Exploring the dark areas of the human psyche, photographers Roger Ballen and Asger Carlsen have joined forces for a must-see exhibition currently on at Foam Amsterdam. Comprising gloomy—sometimes even nightmarish—photographs and site-specific installations that bring the two-dimensional artworks to life, No Joke is an exhibition that constantly blurs the line between fact and fiction. And whether the layered work seduces or repulses you, it’ll be sure to have your thoughts racing for a long time. Glamcult met the artists for the story behind their sinister show.
Each image in No Joke was brought to life through co-creation. How would you describe the working relationship between the two of you?
Asger: We spoke quite often, sometimes weekly over Skype. But we didn’t really comment on each other’s process; we left this open. I would present an image and send it over via the Internet and then Roger would download it and work on it (and vice versa).
So all images went back and forth multiple times?
Asger: Yeah, creating multiple layers. Sometimes, we would only add on one but at other times this could range up to four or five.
Were there any disadvantages to having such a big physical distance between the two of you?
Roger: I think in some cases it was good that we had a distance between us, because it allowed us to do what we had to do. Otherwise, I think we would have started to overlap each other or we wouldn’t have been able to resolve certain things. Having the distance gave us the freedom and added a sense of spontaneity to the working process. I think most of the process happened very spontaneously and I think from the very beginning that was the nature of the project.
You created a very specific realm, a dystopian world. Is this a conscious thing? Do you travel there in your imagination?
Asger: I think if you know Roger’s work or mine, then this is what it’s about: questioning the border between fiction and reality.
Roger: It’s too dangerous to define either one of those. Because, what is reality? It has a reference to something that is recognizable. Zero—that’s reality, and that’s how far you’ll get to understand it.
Asger: Our work is an opening to something alternative that can be elaborated on. Anyone can interpret it in his or her own way.
Did the sculptures come in at a later stage?
Roger: Yes, except for one, which was shown at Paris Photo. It’s the first time we’re showing sculptures and I think it has added a lot to the show. As a multidimensional exhibition, I find it has more of an impact on people, as opposed to merely using one particular medium. Sometimes people have a preference for one. Each medium also has its strengths and weaknesses. This exhibition is by far our most complete installation. I think it looks really good; these rooms really allow the work to have a presence—you can feel it.
Let’s talk about human bodies. Bodies frequently recur in your work and for these works you specifically used your own bodies.
Asger: I basically told Roger: “Why don’t you take some pictures of yourself in the studio? Then I’ll work with those.” I can make any image out of even the most boring starting point. I find even that can turn out to be exciting.
Roger: The last time I took self-portraits with any consistency was when I did a five-year trip around the world. I used a 35-mm film that had 36 shots on it. So the last two shots of each row I would do some self-portraits because I was worried that if I found something interesting to photograph, I would have to change the film. That’s the last time I did it, for practical reasons.
Do you ever stick around your own exhibitions to see how people respond?
Roger: It’s always interesting to hear people’s comments. I find that there are a couple of different approaches to how people view and comment on the work. Some are quite repetitive, but there are also people that have a more creative and intuitive approach, which I find more interesting.
Asger: To begin with, it’s hard to get accepted by everyone in this world. My general conception is that people find the work interesting.
Roger: The most important thing with art is that it stays and plants itself in the subconscious mind: somehow it has an effect on people’s vision or sense of self over time. I think the pictures do this to a lot of people. If they see this exhibition they will remember this exhibition. The people actually remember the work. And if anything has any value to an artist, it is if people actually remember the work. You have people who intrinsically have a psychological reaction to the work and there’s others who remember it because they are told to remember and don’t make up their own mind. I think this work here, people do remember.
Asger: You hope it subconsciously has an effect. You hope people don’t just walk past and forget it. Our work tends to have a psychological effect. I think at some level, art should do this. It’s about communicating and having some kind of impact.