“A friend familiar with what I do suggested I have a look at Bachelor & Spinsters Balls – rural gatherings originally designed to overcome distance and loneliness in the bush.”
Ingvar Kenne’s book The Ball is a queer look at coming of age rituals in Australia where he lives. I came across the book through social media and was immediately arrested by the content, which I thought bordered on the metaphorically psychotic. In turn, having scored a copy expecting to somehow be put into a more mellow position when seeing it on a whole, I found that this was not to be the case. Page after page of “WTF” continued and even after repeated viewings, I still could not shake the images effect on me. I felt like I was being introduced to a very strange ritual in a world spinning maniacally closer to the sun at a quick pace. I caught up with Ingvar who was able to shed some light on The Ball and the ideas behind it. In the interview we speak a bit about literature, portraiture and beekeepers, sort of.
BF: So, your book is a bit mental if I am honest. I feel like I am being given front-row view into some sort of bizarre ritual where young people are involved in a sort of springtime rutting event brought on by the change of season and copious amounts of booze.
The positions and the innuendo of bodies (though mostly not sexually engaged) seem to place the work into that context. I cannot be sure, but I suspect you are not an Australian native yourself and the work is very oriented towards that location. Can you tell us a bit about what your background is and how you managed to get involved in the malaise offered up in The Ball…
IK: I grew up in small town Sweden. Early on in my teens I always dreamt about being someplace else and started to leave on jaunts or longer trips as soon as I was able. In the mid- 90’s I spent two and a half years driving a motorcycle around the world (resulting in the book ‘Chasing Summer’) and while in Australia, within the space of five months I had met someone, married and left to continue on with the journey. Once finished about a year later I promptly returned to set up life with my wife and have lived here ever since.
A friend familiar with what I do suggested I have a look at Bachelor & Spinsters Balls – rural gatherings originally designed to overcome distance and loneliness in the bush.
I had previously documented Karaoke bars in several countries and published a book (‘The Hedgehog And The Foxes’) on a couple of days spent with adult film star Ron Jeremy and his relationship to his fans through a series of parties – both being settings with people congregating in dense numbers, bottle in hand.
With the Balls, it became immediately clear that these country throngs were to me completely alien. I have no real interest in alcohol, or cultural events based on it, though I seem to end up in that space frequently. The anarchy in movement and intensity of repeated and heightened human emotions is spellbinding and keep asking for further scrutiny.
Also realising that, I have never been capable of photographing the familiar very well. It turns out quite the opposite. I find myself attracted to the complete unknown – when I am the migrant, in life and in what I photograph. Usually there is a large dose of fear attached, of committing to be involved in what I am yet to witness. The role of the photographer becomes the prime (perhaps only) reason I am there, as well as being a shelter. I can be on the inside, while maintaining a strangers status.
BF: In essence you are a nomad to a degree and an inspector of culture and environment. I think this is one duty of the photographer and I am not interested in planting a flag in which territory that is art, journalism etc. I think we can speak openly about photography in all these contexts whether a tool, medium, or art form. I just want to clarify that because your words above remind of these great things that can happen with the camera when investigating and though we live in unprecedented times in which I think this sort of cultural research might get taken into a context that raises questions-I sense the Swedish-Australian gap isn’t going to flag any social justice concerns about your position as author and the focus group.
So, in thinking through this idea of investigation, your work has this strange effect to insinuate that it is a document to some purpose, but then the photographs themselves have an edge to them, almost a perverse way of seeing people and I do not mean that as an insult, perhaps the situation and the subjects are calling for that very thing. The photograph up the mans nose for example or seeing the way in which the bizarre coat of paint runs off the subjects body and the mouths become smeared from gratuitous slobbery kissing. One comes away with the sense that when you made the images, you were somehow a bit in disbelief to the spectacle and that it did not become overly normalized over the time spent making the images. Can you give an impression of what it was like to be there and what the response was to your presence-also what is the ball about exactly?
“The environment at these events are obviously intense and I certainly had a hard time to fathom what I was witnessing the first time I showed up. You walk into a dusty showground of up to 1500 people and the spectacle is frightening.”
IK: The environment at these events are obviously intense and I certainly had a hard time to fathom what I was witnessing the first time I showed up. You walk into a dusty show ground of up to 1500 people and the spectacle is frightening. Being much older and clearly not there to party, I was tested and at the receiving end of much attention. My level of anxiety always turned out to be unwarranted. I became part of the dance and invited to document anything I wanted, my role as a photographer constantly called upon. They are a generation who wants to be seen, tag and share their experiences, almost like a new currency. They are clearly proud of their collective creation of bedlam, the camera often elevating the anarchy to fever pitch, moments I documented but never found significant. I attended almost a dozen Balls and looking back they are strangely repetitive in structure. The subculture seemed sharply defined, the bond and acceptance in the crowd complete. I can hardly recall any aggression, which surprised me, they are in it together, implied rules appear set. Though it never managed to start to feel normal and routine.
