Hot Mirror, by Eleanor Clayton, 2018

It is true of Surrealist images …that man does not evoke them; rather they ‘come to him spontaneously.’[1]
André Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924

Viviane Sassen has always straddled the worlds of fashion and fine art, initially studying fashion at Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU) in the Netherlands, before switching to photography and fine art. Sassen has reflected on this transition, ‘I realised I was much more interested in making images than making actual clothes.’[2] Although different in many ways, Sassen’s fine art practice is as distinctive as her fashion editorial and commercial work for her approach to her models - characterising many images as collaborations with her subjects - and her unique aesthetic, often described as surreal. When considering projects that sit between these two poles, for example, a music video directed for musician and activist M.I.A which relates visually to both sides of Sassen’s output, it is clear that for the artist, the boundary between these often-separated disciplines is porous. She states, ‘for me, they merge: I’m using the same brain and eyes to make both kinds of work.’[3] Just as her fashion work has been comprehensively presented in the 2012 exhibition and publication Viviane Sassen: In and Out of Fashion, this publication and associated exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield surveys over 10 years of Sassen’s fine art practice, exploring underlying influences found within her remarkable work.
For over a decade, Sassen’s fine art photography has mirrored fashion in another way. Instead of conceiving of her works as individual images, Sassen has frequently created what she terms ‘collections’, series inspired by particular places, people or themes. The earliest of these, Flamboya (2008) arose from travels in East Africa where, in a village in Kenya, Sassen lived between the ages of 2 and 5 while her father was a doctor at a polio clinic. Sassen recollects that returning to Africa felt ‘so much like coming home and at the same time I know I will never ever be part of that society. But that is where my very earliest childhood memories got formed so it is in my blueprint, it is in my spine somehow.’[4] Other collections have included images taken in Africa[SP1] , such as Parasomnia (2011), an exploratory meditation on the concept of sleep,[SP2] or feature subjects of African descent as in Pikin Slee (2015), titled after a remote village Sassen visited in the rainforest of Suriname, Central America, populated by the descendants of African slaves who established Pikin Slee having escaped from Dutch colonists in the 18th century. Because of this colonial history, there is a large Surinamese community in Amsterdam where Sassen lives.
Of these works, Sassen has said, ‘I try to avoid making work that is political. That said, I’m always very aware of the fact that the subject matter itself comes with these political issues’.[5] This is particularly true in Pikin Slee, where traces of colonial oppression are present within the very geographical existence of the subjects. Arguably all her photographs of African subjects can be connected to a history of ‘othering’, exoticizing Africa through images created by Western agents, and Sassen acknowledges, ‘I have a certain responsibility towards the people I photograph because, of course, being a white woman carrying a camera, the camera is already a tool of power’.[6] However, she also notes, ‘I’m not a conceptual artist, the way I work is very immediate and personal and intuitive.’[7] Her personal history with Africa is intermingled in these images with an attention to form, shadows, colour and light, as well as the natural world and the energy of the individuals with whom she collaborates in the construction of the works, equally present in her photographs of other subjects shot elsewhere.

‘Fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant, are all devices which we can always call upon without fear of deception. There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue.’[8]
Surrealist Manifesto

Sassen’s exploration of her childhood shadows, memories lingering beneath the surface that conjure vivid images, connects to her stated interest in Surrealism.[9] Founded in Paris in 1924 by poet and writer André Breton, the movement was launched with a Surrealist Manifesto that championed the reclamation of childhood ways of seeing, noting ‘at an early age children are weaned on the marvellous.’[10] Sassen’s instinctive approach to creating her images further aligns with Breton’s definition of Surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism’, and as ‘based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.’[11] The play of unusual or unexpected associations was key to the creation of Surrealist images in both visual and literary forms, and one of their enduring legacies is ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a game developed in 1925 where individuals take turns to insert a piece of imagery – text or drawing – to create a disjointed whole. The combinations of different elements, each with their own host of associations, creates a slippery path on which the mind can meander. It relates to a 1918 text by poet Pierre Reverdy that Breton quotes in his manifesto,

The image is a pure creation of the mind.
It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more of less distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality…’[12]

