A model is standing among bright pink tulips, her arms above her head, her yellow pleated skirt thrown in the air obscuring her face, turning her figure into a giant yellow cockscomb; a pair of legs stick through holes in a wall; an intriguing alien-like figure clad in a black bodysuit strikes a graphically geometric pose on a white background.
There is a strange kind of oneiric or hypnagogic surrealism in the images of Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen currently part of the "In and Out of Fashion" retrospective dedicated to her in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
Including works from 1995 to 2012, photographic prints, displays with notes, sketches, ideas and magazines, and a specially designed installation, the event is currently the first and only Sassen retrospective in the UK.
Though each image is different from the next one, there is something they all share - a new approach to shape, form and figure and an innovative point of view. As Sassen often stated in interviews, this point of view comes from her childhood.
Born in 1972 in Amsterdam, Sassen spent three years of her childhood in Africa, where her father was working. She was 5 when the family returned to Amsterdam and it took her a while to adjust to her new life. When she grew up she studied fashion design at the Royal Academy in Arnhem and then moved onto photography and fine art at the Hogeschool voor Kunsten Utrecht and at Ateliers Arnhem respectively. Inspired by artists such as Man Ray, Nancy "Nan" Goldin, Larry Clark, Araki, Richard Billingham, Paul Graham, Wolfgang Tillmans, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Juergen Teller, Sassen developed a style suspended between art, fashion and documentary and informed by her African memories and dreams.
While she started doing campaigns for prominent fashion houses and labels including Carven, Stella McCartney, Miu Miu and M-Missoni, and shoots for Purple, i-D, Dazed & Confused and Pop, from 2002 Sassen regularly went back to Africa where she explored through numerous images the tensions between feeling at home there and being a foreigner and therefore not being able to fully capture the spirit of the people she met and the places she saw, an issue she tackled through pictures in which the faces of here subjects were usually obscured.
Sassen quite often employs the same technique in her fashion images as well to avoid revealing her subjects and therefore objectifying them. By hiding the identity of her models, she turns them into ghostly memories, human silhouettes characterised by mystery, erasing in this way also her own presence.
The garments and accessories become therefore prop-like elements while the body is therefore abstracted, reduced to an inventive sculptural shape and form. The final result is quite sophisticated yet avant-garde, suspended between art and fashion, with photographs that look unusual and different from the ones you may find in glossy magazines like Vogue.
Maybe Sassen's approach to fashion comes from a reaction to the boredom and superficiality caused by the fashion industry and by the will to find inventive ways to present a shoot or a product.
Challenging the viewers' preconceptions and perceptions is after all Sassen's main aim: everyday we are bombarded with a constant flow of images, and we tend to forget most of them. Sassen uses her photography as a brain training session, showing us something, then asking us to stop, ponder and try and understand what our eye and mind actually saw.
In and Out of Fashion features the series "Nudes: A Journey", which includes early work focusing on the female body made with Emmeline de Mooij; "Roxane", including 36 portraits of French stylist Roxane Danset, and Sassen’s recent work for a selection of publications and brands. The section "Foreplay" is particularly interesting for Sassen's fans since it documents the moments before a fashion shoot begins, offering a fascinating insight into her images and into her way of including the people working behind the scenes in the actual photographs.
Fashion photography implies a large team and less introspection than documentary photography, but Sassen favours smaller crews and a dynamic, spontaneous and intuitively visionary approach also to fashion photography that quite often means taking pictures while the models are still being prepared.
While this show focuses on her fashion portfolio, Sassen's fans can discover images selected from her "Parasomnia" series (that won her the Prix de Rome in 2007) at the 55th International Venice Art Biennale. The title is borrowed from a category of sleep disorders occurring in the liminal state between walking and sleep and comes from the fact that all the images in this series seem to be detached from the locations they were taken, turning into visions that may have been conjured up in the oneiric state.
"Viviane Sassen: In and Out of Fashion" is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 2 February 2014. A recently published book also titled "In and Out of Fashion" (Prestel) accompanies the exhibition. Viviane Sassen's works are on display at the Central Pavilion at the 55th International Venice Art Biennale until 24th November 2013.
In Bloom 2011, for Dazed & Confused, Colour poster print
Nest, 2010, from the Sol & Luna series, Digital colour poster print
Delamar, Digital colour poster print
Shoot for Another Magazine, 2012, Digital colour poster print
Shoot for Numero, from the Foreplay series, Digital colour poster print
Inhale 2011, C-print 40x32 cm, courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg, 55th International Venice Art Biennale.
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