Tag Archives: Animal Kingdom

The Dark Side: Roger Ballen’s ‘Asylum’

Roger Ballen’s photographs are as much alluring as they are unsettling. For nearly 50 years, Ballen has used photography to explore some of the most upsetting parts of the psyche—and, in that period, he has created some of the most exquisite and unique images of everything from people and skeletons to animals and nature.

Born in New York in 1950 and based in Johannesburg since 1980, Ballen originally started as a documentary photographer. His mother worked at Magnum Photography, and later opened one of the first photo galleries in New York. Ballen recalls that, as time passed, he moved away from street photography toward work that was more conceptual. “My early work was somewhat documentary, but as time went on, the world became increasingly intense, increasingly more abstract, so my work became more complex in all sorts of ways,” he says. Since moving to South Africa, Ballen has left behind his early reportage style, instead choosing to stay within the frame of the camera to create an image.

Roger Ballen

Complex Ambiguity, 2009

Working strictly in black and white, Ballen creates unique pictures that explore, and then revisit, imagery of people, skeletons, animals, nature and faces. He has always taken an interest in animals in his photographs, and is curious about how the animal kingdom interacts with nature and humanity. Perhaps most striking in his photographs are the faces that always seem to be looking at the viewer. Taking inspiration from South African mythology and ancestor worship, Ballen says, “There’s faces everywhere, and I guess at the end of the day, who are the faces? Who’s telling you what to say? Who’s producing the dreams that come out of the night? There are mysterious third parties that govern our behavior in all sorts of ways.”

Ballen’s most recent project, and the subject of a solo show at the Manchester Art Gallery, stems from two other bodies of work: Boarding House, 2009, and Shadow Chamber, 2005. In each, Ballen found his way into an old South African mining house and former warehouse. It was while exploring these buildings for many years that Ballen found the location for his current body of work, Asylum.

Right near the boarding house building, Ballen came across a house in which the owner allowed people to stay for very little money under one condition: he insisted that the birds he collects be allowed to fly all over the house, and that they don’t stay in cages. “The house is full of birds, ducks, chickens, pigeons, doves, whatever, different birds and they’re all over the house, flying from one room to the next,” Ballen recalls. “The people that live in the house are people from different aspects of the streets in South Africa—some people come from other places in Africa, some are unemployed, some are products of poverty, violence and anything else. I interacted with these birds and animals to create these photographs.”

It is through this interaction that the photographer explores what he refers to as the dark side of one’s psyche. For Ballen, the problem begins with how the Western world defines dark. “In American culture, or western culture, dark means evil, scary or something you stay away from, something you don’t want to confront you,” he says. “You want to live your life in a very light way. I think the pictures deal with an aspect of the so-called dark side.” In Ballen’s mind, it’s through the dark that one finds the light. “The dark is what people actually refer to as the side of themselves that they’re scared of,” the photographer says. “The dark side is the side of themselves that they don’t want to work through. Dark is really fundamental to the work.”

Asylum is on view at the Manchester Art Gallery from March 30 – May 13. More of Roger Ballen’s work can be seen here.

Alex Arzt

Alex Arzt has a wonderful connection to the animal world, in real or faux form. Alex explores our relationships to the animal kingdom in her series, Human-Animal, and continues her animal explorations with a project about cats, Ailurophil and her series, Zoos. In addition, she has a number of interesting series about Americana.

Born in Washington DC and raised in Fredrick County, Maryland, Alex grew up with a childhood that included a reverence for the natural world and a connection to animals. After receiving her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, she is now based in Brooklyn. She was a Critical Mass finalist in 2010 and has exhibited in a number of group exhibitions including the Griffin Museum Annual Juried Show.

Human Animal: These are photographs of real people and the animals, objects, and places that belong to them. I am fascinated by the similarities between life forms and how alike our basic drives and behaviors are. Though the basic physiologies of mammals are extremely alike from organs to skeleton (even a barnacle has a mouth, intestine, penis) there is something indefinably different about each species.