In an Exquisite Corpse, each image contains specific associations or ‘realities’ that are brought together to spark off one another and offer an alternative, complex reading of each constituent part, as well as an overarching opportunity for a new ‘poetic reality’ of the whole.
Sassen’s work often encapsulates these principles in individual images, frequently capturing unusual juxtapositions found in the world and creating these disjunctions within a single work. In Uitkijk (2013), for example, a pure white, fluffy cloud is seemingly grounded, tied to dark, stained, man-made roofs. Clouds offer endless hermeneutic associations, from images and shapes seen within to the connotations of restlessness going back to 19th century poet Wordsworth’s celebrated verse, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. The image is composed to seamlessly connect these two opposites – the airy, free, amorphous form of the cloud fused with the fixed, angular geometry of the slated roof. Is the cloud brought down, or are we brought closer to the sky? The title, translated as ‘Outlook’, offers further interpretations: a state of mind – positive or negative outlook, or to transpose the terms, ‘Look Out’, the possibility for seeing far into the distance, putting the viewer in the place of the cloud. Breton notes, ‘the forms of Surrealist language adapt themselves best to dialogue’,[13] where juxtaposition or confrontation of one image to another can shut down certain, perhaps more obvious, meanings while offering up others previously left dormant beneath the surface.
Many Surrealist artists viewed this idea of ‘Surrealist language’ as both image and text, and the conjunction of the two. Titles and text played an important role in drawing out juxtaposed associations, or productive contradictions as in Magritte’s famous declaration ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, text painted alongside an image of a pipe in the painting, The Treachery of Images (1929). While Sassen’s works often contain competing associations, and her titles frequently re-route interpretation, for Hot Mirror she has taken these ideas further, bringing together selected images from collections of the last ten years alongside new photographs and collages to create ‘image-poems’. These draw on the strategy of Exquisite Corpse to offer unexpected juxtapositions and new readings of the work. This is not the first time Sassen has engaged with the curatorial presentation of her work within the museum: In and Out of Fashion projected many fashion images on the gallery walls in a rolling display, reflecting the transience of each moment and the pace of the industry as well as giving a sense of disposability of the printed, fashion magazine page. In developing Hot Mirror, the process of selection and juxtaposition within the image-poems reveal key tropes of Surrealism present in Sassen’s work, even if only covertly, while creating a visual play of associations for the viewer.

‘I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers…’[14]
Surrealist Manifesto

A notable point of contact between Sassen’s work and Surrealism is the centrality of dreams. Sassen recalls that when she returned to Africa [SP3] as an adult after many years away, she experienced, ‘Vivid dreams. Images in my head. Ideas for photos.’[15] This resulted initially in Flamboya and the creative and productive power of dreams remain a potent theme within Sassen’s practice. The Surrealist Manifesto advocates dreams as a tool to both understand and create reality, with Breton asking, ‘Why should I not expect from the sign of the dream more than I expect from a degree of consciousness which is daily more acute? Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?’[16] These questions are reflected in uncanny, dream-like visions such as Ivy (2010), where two men hold each other closely on a dirt track against the seemingly endless back-drop of a dark night, a large palm leaf towering over them, suspended in their embrace. There is a sense of a strong connection between the men, and a distance between them and the rest of the world, including the viewer, perhaps through this a longing to be part of the closeness and a value placed on human intimacy. Images of dreamers in Belladonna (2010) and Vertigo (2011) present fragmented views of the slumbering subjects, covered up by sheets or shadows, a metaphor for the personal experience of dreaming and the fractured narratives of this form of consciousness.
Inhale (2011) also shows a dreaming head, but purple leaves placed over the subject’s eyes and lips extrapolate this unconscious state to that of death, evoking the custom of ancient civilisations to place pennies on the eyes of the deceased, thereby paying their safe passage into the underworld. The sheet pulled up close around the subject’s chin recalls the corporeal process of death, the covering of a body in a hospital or morgue. Parallels between sleeping, dreaming and dying are persistent within broader culture, from Shakespeare’s 16th century Hamlet pondering, ‘to die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come’. Sassen has had significant personal experiences with death, discussed in an interview within this book,[17] and perhaps as a result her images of dreamers shift between serene slumber and bleak [SP4] death in the flicker of an eye. Images like Nungwi (2010) can seem blissful, a figure floating in a milky river as if in a trance, but alongside Three Kings (2005) where three body-shaped forms are wrapped in gold as if embalmed, or Nadir (2007), a coffin-shaped hole in the burnt-maroon dirt, the dream fantasy takes on a darker inflection.