My process is a very insular pursuit, like I am working in a private vacuum. The photographs, and the conversation they engage me in afterwards, is what carry the process forward. The images all have to hold up to my further scrutiny in isolation. I found myself gravitate to when the square frame seem to find a moment of suspended harmony, chaos paused, without a singular way of viewing it. Here, the multitude of bare human desires, despairs and loose limbs on display kept on coming at a frantic pace. The safety in numbers, their awareness of me, momentarily forgotten.
Where lies this apparent need to completely go apeshit, drink yourself into stupor, en masse? Living in isolation on farms, some as big as Irish counties, toiling the tractor for weeks on end might explain some of the need for human interaction and only having 24 hour at hand lends itself to intensifying the experience. Yet you see similar gatherings like spring-break in the US, midsummer all-nighters in Sweden, dance parties in Ibiza. Different exposition, similar trip?
Without having experienced a rite of passage myself, we have clearly lost what older cultures gifted their youth, as a mean to both break and bond while transiting to man and woman hood, through initiating ceremonies.
How does this change of way inform our identity, our traditions and in how we belong? Perhaps The Ball is touching on how we communally have lost our way, disconnected from the past and with that a sense that tomorrow doesn’t really matter.
BF: But the end result of that then becomes lamentable and grieve-oriented as cultures die away into the big monoclot of globalism. I gather these traditions start more from pregnancy and youth rites of a European past. The idea of “coming of age” literally would be about breeding and the ceremony of union-ship. I guess in the past hundred years or so the focus is more about leaving the nest to enter university or the workplace before those ideas of marriage etc pop in. There is a cult like mystic effect when I look at the Ball-the rituals, the paint, the incoherent ceremony of intoxication.
In your books, you seem drawn to the unfamiliar as you mentioned-I keep thinking of the portraits you took in “Citizen” of the child sex offenders. It might be pertinent to note that your methodology to a more kind degree seems to have Arbus written over your square frames somehow. The look into the peculiar or unfamiliar and in color it really creates a mania.
You also have a steady interest in literature it seems with both Paul Theroux (Chasing Summer) and Tim Winton (The Ball) writing forwards. I was brought to attention the idea of Winton while looking at your book. Do you have a background in literature and how do you find its effect when you see the text with your book. The Ball in particular is an interesting use of a pivotal author in a pivotal time who certainly has a cultural awareness of the topic…
IK: I feel a bit reckless in that I don’t harbour much awareness of the cause and effect through the process in taking the photographs. The narrative is coming to me at the very end of the game, camera down, sifting through work and creating sequences, hence the construction of why and what has been accomplished, if any, is in some ways lacking in care and created in theory after the fact. Any attempt on my part to outline a rationale always falls way off my own mark, and it feel dishonest reading back the failed bid of a hypothesis on the page. In the end the conversation with the photographs alone, seem satisfactorily absolute.
“Where lies this apparent need to completely go apeshit, drink yourself into stupor, en masse? Living in isolation on farms, some as big as Irish counties, toiling the tractor for weeks on end might explain some of the need for human interaction and only having 24 hour at hand lends itself to intensifying the experience.”
BF: That is quite an interesting way to process work and I applaud you for being honest both in methodology and also the context of the question. I find so many photographers these days are so desperate to be paraded as an artist with a cheap set of skills masquerading the intention of nothingness at the core of their intellectual and ethical being that in not taking for granted that you do not necessarily start with answers, you bring questions back to the process of editing. We start all too often with misshapen answers before we even begin to investigate. That is one of photography’s many problems….
IK: As for the reading question, yes at times I read a lot. That sums up my literary education. Once I find a voice I enjoy I often seem to read most of the back catalogue (same happens with photographers), which was the case with both Tim Winton and Paul Theroux. In aid and fuelled by some anguish at questions leveled about work in progress, I have reached out to authors who does use words as there tool to make reason.
With Tim, my box of prints seemed to arrive with timing crucial to his own work. He was about to launch his latest novel – The Shepherd’s Hut – and with that a national speaking tour. Unbeknownst to me, the talk he was in the process to prepare lamented on toxic masculinity that seem so pervasive in Australian culture and has been for some time. I think he saw the images of B&S balls as one of many pinnacles of that very issue. As he later said in his lecture
- “Toxic masculinity is a burden to men. It is men who need to step up and liberate boys from the race, the game, the fight” and “Children are born wild. And that’s beautiful, it’s wondrous, regardless of gender. Even when they’re feral creatures, kids are reservoirs of tenderness and empathy. But some do turn into savages.”
Hence I believe his response to the work, as generous and informative as it was, ended being a considerate letter of rejection, rather than the hoped for essay. In the end, it’s inclusion in the book obvious and easy to embrace. Surprisingly, he ended up reversing the collaboration by using images from my series “FAMILJ” as a pause during his talk, showing my two sons journey growing up, becoming young men.I am a blow-in to Australia and though having seen a great deal of the country on my travels I can never lay claim to understand the place. It is a mystery as much in its current state as well as it was an effortless equilibrium for 50,000 plus years before arrival of the first fleet of convicts.
Tim’s prose always seems to momentarily explain this harsh land. Reading him I see it all vividly with acceptance, clear images playing out in my mind. The hero in his novels often in mid-air leaving childhood, not yet capably independent, quietly watching the confusion and disintegration taking place in their immediate world. Trying to make sense of it, and all on their own. Not a dissimilar feeling to being a photographer at a Ball. He became the obvious person to ask opinion from.
