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Viviane Sassen: The Art of Form

Viviane Sassen’s first retrospective in France at the Maison européenne de la Photographie covers three decades of transformative, multidisciplinary works. This vibrant, colorful journey spans two levels and is complemented by a luxurious publication.

A graduate of a fashion school, Viviane Sassen chose to specialize in photography which is at the core of her work. Decade after decade, this Dutch artist, born in 1972, continually evolves her style. Titled Phosphor: Art & Fashion, the retrospective brings together about 200 pieces from various series. It includes every facet of her work, from personal series to fashion projects since the 2000s. In a 2017 interview, Sassen spoke of two distinct aspects of her work: “In fashion, I express my extroverted side; in my more personal work, my introverted side.” Yet, in the exhibition, these two aspects merge into one. Reclaiming her old fashion images, Sassen presents them not as prints but in immersive installations, including projections in a room resembling a catwalk, inviting viewers to wander around. It’s an experiences for the senses!

Inhale, 2011 © Viviane Sassen
Athalia’s Eye, 2022 © Viviane Sassen
For Dior Magazine, 2021 © Viviane Sassen

The light and the darkness

“My life is unimaginable without Africa. The light and the darkness. The colors, the people. The first time I went back, it was with my parents, ten years after we’d left. […] I have always hoped that these shadows would act as a mirror for people to reflect themselves in and, in doing so, to examine their own preconceived ideas about the other.”

Sassen’s unique style is recognizable both in her commissioned work and her personal projects, such as the emblematic Umbra series from the 2010s. Drawing inspiration from her early childhood in Kenya, Sassen’s aesthetic is deeply influenced by her African upbringing. She emphasizes the interplay of light and shadow, using them to transform bodies into silhouettes and to bring a sculptural volume to her work. Reflecting on her connection to Africa, she noted: “My life is unimaginable without Africa. The light and the darkness. The colors, the people. The first time I went back, it was with my parents, ten years after we’d left. […] I have always hoped that these shadows would act as a mirror for people to reflect themselves in and, in doing so, to examine their own preconceived ideas about the other.”

Sassen’s personal experiences have significantly influenced her work, often infusing it with autobiographical elements. A notable example is her series of black-and-white self-portraits from the 1990s, shown here for the first time, which she describes as an act of reclaiming her body while working as a model: “I wanted to take back power over my own body.” Her recurring themes include the body, death, sexuality, and desire, and she continues to innovate in her approach. Since 2017, Sassen has been combining different media, blending painting and ink in series like Of Mud and Lotus and creating collages in Paint Studies (2021). Her latest works explore intimate themes and expand to include animals and plants, as seen in Modern Alchemy (2022). The highlight of the exhibition is her Consequences series (2020), featuring large-scale collages, reminiscent of cadavres exquis, featuring imaginary creatures creeping along the walls of MEP, creating a haunting effect for viewers. There is more to Viviane Sassen than meets the eye!

DNA, 2007 © Viviane Sassen
Ivy, 2010 © Viviane Sassen
Victoria, 2005 © Viviane Sassen
Of Mud Lotus, Eudocimus Ruber, 2017 © Viviane Sassen
Of Mud Lotus, Luxaflex, 2017 © Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen, Phosphor: Art & Fashion, Until February 11, 2024, Maison européenne de la Photographie (MEP).

Publication : Viviane Sassen, Phosphor, English & French, Prestel, €60, 528 pp.

Read More: Elemental Forms

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