Viviane Sassen is well known for her dynamic fashion and editorial photography that is striking and evocative. She has photographed for highly acclaimed magazines such as Vogue and created spreads for a multitude of fashion designers such as Vikto & Rolf. What drew me to Sassen’s exhibition, ‘Of Mud and Lotus’, was the possibility of seeing fashion and fine art photography merge in interesting and vibrant ways. With my personal interests in fashion and dress, I was naturally excited to see her show. However, this show broke my expectations.
With an abundance of images that fluctuate in size, shape, colour and media, ‘Of Mud and Lotus’ explores the messiness and grace of the female experience of life and life-giving. Some images are mounted and framed while others hang loosely on the pristine white walls. A seemingly uncoordinated display of photographs, the images simultaneously repulse and draw you. Sassen attempts to simultaneously seduce the viewer with a beautiful formal approach and create unsettling discomfort through her images. The discomfort I certainly felt: from fungi growing buttocks, to displaced nipples and obscure collages, there is a curious intrigue to the themes Sassen is exploring.
Sassen foregrounds a feminine presence, particularly ideas of transformation, procreation and fecundity. A fixation with the female body is poignantly evident. She points her photographic gaze at it in various forms and through stages of life. Using an enigmatic approach, Sassen splashes milk over dark skin and light skin as seen in the works Leite and Panna, while in HCG Sassen smears thick paint over a pregnant female body, and elsewhere merges disfigured parts of the female anatomy or adds plant life to form new, enigmatic bodies. The photographs Vesuvio, a strong visual of a nested egg between saturated legs and Influx, an image of gripped balloons that resemble an udder further point to a femininity and fertility.
The identities of her subjects are often concealed, which further mystifies the bodies. Sassen’s photographs are mostly staged and are devoid of specific environments or identities, allowing the the subjects to become symbols. This is emphasised by the abundant use of mushrooms, lips, milk, breasts, nipples and udders as motifs that symbolize proliferation, productivity and nourishment.
Sassen treats the human body as sculptural element and a malleable shape distorted with shadow, bright colour, arrangements overlaid with collages and textured brush strokes. Anonymous subjects are imbued in vivid colours and sharp silhouettes, faces and body parts are cast in shadows and posed in distorted positions. Parts of the body are often missing, obscured or distorted, adding to my sense of discomfort and intrigue into which part of the body has be reconstructed and what message each image is relaying. A combination of expressive use of colour, unusual viewpoints and sculptural concern with form and shape create a surreal world. With intense and saturated colours, she integrates abstracted geometric shapes seamlessly with human bodies into intimate forms.
Sassen’s photography plays with the viewer’s preconception of what a photograph is and creates post-digital photographic surrealism. Her work is guided by an attentiveness to form and composition, a deliberate use of colour an eye for graphic elements. Sassen creates disorientating moments and evocative worlds of fecundity.