Paul Theroux talks in Chasing Summer – A Journal form of a global Motorcycle Journey about staying out of touch and connection with what you know.
“One of the paradoxes of otherness is that in travel each conceives the other to be a foreigner. But even the most distant and exotic travel has its parallel in ordinary life. Every day we meet new people and are insulted or misunderstood; we are thrown upon our own resources. In the coming and going of daily life we rehearse a modified version of the
dramatic event known as First Contact – when two radically different cultures meet for the first time.’ and “Try staying out of touch. Become a stranger in a strange land. Acquire humility. Learn the language. Listen to what people are saying. Look at what they do.”
Or in the case of Carla Stang, an anthropologist who did a PhD about the Mehinaku Indians of the Amazon. Her essay became ideally positioned some distance away from the portraits in CITIZEN, yet gave the viewer, including myself, a new avenue to approach the portraits, if they choose to.
“Of seeing eye to eye. To say ‘I love you’ in Mehinaku is ‘nututai pitsu’, ‘my eye looks at you’. To look into the eyes of another is to see their soul (and to let another see yours) and to see another’s soul in this way is to love them.”
Having the essays there as an optional way into the material, though not a necessary avenue, is probably best described as comforting. I am looking for help, through correspondence I get a point of balance and support. Their powerful words included on its own merit, prevailing even when isolated from my work. A quality I always hoped that my images would be filtered through when viewed.
BF: In a sense what I can draw from the inclusion of the writings that aid your images is that you are looking for understanding of a anthropological sort, trying uncover perhaps universal motives in the land in which you inhabit currently. This becomes the mantra-esque spin of the works that I have seen of yours, in particular Citizen and The Ball. Will you continue with the balls or has this finished? It is obvious a pertinent time to speak on masculinity from the position of a man, which we are not really allowed to do anymore, instead being left with others characterizing their impressions of what masculinity is to them with a survey only culled from individuals they have come across used to paint a very small picture of half the population. I do find it lamentable that we are trying to add “toxic” to this without really discussing what this means to place the onus on the whole of men. In any effect, where are you heading next with projects?
IK: I agree. I have never seen ‘toxic’ masculinity as being a focal point of any conversation in The Ball; not in the images nor in Tim’s letter to me, where he simply ponders the meanings of a ritualised blowout and what is left in its trail. Above, I speculate why he might have rejected my invite to consider an essay, based on him grappling with that very issue in his own work.
There is no denying the old and ingrained patriarchal world and system that exists out back in Australia and I am sure it is evident in The Ball. So perhaps, in what you refer to, and in the eyes of some, when the book is being viewed sober and far away from these deep-rooted events, it will be seen through a prism reverberating within the current zeitgeist.
There are contributions from all participants in The Ball that equate to the whole, driven by desire, submitting to the unwritten rules guiding what transpires whilst playing on gender roles, misogyny and a myriad of other social and individual forces. The revellers have found an enclosed, yet very public space, where they are safe to act and be more than unconventional, designed to be outside societal norms and bend what is acceptable.
Here, considering your observation of some greater motive, I am drawn to the onslaught and range of universal human emotions at display. Sure they are stretched and enhanced, but they are all real and familiar to me. I have experienced each of these things; being wasted and hot for love, yearning for acceptance and belonging from friends and peers, lost in a daze wanting nothing more than to call it a night, intoxicated to the point that I can’t remember anything about yesterday.
The Ball is very much at a full stop with the publication of the book and the past year has been a time of wrapping up several projects, so I haven’t spent much time labouring on a new body of work. CITIZEN is ticking on, as it has for the past 20 odd years and I look forward to extend the narrative, without pause and urge. I enjoy repeating the criterion of the square, the universal becoming clearer by duplicating the encounter of the foreign, maybe even experiencing a modified version of the anthropological event called First Contact. I find that by the continuous adding to the diversity of place and person, while applying the same approach and parameters, it gradually becomes a democratic equaliser.
For about 8 years, together with three close friends, I have also chipped away on a feature drama film called The Land, as director and cinematographer. We are putting the final touches on it at the moment and starting to enter festivals. It was shot in the most private place I know – a piece of bush I have, surrounded by National Park north of Sydney. I have been going there for 15 or so years building a rudimentary shack. It was a very slow process teaching myself how to handle a chainsaw, without access to electricity or running water nor any prior knowledge of what to really do and in the process learning to exercise a healthy dose of patience while isolated in God’s country. The photographs I took out there were part of that meditative experience. Since it has now become an accidental film set, I am hoping to put together another book – The Land, The Film, The Set Build, 2005-2018, as a companion piece to the motion picture.
And then what’s next? I hope I can continue to surrender to process and take comfort in the routine. I will try to stay open to who I meet and what I see. Be that stranger in a strange place and, if I am lucky, come across the next photo that jolts my heart and tickles my mind. I don’t really know what else I can do.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm and Ingvar Kenne. Images @ Ingvar Kenne.)