have that tool, there are a lot of people who are interested in themselves, and trying to find out who they are and come to better terms with their identity, but they and don't have the tools. I was lucky that I found the camera as the tool, so I was able to dig deeper and deeper.

You also studied psychology when you were young right?

Roger Ballen: I have a bachelor's degree in psychology, yes.

Have you worked in the field?

Roger Ballen: No, but I have been involved in it my whole life. I have never worked in it as such, but I guess in my job working with so many people over the years I guess I could be called an amateur psychologist, because I always try to help people with their problems nearly everyday in my life.

You mean the subjects in your art?

Roger Ballen: Yes the subjects in my art. And then I guess when you talk to anybody you in a way try to understand their hidden personality, you know we are all psychologists in some way or another, even animals are trying to understand the intent of another animal.

We all try to understand what's going on in somebody else's mind, as well as our own. So in a way we are all psychologists, but I guess with the people I have worked with over the years, I try to go a little bit further and try to give my opinion, in a very simplistic way perhaps, about how they can resolve certain personal issues.

Did you find anything unexpected in the tunnels - something from the days of it being an asylum or anything like that?

Roger Ballen: The tunnel was nearly two kilometres long at one time, there's a river about two kilometres away and the psychiatric patients weren't allowed to walk the streets. People was brought from various places in Australia to go the asylum, but they weren't allowed to be seen, so they had built this tunnel from the river, and brought them to this entrance, and they had to walk through the tunnel into the psychiatric hospital. But a lot of it have been closed, I don’t know when, so the full scale of the tunnels weren't available to see. There was maybe a hundred metres to see now. Which is a shame, it would have been a great tourist sight to walk down to the river through the tunnel.