Book review – Asylum of the Birds: Mystic poverty porn

2014-04-08 12:00

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Asylum of the Birds

Thames & Hudson

144 pages

R795

Poverty is given the arty treatment in photographer Roger Ballen’s new book, but that doesn’t stop it from smacking of exploitation.

To promote Asylum of the Birds, the critically acclaimed Ballen – last seen giving Die Antwoord the arty treatment with a book and video for I Fink U Freeky – has made a film. It’s a behind-the-scenes mythology about making the book.

“The locations I work in are unsafe,” he drawls in his sage American accent while touring the scrap heaps of industrial Joburg. “The Asylum of the Birds house is surrounded by squatter camps, mine dumps and abandoned fields.” In between, he shares pseudospiritual nuggets: “I’m fascinated by birds. They link the heavens to the earth.”

After living in South Africa for 30 years, Ballen still refers to sangomas and inyangas as “witch doctors”. One suspects he does so on purpose, to impress his international audience – like an intrepid explorer in an early African jungle expedition doccie.

“This place is untameable,” he says of his own special heart of darkness. “It has its own rules.”

He arrives at his fictional set – a kind of shack mansion – and the locals wave from its roof, delighted to see the master.

Here live several grimy men and boys – black and white – in all their financially destitute glory. They live with animals.

They are freaky. But they are special freaks, somehow plugged in to a mystic socket.

“When I pass through the doors, I enter another universe,” rumbles Ballen. “A world bordering on dreams and reality.”

He dresses the men in masks and parades them in front of the camera.

They are not toothless, mentally disabled, destitute and desperate. No, they are “archetypal symbols of the deeper levels of the human subconscience”.

There is literally a black boy with a bird cage over his head in the modern-day human zoo.

The camera tracks still-flapping chickens with chopped-off heads. The men sleep as pigs snuffle on their bed in front of childlike drawings peppered with erect penises. One man flexes his albino muscles, another is a human hen, making clucking sounds as his toothless mouth chomps up and down. Another pops his eyeball out as a special effect.

Yup. At first you think it’s a chicken’s eyeball because you’re shown a close-up of a chicken’s eye just before. If you pause the video, though, you’ll see it’s a man’s eyeball being popped.

It’s a party trick performed by a physically handicapped white person living in a shack.

The white poverty meme in South African photography has seldom been more gratuitous than in Ballen’s new work.

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