‘The mind which plunges into Surrealism relives with glowing excitement the best part of its childhood… In the shadow we again see a precious terror.’[18]
Surrealist Manifesto

A darkness both more literal and amorphous runs throughout Sassen’s work in the form of the shadow, most directly explored in Umbra (2015). This collection takes its name from the Latin for shadow and is seen by Sassen as part of her grieving process following the death of her father.[19] During the creation of Umbra, Sassen also became fascinated with Jung’s theory of the shadow as a symbol for what we wish to hide in our unconscious, fear and shame, anxiety and fantasy, acknowledging the many metaphorical shadows that permeate and recur in her work. The shadow is not a simply negative symbol, as the Surrealist Manifesto notes, the ‘terror’ it can produce is ‘precious’, in revealing a richness of emotion and experience as well as a necessary counterpoint to light. These associations combine in Lucius (2010), a photograph of Sassen’s son partially obscured by her own shadow, suggesting the inevitable shadows parents cast on their innocent children. The shadow both imposes and extrapolates, the silhouette of Sassen’s legs fusing with Lucius’s figure to make a taller, hybrid entity. In Africa shadows have particular connotations as they are precious for another reason – as shelter from the dangerously strong sun. [SP5] This complicates the notion of a darkness over the child, intermingling protection and threat, smothering and raising.
Shadows also offer an escape from surveillance, a formal device to refute the assumption that a subject can be known through their image. [new work with umbrellas] (2018) is more documentary in style than Sassen’s usual practice of constructing images, but the identity of the subjects still evades the camera’s gaze, reflecting back on the camera an unknowable scene, a mystery in the formal play of light and shade. This is equally true of Fantôme (2010), where some shadows double the objects that have cast them while others seem to be new forms of their own, their blackness creating a pattern with that of the drain and the contrasting bright orange liquid. The title translates as ‘phantom’, suggesting agency in the blackness, or an offering to an unknown being existing in the dark underground.
Bodies and faces are frequently obscured by Sassen’s shadows, bisected as in Sling (2013) or mutated or deconstructed as in the diptych Untitled (from Roxane II) (2017). Sassen has related this to the unknowability of any of her subjects:

I’m always drawn to images which raise questions rather than give answers… Of course, we know that photography is not showing the truth, in my opinion, because there is no truth. It’s an illusion that we can truly get to know someone through a picture. If you look at the picture and you see a face, you scan it and then you know how to read the picture because you see an emotion, or you think you know something about that person. If it’s only a body shape then it becomes more universal in a way, it’s not about that particular person any more, it becomes more open, it’s more about humanity. The body shape in itself also has an expression, has an emotion. A gesture or a pose can also translate a message, a very psychological or emotional message.[20]

Disembodied hands as in Ra (2017), and legs as in Marte #02 (2014) and White Socks #2 (2010), reveal what a complex communicator the body can be, dislocated parts conveying sensations and associations more strongly than the whole, freed from a quotidian, rational context. Surrealist photographers like Man Ray, Lee Miller and Brassaï similarly fragmented, transformed or deformed the body with photographic crops or shadows, using this strange yet familiar signifier to variously explore desire, objectification and Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of fetishism. In Sassen’s work, a cropped body combined with further elements, for example, a torso collaged with egg-like forms in Three Planets (2017), imbues the universalisability of the body with new connotations, a living entity among other living entities, part of an ecology of organic matter.

‘This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost: It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.’[21]
Surrealist Manifesto

Uncanny landscapes and eerie natural forms were prominent characteristics of Surrealist imagery, from Breton’s blue roses above to Max Ernst’s haunting frottaged forests and morphing, decalcomania vegetation. While the latter involved applying pressure to painted surfaces to create chance patterns in the surface, akin to those found in nature, Ernst’s frottage often literally took natural forms, rubbing paper over wood, bark or leaves to produce textures and shapes that prompted the construction of further images. Sassen similarly captures unusual forms existing in nature, works like Lara (2017) using another surrealist technique, Solarization, that was popularised by Miller and Man Ray in the late 1920s. Solarization reverses the blacks and whites in an image, giving the leaves and trees in Lara an alien and otherworldly glow. Elsewhere in Sassen’s work nature is personified, for example the white totem of Mylady (2011), a person-sized trunk isolated against the darkness, its glowing twisted bark seeming like a cotton sheet creating a ghostly figure.
As well as presenting natures’ oddities, photographic collages fuse natural forms with bodily fragments. Nepanthes Alata (2017), takes its title from a ‘pitcher plant’, so called because of the pitcher-like vein that holds nectar, the section of the plant that has been cut out and collaged onto the open mouth of an upturned face. Like all pitcher plants, Nepanthes Alata is carnivorous, and uses its bulbous container to lure insects within. Here the mouth of the plant is doubled by the human mouth, a multiplication of consumption. There are sexual undertones in the pink, opened (female) mouth and the phallic form of the plant’s enlarged vein, as well as connotations of death: the pitcher is both the lure and the trap, insects die within, and expiration is also suggested by the disembodied, open mouth. Consumption, sexuality, death – all of life and its contradictions contained in the one collage.
Other works touch upon the connection between sexuality and reproduction. Fecundity has become a prominent theme in Sassen’s work in recent years, echoing British Surrealist Eileen Agar’s statement in 1931 that, ‘the intellectual and rational conception of life has given way to a more miraculous creative interpretation, and artistic and imaginative life is under the sway of womb-magic’.[22] Agar would later expand upon this term, noting that ‘women are or should be the real Surrealists because of the metamorphic changes in the womb when they are pregnant’,[23] acknowledging the unique, and surreal, power of creation held within the female body. HCG (2017) articulates this magic, the headless torso of a pregnant woman cropped to highlight the expansive form of the womb. A shadow over part of her torso stresses the curve of the protruding belly, and the subject’s skin is covered in thick paint as the most traditional artistic act is performed over the oldest form of creation. Juxtaposing these images of nature, shadows, bodies, and death provokes a contemplation of the greater universal order of things, the constant shifting of the world outside ourselves, and ourselves as a microscopic part of this expansive, organic whole.

