Roger Ballen: Asylum of the Birds at CIRCA gallery, JHB

by David Edwin McClleland

Finance lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand

I would sum up the Asylum of the Birds exhibit as disturbing. An attribute I find in most art that I enjoy, but perhaps not necessarily as literally as a demonstration of the ingredients from which nightmares are made. The combination of the contrasting main characters, birds and people, in an environment of decay is frightening.

The birds import with them some pre-conceived idea of purity or idealism into a space of realism, to create an area of oppressed ideals but a small window of freedom from reality for man. They appear in various stages of decay and filth, gradually losing what makes them precious, captured and dirtied by reality trying to hold on too tightly to what they represent. The people, however, seem enduring in this environment. Engineered to survive such horrors. They all contain a certain childishness and innocence and yet seem capable of brutality. The crudely drawn pictures on the wall are of the kind you would expect from an infant; a creepy, yet familiar, representation of humanity. The people see a world completely different to that which they appear to us to be a part of. It is almost as I would imagine Courage the Cowardly Dog views the terrifying world of his owners. He is afraid and confused as to why those around him are not equally afraid. Their comfort does not comfort him, their lack of fear only makes it all the more frightening.

The exhibit disturbs me not because it is strange, weird or foreign but rather because it captures something that is eerily familiar. Some primal part of our being that has been subordinated by comfort, etiquette and self-consciousness. The fact that I identify with something so unpalatable is what disturbs me.