Located not far outside Johannesburg is a big empty space, a space where people are divided up with blankets, sheet metal and wood… a place that Roger Ballen calls ‘The Boarding House’. Between 2004 and 2008, the photographic artist would spend five days a week living and interacting with the people there, capturing those individuals on film who saw The Boarding House not as a big empty space but as Home. one small seed met with Roger Ballen at the exhibition for this body of work and uncovered a little bit more about this and Roger’s own intriguing world.

‘This crazy life
This crazy world
We’re living in is magical’

(Goldfrapp – ‘Fly Me Away’)

Hanging Pig (2001) - Shadow Chamber

Hanging Pig (2001) - Shadow Chamber

After completing his third photographic volume, Platteland (created 1986–1994; published 1996), Roger Ballen changed direction. A new aesthetic emerged from his new interaction, as an artist, with his subject matter in the construction of each image. A team of two, Roger Ballen and the world, embarked on a voyage to find the obscure in the most banal or surprising of objects. His experiences during these years would ultimately culminate in his latest project: Boarding House (2009).

Talking Heads nailed it in their debut hit ‘Psycho Killer’: ‘You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.’ There does seem to be a lot of loose talk along these lines nowadays: recycled broken-line bullshit that sounds so damn sweet to say out loud. But sometimes one is lucky enough to encounter an individual whose words and images are so powerful, so transcendent, that they leave you just a little less jaded… and a little more real.

Meeting Roger Ballen at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town was a surreal and humbling experience… a rare lunchtime interlude that warranted no refined plastic questions. The photographs that make up Boarding House stole all concentration and left me lost in memories of experiences I’m not quite sure were ever real. I was cast into an internal dialogue of uncertainty, lingering with that bitter aftertaste of spending too much time in one’s own head. With Roger Ballen’s distant eyes lost in memories, and mine in my thoughts, a raw and unfamiliar dialogue unravelled.

Bite (2007) - Boarding House

Bite (2007) - Boarding House

‘It remains up to the viewer to figure out the relationship with various things in the picture with each other, which is often very difficult to get a single word to describe. But, if you can’t find a single word, it doesn’t matter – you just accept it for what it is. Take from it and make whatever you want from it.’

Pathos (2005) - Boarding House

Pathos (2005) - Boarding House

‘When you walked into The Boarding House, a stuffed ape was right in front of the building. This animal became a rough metaphor for the people in this place. The Latin word ‘Pathos’ means a deep pain, something the people in The Boarding House felt. I feel that it is a pain everybody feels but tries to cover up with fast cars, jetting around the world or playing tennis… we can’t get away from it really.’

Mimicry (2005) - Boarding House

Mimicry (2005) - Boarding House

‘Mimicry highlights the importance of hidden visual truth in the photograph, and begs the question: Is it tragic or is it funny? The images are dark but they are also light. And, like our psyche, their meaning is not so easy to describe.’

one small seed: Could you describe the atmosphere of The Boarding House?

Roger Ballen: The Boarding House is a strange and surrealistic place, certainly a place where the human condition exposed itself on all different levels. The photographs taken in the series are in many ways very abstract. Complex or not, what most people experienced from the images in Boarding House are that they take you into another zone, another place… almost a place of the psyche.

When people look at the pictures, they shouldn’t worry about ‘Where is this place, how do they get to this place or what is this place?’ And this, and that… It’s really about finding a place that reveals something about [yourself], rather than necessarily worrying how I took the picture.

oss: When I look at the images in Boarding House, I feel saturated with questions that have nothing to do with your subject matter, with questions that I stopped asking a long time ago.

RB: Well, then the art has done what it was supposed to do. Unfortunately, we live in a world where art is just about reinforcing what we know already, everybody likes to be reinforced. And that’s not what art is about. It should make people question the world around them and help to understand themselves a bit better.

oss: Speaking of questions, so many are rather about finding the answer. It’s comforting to us to know there is a solution to things.

RB: People have become scared of asking the proper questions, scared of the proper answers… We want everything packaged so we can put it under the bed and sleep at night. And unless this problem is solved, we don’t have a future as a race. All the problems come from our psyche. It’s not necessarily about ‘this’ or ‘that’, it’s about what’s going in inside our own psyche, and we have to solve that problem first. That’s the hardest issue.
There are plenty of psychiatrists around, plenty of philosophers, plenty of poets, plenty of this… plenty of that…

oss: …and plenty of self-help books.

RB: Plenty of self-help books… that’s pretty funny, yeah, and there will be plenty more.

Perhaps life – as real as it is – is constructed of scenes and instances that are so intricate, so conceptual… even revolutionary… that it seems all too overwhelming and intense to be of a worldly nature. These moments are impossible to define.

As a person with a lot to say, I still sit with many questions. I do know that, whether tragic or comic, light or dark, theatrical or real, Roger Ballen’s Boarding House is ultimately whatever it means to you. But perhaps Roger puts it best:

You can try for the rest of your life to come up with words that define these photographs, but you’re still not going to hit the bullseye. And that’s what ultimately makes good art. Art that can stand on its own… Art that doesn’t necessarily need words to explain it.

Cut Loose (2005) - Boarding House

Cut Loose (2005) - Boarding House

Boarding House (2009) is published by Phaidon

Words: Sarah Claire Picton
Images: © Roger Ballen

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