Viviane Sassen. PHOSPHOR: Art & Fashion 1990-2023
Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris
From October 18th, 2023 until February 11th, 2024
Photographic works with intense colours, saturated and full tones, graphic play of light and shadow, and an almost surrealist aesthetic: these are the characteristics that can best describe the work of Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen. Her practice establishes a unique and intimate dialogue with photography, pictorial art, collage and installation, all in perfect harmony with the vision of the world of fashion that has always been close to her. The MEP, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, presents the artist’s first retrospective in France, PHOSPHOR: Art & Fashion 1990-2023. The exhibition includes more than 200 works, revealing and investigating more than 30 years of multifaceted and visionary creation encompassing diverse artistic practices such as photography, collage, painting and video. In addition to some of the most representative series of works, Umbra, Parasomnia, Flamboya, and Roxane, there are unpublished archives and mixed media works. The entire collection will enable the visitor to fully understand the stages of the photographer’s creative development process, focusing mainly on two main themes: on the one hand, the incessant search for new photographic forms and on the other hand, the importance of intimacy continuously present in her work. Indeed, photography is perceived and developed in an intimate and profound way, it is much more than a mere surface, but an opening to a space in which her every feeling and perception, her every dream, desire or fear, coexists with the world in all the part of reality that appears tangible and real.
The image is a medium that allows Sassen to make things happen that do not really happen, to investigate the modernist approach of her photography, and to transport the viewer through her lenses into a subverted universe. The idea of beauty she seeks in each fragment is not taken for granted; it becomes almost an artistic experiment capable of redefining the viewer’s perception. The artist’s inspiration from the surrealist current appears clear in her practice, explicitly in the approach that refers to the game of cadavre exquis and in a more veiled sense through the use of the body as an element among elements. The language is that of dreamlike fantasy, of introspective perception of a personal and unique reality, clear-looking but at the same time confused, real but also fictitious experience. The cohesion of narrative and representation culminates in the fine line between contemplation and exuberance, between inside and outside, between concrete and ambiguous. However, her work appears conceptually coherent and part of a narrative united by key elements that characterise it: the concept of death, sexuality, desire and connection.
The exhibition begins with the introspective journey – Introspective Journey – that Sassen took during her time in Africa, these shots are in fact taken between Kenya and South Africa; here she lived part of her childhood and adolescence, and all that remained within her is recounted in the depictions that are presented in the first section. Several series feature some of these photographs, including Lexicon and Umbra. Death is evoked in its deepest ambiguity, in the second series it is depicted through the element of shadow, which contains in itself absence and at the same time presence. New Stories is the second part of the exhibition, which continues with Venus & Mercury, made inside the Palace of Versailles, and after a full period of research. Here the themes are eroticism, power, and illness, investigated from the tales of the dark stories of the French court in the 17th and 18th centuries. The journey continues in the Surrealist parenthesis, the most experimental and original one – Sassen and Surrealism – which hosts a collection of works combining painting, ink, color and collage. Of Mud and Lotus traverses the idea of the relationship between Earth and fecundity, Consequences / Cadavre Exquis presents instead assemblages of objects, plants and animals, while Pain Studies revisits her first real photography. Her collaboration with philosopher Emanuele Coccia, from which comes a book in which each of her images dialogues with texts, also gives birth to Modern Alchemy.
Instead, The Development of an Artistic Language refers back to her early work, to the origins of her visual language, to the beginnings of her artistic research. An important selection of self-portraits made during his studies, at a stage of definition and experimentation, but also of sincerity and purity, is displayed. Gravity contains 18 black-and-white prints made for her final project at the Hogeschool door de Kunsten in Utrecht, Netherlands. Her everyday life from her formative period can be traced in Folio, with intimate shots of friends and people close to the artist. The conclusion of the exhibition appears clear in Fashion Photography and Experimentation, a reflection on Sassen’s approach to the world of fashion. Her trait is distinctive and recognisable, her style unmistakable and inimitable, and it is the stark and interesting contrast to what is classic fashion photography that makes her lens in demand. Her gaze allows bodies and clothes to be transformed into works of art, into incredibly textural objects.
On the occasion of the exhibition organised by MEP and in collaboration with Editions Prestel, the book PHOSPHOR (2023) will be published. A photographic collection of Viviane Sassen’s work, including over 500 works, including an introductory essay and an interview with the artist in combination with other texts. A definitive overview of an ever-evolving photographic work.
Viviane Sassen’s Phosphor: Art & Fashion is on view at the MEP, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, in Paris through February 11th.