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A balancing act

Viviane Sassen, Belladonna, 2010. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Viviane Sassen, La Lutte #2, 2011. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Viviane Sassen, Solomon's Knot, 2010. Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Mark Amery considers the interesting struggle between fashion and reality in the work of Viviane Sassen at City Gallery Wellington.

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Mark Amery considers the interesting struggle between fashion and reality in the work of Viviane Sassen at City Gallery Wellington.

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On the face of it Dutch artist and fashion photographer Viviane Sassen’s work at City Gallery Wellington looks dodgy. Shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, it features strongly art-directed images of unnamed black people in unnamed locations in Africa. Faces are often hidden, with the luxurious, fine play of line, texture, colour and shape taking precedence over more pressing documentary concerns. Sassen grew up in Kenya until she was five – this work is personal - yet Africa in these images remains for us an exotic other. You can pick up postcards at the desk.

Fashion is made of such fantasies. To help a product sell culture is typically cut off from its roots. Art is also a commodity, yet at it’s finest we value it for the way it makes us question the way things are represented. It appropriates, but also empowers the culture from where it comes. There’s a tension there, a rub, that make us think.

Sassen plays strongly with this tension, actively playing as artist with the troubling nature of objectification found in fashion photography. Rather than turn away from the old cultural archetypes, Sassen wrestles with them. 

A Western eye on the African body beautiful still leaves me a bit cold, but there’s much to interest and admire in Sassen’s nuanced play with representation. The photographs’ compositions are often themselves a kind of balancing act: between the revealing and concealing of people, and the turning of things towards becoming objects. You sense almost a cat and mouse play between photographer and subject – a game for control. Sometimes figures literally balance things or each other. Other times it’s as if the image itself has been tipped on its side and then righted to cause instability. Milk runs lusciously, improbably from a boy’s mouth across his cheek like a delta, as if he has been picked up, turned and put down again.

The work disquiets in a surreal space between fabrication and documentation. In an image that could have come straight out of a fashion magazine a young man has a taut, blue line between his teeth.  Literally he has got the bit between the teeth. As object, the image is beautiful with a literal tension running through it. Yet, with his nonchalant, relaxed pose, earphones in, it remains unclear who is in charge.

As staged tableau the images are reminiscent of the poetry found in motifs in contemporary dance. The images speak of violence and struggle, but also love and care. Yes, people are treated like objects, but often there power is felt. It’s unclear how collaborative between photographer and subject the performances for camera are - another part of their tension. There’s a freedom of play.

Even when the imagery is disturbing the theatricality makes you question assumptions. A beautifully dressed woman kneels before a human-sized hole in the red earth, high heels caked in it, her arm behind her back. There’s a struggle between glamour and violence, fashion and reality. The elegant play with forms shifts the image into more open allegorical territory we are familiar with through figurative painting in art history.

It’s as if Sassen is artfully reconstructing dreamlike memories of her early childhood in Africa. There is often an edge of darkness. This can feel forced. Peppered throughout are images of graves, body bags and a painted tree stump. These feel like more clichéd, laboured attempts to position the work symbolically. As if there’s a need to stress that photography is all about mortality.

Shadow play, brilliant colour, and a confluence of textures are often anchored by strong graphic shapes and serpentine line. The work is often at it’s best when it almost collapses into abstraction, yet holds a humanity through the action of the subject. Nocturne is of a young man silhouetted side on. Under light at night shadow and colour are in elegant play. Our consideration of the person however is interrupted by the way light rebounds off the white lip of a baseball cap dramatically drawn down from under a black beanie, hiding most of the subject’s face. Throat and chin are reduced to a surreal, eloquent line, and through his animated hands the subject still finds a way to speak.       

Gallery Curator Robert Leonard smartly grounds Sassen’s exhibition in thinking about the objectification of Africa, by bookending it with two film works. Piet Hugo’s terrific video for Spoek Mathambo’s thumping cover of Joy Division’s Control, strongly visually and conceptually echoes Sassen’s work. At the other end of the gallery, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1954 film essay on the Western treatment of African art Statues Also Die stresses the neocolonial tensions within Sassen’s work.

MUST SEE:  A delight, this exhibition expresses the vitality of having a camera and being a teenager. Little time feels like it has passed out on the sportsfield in the surprisingly strong images that two friends shot in 1967 and recently rediscovered the negatives of in a box.

  • Graham Wilton & Michael Bajko, Onslow College Sports Day 1967, Photospace, unto, April 28.

Written by

Mark Amery

24 Apr 2014

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.