Roger Ballen Goes Pop

The artist that inspired Die Antwoord has collaborated with Comme des Garçons

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Roger Ballen

Although New York-born lensman Roger Ballen has been living in South Africa for three decades now, don’t call his work South African. Instead of attempting to document life here, it’s a complex statement on the nature of the human condition and the relationship between the strange and unsettling things in one’s surroundings.

Take a look at the imagery again. No doubt about it, Ballen’s diseased imagination makes for highly complex work. That grotesque graffiti on his backdrops inspired Die Antwoord’s aesthetic, with zef rapper, Ninja, giving kudos. “Roger Ballen spawned us. He’s our guru.” The pair went on to work together on the video I Fink U Freeky, which is now sitting on a cool 60-something million YouTube hits.

Ballen describes his courting the pop world as such: “I think it’s a good thing people find things in my art to use in other ways. I like the idea of my art getting out there and finding people who would have never seen my photographs. That it’s used in other ways and gets into people's minds… that’s probably a good thing. And anyway, once the work is out there, it’s out there. Good pictures have their own life. They’re living things.”

Ballen’s collaboration with Comme des Garçons featured at Paris Fashion Week saw his artwork on the brand’s Homme Plus A/W 2015 range. Rei Kawakubo’s Homme Plus models arrived shrouded beneath hoods wearing asymmetrical blazers and ultra-slim suiting. There was a distinct creepiness to everything with the soundtrack from Eyes Wide Shut accompanying the disjointed fashions, and when the models turned at the end of the ramp one could see the sombre series of charcoal drawings by Roger Ballen taking up the back of the white leather coats.

Speaking of his collaborations, Ballen says, “It’s always interesting to link the media of black and white photography with other art forms whether they be video, installations, dress etc. Ultimately by doing so one’s consciousness and vision are expanded and transformed.”

Ballen is no dedicated follower of fashion, although he says that given the right occasion he could see himself wearing the clothes presented at the Paris show. The artist chose to collaborate with the fashion house as he believes Comme des Garçons produces more than just clothing. That what they do might be considered as art. There’s also the possibility that the relationship goes further with Ballen creating his distinct installations inside some of the fashion house’s stores.

Should a jacket, a shop front or a pop video for that matter make a deeper statement? Ballen thinks so. “Good artwork, to me, is something that has a complex meaning to it. Like a tree doesn’t mean one thing. It has a whole mystical relationship to its environment. Art should be the same. People want simple answers because they’re either scared to think, or they don’t want to think, or they can’t think. When it’s in a box they feel comfortable because it’s not threatening.”

Ballen first came to South Africa as a young man working as a geologist. Used to dealing with nature, exploring and uncovering rich veins of resources, it was while looking for minerals in Platteland dorps that Ballen fell in love with the humans that inhabited these spaces and has been returning ever since.

“In nature the moth always goes to the bulb and the fly to the flower. I find the places that fit my aesthetic or sense of artistic sensibility, wherever you go and in any environment. Its not necessarily a matter of finding a new location but rather finding yourself in some place.” 

Now it’s the culture-makers who are mining the deep veins of Ballen’s work in order to take their art to the next level. The seemingly fickle and shallow world of pop-culture proving that nothing should be taken at surface value. That a little digging goes a long way.