Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind played out in Sydney exhibition

15 February 2016

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 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 30 April 2016. A 96-page book will accompany the exhibition featuring Ballen’s photography and an essay by Professor Rhodes.