On a quiet day in Beverly Hills, right around the corner from Rodeo Drive, Die Antwoord's “I Fink U Freeky” blasts through a white-walled gallery. A walk inside reveals a bathtub in which a mannequin stands with plastic body parts strewn beneath it, as furry, black rats crawl around. Parts of the walls reveal strange cartoon-ish figures drawn in black. A back installation projects the music video for “I Fink U Freeky” over a set-up that includes pigeons, spray-painted figures and ripped magazine pages with Xs over them (one featuring Kim Kardashian's recognizable mug).
No, this is not the setting for an underground party — it's an exhibition by film photographer Roger Ballen. Visitors to Mouche Gallery on Friday evening could sip on champagne or tequila concoctions as they took in the unique aesthetic of Ballen and his collaboration with Die Antwoord, the South African shock rap group.
Ballen helped direct the music video for “I Fink U Freeky,” an engrossing music video that has almost 30 million views. The two dynamic rappers, Yolandi Vi$$er and Ninja, spit rhymes while taking part in a strange series of scenes (take for instance, Yolandi finding a large bug when she's cooking).
“There's an interesting relationship between my photographs and what Die Antwoord did,” says Ballen. “I think it's useful to try to show how photography can be transformed through video.”
Die Antwoord contacted the photographer to express their interest in collaborating and what resulted is a music video that very clearly displays Ballen's aesthetic. Few music videos can boast so many views while completely absent of color — and many other pop-culture motifs. For one, there's no conventionally sexy girl in little clothes with flashing lights around her. There's the fearlessly edgy Yolandi serenading us from the ground while rats crawl all over her in her own version of sexy. Other shots include a cryptic scene showing a dead lion at Yolandi and Ninja's feet.
“I was actually able to make a music video that had an aspect of art in it,” says Ballen. “There's some complex meanings. There's some metaphorical meanings. It wasn't just this kissy, sexy, funny, stupid type of stuff. This kitschy stuff you see over and over again — because this wasn't kitschy I think it was a very refreshing transformation of a music video. It was different, completely different and it came from a different place I think that's why it became well-known.”
While all the buzz about Die Antwoord comes from its very loud, in-your-face personality, Ballen prefers the quiet, sharing that he's sick of people playing music everywhere to distract themselves. Ballen sticks works in the quiet of a darkroom, a process he describes as “much more meditative, much more physical, much more sensuous.”
The photos in the show capture moments from the music video but also similar gritty scenes with an edge of mystery and a hint of the surreal. For instance, the strange scene of a doll tucked into bed in a concrete-walled room with a dog nearby, seen in The Chamber of the Enigma, could take place anywhere in the world today or in some alternate universe in the future.
Ballen was born in America but moved to South Africa — which is how Die Antwoord found out about him — and originally studied to be a geologist. He now boasts more than fifty years photographing.
Ballen offered Die Antwoord an eye-catching, mystifying video, but the show proves that in exchange, the rave-rap act allowed his work to reach a wider audience.
“If you compare this still photography art business with the music or the music video business for young people, it's like comparing ping pong with tennis or I don't know what — lacrosse with baseball,” says Ballen. “The market, the audience is a thousand times bigger so that was very gratifying for people to come up to me who would've never dealt me or would've never seen what I did and they say, 'Wow I really like the video. I really like what you do.'”
“Roger Ballen/Die Antwoord – “I Fink U Freeky” runs until May 10 at Mouche Gallery, 340 N, Beverly Dr. Beverly Hills.