18 May 2024
Exhibition: Roger Ballen’s – Theatre of the Absurd, Fotografiska Museum
Art Culture What's on: Stockholm

Exhibition: Roger Ballen’s – Theatre of the Absurd, Fotografiska Museum

What do an asylum, mentally damaged people and a house full of birds have in common? YLC’s Ting Yiu visited Fotografiska to find out.

The answer is Roger Ballen. The man who chose to photograph them.

I went to the most talked about exhibition since Fotografiska opened and fell into a world of madness, discomfort and the fine line between art and reality.

Theatre of the Absurd is about “human beings and animals that are trapped in an incomprehensible world”. Ballen’s images are not the airbrushed, perfection-obsessed pictures to which we are accustomed. His subjects are missing teeth and limbs, exposed right down to their naked (unglorified) dangly bits – a result that is deeply unsettling and eye-shiftingly uncomfortable.

“People get scared of my pictures” Ballen admits; in conversation with Göran Segeholm, Fotografiska’s head teacher.

Works from his collection Asylum of the Birds are the most compelling. They are the result of six years of black and white photography taken from a house full of fugitives, immigrants, addicts, the abused and mentally ill.

Working in the poorest, most dangerous slums of Johannesburg, South Africa, he says of his work, I ate it, slept it, with a gun to my skull for many years”.

Somebody wears a mask with a bloody chicken’s head lodged in his mouth – feathers and all. Deformed, scaly feet frame the face of another man with an eye cyst. His subjects live cheek by jowl with animals and birds who take centre stage in his images. The pictures are not candid. Ballen deliberately poses people in bizarre forms to create a theatrically nightmarish effect.

Limp genitalia, addicts with their eyes rolled back, skin diseases, stick-people drawings straight out of a horror flick. It’s definitely not a merry wander down the garden path of humanity but my eyes are glued and I keep looking. I can’t help but wonder if this kind of voyeurism is even legal.

Ballen is often accused of exploitation. But he says otherwise. 

“I become friends with most of the people. I’ve always worked with one basic tenet – its gotta be a two way street. It’s a real privilege for me. If they need food in their stomach, here’s some money”.

To date, the location of the Johannesburg house remains a secret. An attempt by Ballen to protect the people in his images, many of whom are on the run from the law.

Ballen, like is works are an enigma. He’s been a professional geologist for 30 years. After university, he spent five years roaming overland from Cairo to Cape Town and from Istanbul to New Guinea in between. Quietly hypnotic, he speaks like a character from one of Pinter’s plays with a sorrowful face to match. He also recently directed zef band Die Antwoord’s music video I Fink You Freaky (Die Antwoord are playing the Dans Dakar festival in Riddarholmen, August 9th).

I can’t say I love his photographs. I can’t even admit to liking them. In truth, they make my brain cells implode.

I can’t get over the mentally damaged people in weird juxtapositions with animals. I don’t like how they look at me while I’m in a air conditioned gallery in a wealthy city. Ballen makes money off these people. I can’t get over the words “exploitation”.

But maybe he’s right.

What’s exploitative if you make a metaphor about the human condition through somebody else? Those pictures got in their heads. But the problem is that people don’t want those images in their head and they spit it out and blame it on me”. It all boils down to one great big comment on society. A giant finger, unashamedly pointing out uncomfortable truths about the world. Weeks after, I’m still haunted by his images.

Don’t let me decide for you, get yourself down to Fotografiska and see the exhibition for yourself. Theatre of the Absurd runs only until the 7th of June, so get out there and get uncomfortable!

Fotografiska Museum


Adults – 120 SEK
Students/Seniors – 90 SEK
Children under -12 Free

Opening Hours:

Sunday – Wednesday 9:00 am – 9:00 pm
Thursday – Saturday 9:00 am – 11: 00 pm


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