Roger Ballen did not arrive in Sydney with the intention of making a film. The Johannesburg-based photographer, who you might also know as the director of Die Antwoord’s 2012 music video ‘I Fink U Freeky’, was actually visiting the University of Sydney’s College of the Arts to view an installation of his own work curated by Colin Rhodes. But the haunting atmosphere of the art school, which is located on the site of a former psychiatric hospital, immediately caught his imagination.
“I was so inspired by the dungeon cells at the Sydney College of Arts that I felt I needed to preserve my experience,” Ballen tells The Creator’s Project. “The turning point in the process occurred when I added sound to the installation and was blown away by the penetrating recordings.”
The result is Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind, a powerful two minute psychological thriller which begins with Ballen giving a lecture on his work, only to be interrupted by a series of dreamy and disturbing images filmed in the art school’s bizarre underground tunnels.
Ballen worked on the video and accompanying photo installation with a group of Sydney College of the Arts students and graduates, including producer Tanja Bruckner. Filming with Ballen was a dream come true for Bruckner, who’d long been a fan of the world renowned photographer. “It was an absolute privilege to work with him,” she tells The Creators Project. “His work doesn’t cotton wool life like a lot of art and other forms of media do. He punches the viewer in the face so hard with the very real possibility that things fall apart, including the mind.”
As a former Sydney College of the Arts student, Bruckner’s filmed on campus many times. Unsurprisingly, exploring the nineteenth century passageways of an old mental asylum always makes for an eerie experience. “You can feel the energy of certain spirits still trapped in their isolation cells,” she says.
A nineteenth century mental hospital is the perfect choice of setting for Ballen, whose photography and video practice tends to float in the interstitial space between perceptions of real and unreal. In fact, he’s enjoyed a lifelong fascination with themes of mental disturbance.
“I have always been interested in the thin line between sanity and insanity,” he says. “What society defines as normal could be seen as insanity, and vice versa.”