At the age of 5, when her parents brought her back to her native Amsterdam, Viviane Sassen started having vivid nightly dreams about the life she left behind. “From that moment on, I always had the deep feeling that I belong to Africa and not in Holland, and that my real life would go on without me in Africa. I was kind of stuck in this parallel universe,” the photographer says, her voice vibrating from the memory. Nightly dreaming is serious business for Sassen, just as important as the activities that shape her daily life, as for her, it is a wellspring of inspiration. Having accessed that “parallel universe” where memories, daily events and stories blend together at night, she now invariably seeks that dimension through her art.
Her upcoming exhibition, UMBRA, opening for the first time in Paris at the Atelier Néerlandais on Sept. 11, plays with the idea of shade. Though this word comes from the Latin for “shadow,” UMBRA also explores Sassen’s fascinating universe of sculptural bodies turned into shapes and stories, impalpable geometries of transcendent axes, forms and contours that transform the ordinary — a sheet drying in the sun, a cloud glimpsed between roofs, the shadow of a leaf — and dare to surpass the apparent. These images have an otherworldly feel as if seeking a dimension that might exist within those shadows, mirrors and reflections, within those childhood dreams.
UMBRA, commissioned by the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, is composed by six bodies of work — Axiom, Totem, Larvae, Carbon, Rebus and Soil — each one exploring the relation between realism and abstraction through the signature elements in Sassen’s work. In Totem, one of her most relevant works from 2012, silhouettes cut from a bright background offer diverse levels of interpretation. The horizontal landscape contrasts the vertical human shape, evoking, she says, the “traces we leave as mankind on the surface of the earth,” the constant dichotomy between nature and culture that we face every day.
In her work Marte, the model’s body becomes a field of meaning and exploration, and the mirror winks at this capricious game, multiplying legs and creating a space where the eye travels between two realities. Sassen’s work bears traces of Surrealism, but the physical body often breaks in, a solid anchor to a necessary dimension of reality. In Marte, Sassen’s eye slides along her friend’s bare neck, where the bony shoulder blade, pointy knee and timid fingers become both form and narration.
The corporal element appears also in Axiom — inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s black square poster with her injection of bright color. The shadow of a hand culminates the synergy between a small mirror in the burning sand of Kenya and the shadows cast by color perspexs. “I still wanted to have this personal human element in the picture,” she says. “We are always confronted with ourselves in the end, so I think it is beautiful to have this relation with the human body and the spiritual.”
Far from being political or conceptual, Sassen is drawn by an intuitive experience of reality — her childhood in Africa, her vivid memories and the complexity caused by confrontations between the two cultures — all of which open up a space for discussion where her elements — the body, the shadows, the glasses — are just a thread of her semantic approach. “I get inspired by certain things that I find on my path, and then I just go for it and most of the time it isn’t until much later that I realize what it has meant to me personally,” she says. “All artists in some sense make self-portraits, so my work is also kind of a self-portrait, I try to make it layered and complex for myself as well because that is what keeps on driving me,” she says.
The complexity of the multi-layered world she attempts to frame leads to a conscious ambiguity she purposely seeks in her photographs, pulling the viewer into a mutual, amplified wonder. “What is real? What is true?” she questions, as she stumbles upon multiple truths. “My pictures function as some kind of mirror,” she admits. “I like to ask questions rather than give answers.”
Viviane Sassen is a Dutch photographer and artist based in Amsterdam. Her series UMBRA, which won Sassen a nomination for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015, has been exhibited at the Nederlands Fotomuseum and will be presented at the Atelier Néerlandais from Sept. 11 to Nov. 1, 2015.