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Exploring "the Silent Mind" at the Launch of Roger Ballen's Asylum of the Birds

Launch of Asylum of the Birds by Roger Ballen

Asylum of the BirdsRoger Ballen’s Asylum of the Birds was launched at David Krut Bookstore in Johannesburg recently.

Ballen was in conversation with Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, senior lecturer and head of Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the editor and co-founder of Fourthwall Books.

The launch was extremely well attended, with many of the visitors buying the book and having it signed by Ballen, whose enigmatic persona did not prevent him from being a friendly and engaging host.

Law-Viljoen described the book as “a dense and complex and interesting body of work”. She began by unpacking the artistic, photographic and literary milieu of the book, but said she wanted to avoid “any kind of pop psychology”: “I think I prefer to focus on something like Lucien Freud’s Landscape with Birds, which is a very interesting oil painting, rather than suggestion of the relationship between birds and male erections or dreams about birds and sexual anxiety.”

On the literary influences in his work, Ballen said although he may have studied Heidegger and seen Medieval painting in his lifetime, how those memories interact in the images he creates is “beyond my own knowledge”.

“I’ve been reading since I was about five years old,” he said. “The problem is memory. About 59 years I’ve been reading, and I don’t know a lot of things, but the one thing I really don’t know is how my mind works. How things come up and disappear, and then come back in disguised form.”

Ballen said he would argue against any kind of verbal influence in his work, saying: “When I take pictures I just go with ‘the silent mind’. I don’t think about words. What I’m doing has nothing to do with words. And I believe if I can define it with words then the picture’s no good. So the best pictures have no words. The best pictures, sort of, have a silence to them. And the best pictures are multidimensional in meaning, so if I can put it in words it’s usually a bad picture.”

Law-Viljoen then turned the conversation to other photographers, asking which of his peers Ballen feels “some sympathy with”. Ballen said his main influences come from the New York scene of the 1960s and ’70s, when his mother was an editor at the famous Magnum Photo Agency, including names such as Paul Strand and André Kertész.

However, he adds that one of the main benefits he found in moving to South Africa was that it disconnected him from that world for many years, allowing him to “concentrate on Roger Ballen”.

“I tell students, if they want to learn something about photography they should not negate the history,” he said. “But you really have to learn through taking pictures and building on your own work. That’s the road you have to travel.”

Ballen, who holds a PhD in Geology from Berkeley in California, evoked an earthy metaphor to describe his position: “Well my other job is, I’m also a geologist. I think contemporary is one layer of a million layers. And it’s better to back, sometimes, than to worry about the contemporary. The contemporary usually gets blown away by the wind.”

Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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