For his new exhibition in Hong Kong, American-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen has selected animal-themed images that coincide with the 12 Chinese zodiac symbols. Since most of his photos are shot in South Africa, Ballen has pondered over their relevance to a largely Chinese audience and used the zodiac theme as a “glue” to present examples from his various series, says Vanessa Franklin, co-founder of Boogie Woogie Photography, in Wong Chuk Hang, where the exhibition is being held. Ballen, born in New York in 1950 and based in Johannesburg since the 1980s, is known for black-and-white photos of poor white people in remote areas of South Africa, who had once benefited from apartheid but, with its demise, faced economic ruin. Later, he began to experiment with what he dubs “documentary fiction”, and photographed his subjects in dark, disturbing and intriguing tableaux. In some of my photographs, I tried to link human behaviour with animal behaviour Roger Ballen His imagery is often seen as absurd, integrating the real with the unreal, dreams with reality. But Ballen found that the audience tended only to look at the human subject in his photographs and neglect the other details. “‘Is he rich or poor? What is the person thinking? What is he doing?’ That was the only questions I ever got,” Ballen says. “But I said, ‘What about the other things in the picture? You know, there’s more than just a person sitting [here].’” And so he moved on to another phase that integrated photography with video, installations and drawings. But animals have always been his preferred subjects, often seen alongside other recurring motifs such as makeshift sculptures, masks, dolls and childlike scrawls and drawings. “In some of my photographs, I tried to link human behaviour with animal behaviour. So sometimes you see that […] animals are in some ways reflecting the state of being of humanity as much as his or her own state of being,” he says. The exhibition begins with the figure of a rat ( Predators ; 2007), the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. The monochrome picture shows the bottom half of a rat with a hand on its tail, while nearby a strange claw hovers near a crude drawing of a face. Year of the Tiger 2022: is your luck in or out? Zodiac sign predictions There is a great sense of peril in the image. Yet, for Ballen, it’s not the rat that is the cause for alarm. “I have pet rats; when they see me they put their little hands out of the cage because they want food. It’s the cutest thing,” he says. Ballen, who holds a degree in psychology, says he is inspired by Carl Jung’s idea of a “shadow self”, our subconscious that is represented by the opposing, primitive forces of anima and animus . While the exhibition includes works from different periods, there is always a Grand Guignol fascination with violence and horror coexisting with a playful sense of humour, such as the ape pushing a pram against a backdrop of crudely painted human figures ( Lullaby ; 2020). Hong Kong artist Andrew Luk has been invited to respond to Ballen’s photographs with his own installations. Luk collaborated with Ballen on The Refrigerator of Curious Cosmologies (2022), which consists of a disparate set of found objects such as dismantled clocks, a feng shui compass, 3D-printed resin and a PlayStation 2 control. “He’s very much a conceptual artist, and I’m very much a psychological artist,” Ballen says of Luk. “So I think they create an interesting opposition. That creates a greater whole in some way or another.” “Roger Ballen & Andrew Luk: Zodiac” is at The Loft, E. Wah Factory Building, Wong Chuk Hang, until May 7. By appointment only. Inquiries: 5239 3730.