Even as I find the affinities between life forms intriguing, the boundaries between humans and other animals also interests me. I am not simply referring to the large brains that endow humans with culture, logic, self consciousness, and advanced language or our bipedal movement or opposable thumbs. To me, the indefinable difference is the mystery of animal perception that humans are only able to access through imagination and theory. In her book Adam’s Task, Vicki Hearne describes inter-species interactions as when each individual “knows for sure about the other…that each is a creature with an independent existence, an independent consciousness and thus the ability to think and take action in a way that may or may not be welcome (meaningful or creature-enhancing) to the other.” When we see another living creature, we can never truly know how they perceive us or their environment.

volution, or the transmutation of species (as Darwin calls it), has formed an infinite variety of species all ranging in different types of intelligences, instincts, physical capabilities, and defense mechanisms. Humans continually use these differences in ability to their own devices through domestication. In this project, I continually wondered how adaptable the human home is for other species, whether that species lives in its own bedroom or in a cage in the backyard. The animals in these pictures often occupy the home space as fixtures much like the trinkets and framed pictures that broadcast the animal lover’s identity.

Various objects, including empty grocery store food packets, tchotchkes, stuffed animals, animal clothes, car decals, drawings, memorialized gravesites, and photographs identify the human owners as animal-lovers, even when the object of their affection is not captured in the frame. As many of my photographs make clear, some human identities are carved through the creation of a familiar human-pet dynamic involving both affection and dominance, captivity and care. My photographs record this symbiosis as it occurs in the American home.

The Blood of Bird and Beast: The Persistence of Animal Sacrifice

Animal sacrifice is older than history. Human beings have slaughtered birds and livestock throughout the ages in attempt to propitiate the gods—to alter fate, to enhance fortune, to pay for sins. One of the great hymns of the Rigveda is that of the Horse Sacrifice, which only a king can perform. The rituals continue to this day, as the photographs in this collection show: in the Muslim and Hindu worlds, as well as in Judaism. The first murder related in the bible stems from jealousy over sacrifice. Cain’s sacrifice of vegetables did not please God as much as his brother’s sacrifice of animals—and so Cain slew Abel.

Of the world’s great faiths, only Buddhism and Daoism eschew rituals of animal sacrifice, indeed, the taking of any life. Indeed, according to legend, one of the Buddha’s previous incarnations gave up his life to feed a hungry tiger. The various Christian sects and denominations very rarely perform animal sacrifices. But the very Catholic societies of Spain and Latin America still hold bullfights, which are descended from pagan animal sacrifices. And, of course, at the heart of Christianity is a sacrament that is essentially a human sacrifice.

Checkout LightBox’s Animal Magic: Curious Critters. The fourth installment of recent news images that reveal the endless wonders of the animal kingdom.

Polixeni Papapetrou

Australian photographer, Polixeni Papapetrou, may live in Melbourne, but her work is circling the globe. Just in 2011, her photographs will be seen in Slovakia, Greece, New York, Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Seoul, Germany, Taipei, and various cities in Australia.

Image from Haunted Country, 2006

After discovering a work of Diane Arbus, Polixeni was first drawn to photography. Much of her work is inspired by her own childhood in Melbourne. Her surreal images explore dreams, adolescence, and nods to literature such as Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Her work is that of a child’s imagination and reminds the viewer of a time when all was possible if you could dream it. The work is staged in the Australian landscape, children take on characteristics of animals, and fanciful beings–she sees children straddling the line of play and imagination, but also forming their identities in the adult world.

“In dressing up and wearing masks, the children, like actors, perform identities other than their own. They appear as something we immediately recognize, but are fantastically hybridized, losing their child identity and adopting the sublime identities of the mask. Beneath the mask, the child’s image is both present and absent, tangible and intangible. They can dream up alternative worlds, but also reflect sardonically upon the one they share with adults.

Many of the landscapes Papapetrou has staged these dramas in are portentous—as if at the edge of a space or the end of an epoch—conveying some of the wonder that children might entertain in entering the animal kingdom. The children as animals dance upon their own liminal world between fantasy and theatre, mythology and reality, archetype and free play, male and female, child and adult and of course animal and human. Within these ambiguities, Papapetrou fathoms the space that children occupy in our understanding and wonder how they might bestride the stage of art.”

NYMPhoto has an interesting interview with Polixeni from 2008

Images from The Dreamkeepers, 2011

Images from Between Worlds, 2009

Images from Games of Consequence, 2008

Images from Dreamchild, 2003