Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2003
Imagine a photograph. Hold it close in your mind. Hold it in the space where you can feel and sense without ever speaking a word. Allow the image to vibrate, to express a rhythm all its own, to reveal within itself a sound, an energy that becomes expressed through the senses without ever being translated into words. That experience is known as synesthesia, meaning “union of senses”.
It was in this way that the photographs of Roger Ballen first occurred to Ninja and Yolandi Visser, two musicians native to South Africa. As they note in the introduction to the recent photography book - Roger Ballen, Die Antwoord, I Fink U Freeky (Prestel, 2013), “When we saw Roger Ballen’s photographs for the first time it was like being punched in the face…. We had never seen photographs that made us feel such violent excitement… So fascinating, so disturbing, so unfuckingbelievably fresh! These were no ordinary photographs. They were highly complex surreal artworks in the exact same league as Salvador Dali, Hieronymous Bosch and Lucian Freud.”
Ninja and Yolandi continue, “We also wanted to make heavyweight ‘Punch You in the Face’-style art like this. So we threw all the music we had been working on for so long away, and started from scratch…. We both underwent dark and dangerous psychological transformations as we dove deep into the most primal regions of out minds and merged with our shadow selves. Instead of trying to work out how to fit into society, we decided to make out own unique breed of ‘Fuck You’-style pop music. We called this new dark pop group Die Antwoord.”
Die Antwoord, Afrikaans for “The Answer” formed as a rap-rave band in Cape Town, SA, in 2008. Two years earlier they made first contact with Roger Ballen, and from this was born a collaboration that would continue throughout the band’s career, culminating in their first music video together: I Fink You Freeky. By transforming the photograph into a tableau of moving images and adding rhythm and sound to the silent still, Die Antwoord and Roger Ballen have given us a wholly original space in the pop culture milieu.
Roger Ballen observes, “People are innately affected by music and more quickly affected by it than by photography. Music is almost animalistic in its capacity of getting people to forget who they are. I Fink u Freeky has gotten 40 million hits; that is a testament to the power of music, of media, and of the way people relate to music. It is different in a real way. The video had some deeper meanings, both funny and serious, and people could relate to it on different levels without having to stretch their minds.
“Music, you see all over the world. I live in Africa. It gets people crazy. It’s an overwhelming part of most cultures. There are hundreds of music stations; it’s everywhere. An evolutionary biologist would ask, ‘What is it about music?’
“It goes back to hundreds of millions of years ago: it’s animalistic, sexual.
“I Fink You Freeky takes my photographic aesthetic and animates it with music and dance, allowing it to reach a wider range of people than still back-and-white photography ever could. A good photo in my head gets into your stomach and your psyche faster than you can blink. Like music, it gets in immediately. It explores reality and illusion. The video has been the best ever advertising for my work.”
It is what Ballen does that holds us captive, though we may not know exactly how or why. It is in through his photographs that Ballen explores the mind. He is a traveller of sorts, an explorer of terrains untold, untold until he constructs the photograph and discovers the things that has us behold an image that is once foreign and familiar, the eerie sense of the uncanny, a thrilling kind of psychic disturbance.
Ballen notes, “It is hard to trace the mind. It goes here and there. If you think about what happened along the road previously, you’re on another road. The mind does not always think it words. It is jumping around, and most levels are not conscious or clear. We don’t know how the mind works, how creativity comes about, or who the mind is. We lose control over if as we are traveling.
“There are so many black holes, ambiguous, cloudy nebulae, that you just shrug your shoulders and say, ‘That’s the way it is.’ Let the mind do what it wants to do, let it go where it wants to go, let it happen in its own.
“My pictures are traveling visually. I don’t use words. I never think about them. It’s not a good picture if you can attach a word to it. That is my criterion. When I can’t come up with a word, when there is layered meaning, when I feel that I know I am getting somewhere and I feel it is something I cannot define, I am going into the right zone.
“Each picture evolves in a different way. Step by step, it starts to make a face. This might happen quickly, or it might take days. Within the structure, jumps of logic build the picture up in layers. Sometimes you reverse the process. It’s not so easy. It’s purely visual.
“It all starts with a white wall. I’ve created a life that has separated from me in some way. It is important to feel this.
“I am inspired by a white wall with nothing on it. I get inspired by what I create. If I am successful, that is inspiring. I created life out of nothing.”