Hot Mirror

In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton recounts that one evening, just before falling asleep, a phrase came into his mind unbidden, ‘“There is a man cut in two by the window” … accompanied as it was by the faint visual image of a man walking cut half way up by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body. Beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, what I saw was the simple reconstruction in space of a man leaning out a window. But this window having shifted with the man, I realized that I was dealing with an image of a fairly rare sort.’[24] Breton’s story recognises that there was an ordinary reality behind his extraordinary perception, but that a shift in focus dislocated from this normal viewpoint, allowing the unusual surreal image to appear.
The title of the exhibition and publication hints at the same principle that runs through much of Sassen’s work. Some of her most abstract images are within the Axiom series (2014), shot in the Namibian desert using sheets of mirror and coloured Perspex. Embedded within the sand, the outline of the mirror creates a quadrilateral form adjacent to the reflective plane that shows grains of sand sparkling in the sun. Alongside this is the black sliver of its shadow, and a further lightened square of refracted sunshine. Red, blue and green plastic squares held at angles cast their colourful silhouettes on top of this geometric collage, doubling within the reflected planes and at times revealing the shadow of the supporting hand. Literally a photograph of a hot mirror, these images are more than the sum of their deconstructed parts, the mirror creating an illusion of forms floating and interlocking in space like utopian architectural designs. Sassen’s use of mirrors in other works such as Mirari #1 (2013) present a parallel realm using nothing more than a different view onto her subject. Here the tree and river are doubled, miraculously presenting the same water as both a smooth, glistening, flowing surface, and one disturbed with texturing ripples. As with Axiom, it is hard to rationalize what is presented in the image, the reflections and refractions disrupting a more ordinary and immediately understandable representation.
Mirrors have often been used as devices to suggest parallel realities in literature, notably in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), the sequel to Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Carroll was referenced by Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto and feted by British Surrealists who called themselves the ‘children of Alice’ in homage to Carroll’s dedication to the weird and nonsensical. In this children’s story, the heroine Alice climbs through the mirror, or ‘looking glass’, in her house to enter a parallel universe where things are both strange and familiar. Sassen’s return to The Netherlands as a child is analogous, she recalls, ‘It was night when we arrived at Schiphol. I saw the lights of the airport and thought all the stars from the heavens had fallen to earth. For a long time, I felt like I was stuck in a parallel universe that was not my own, and I really longed for Kenya.’[25] Alice finds that the ‘Looking Glass’ world is full of riddles that make her question the rules and structures of the ‘normal’ world she left behind. This jolting from complacency is at the heart of Surrealism, and the power of the surreal to provoke a reconsideration of the limits of normality has proved compelling throughout the twentieth century.

‘In this dizzying race the images appear like the only guideposts of the mind. By slow degrees the mind becomes convinced of the supreme reality of these images... The mind becomes aware of the limitless expanses wherein its desires are made manifest.’[26]
Surrealist Manifesto

A window to a parallel universe is comprehensively evoked in the compelling installation Totem (2018). Projected images of desert- and landscapes run horizontally across two adjacent walls within the installation, infinitely reflected in opposing mirrored walls to create a ‘limitless expanse’, a term used by Breton to describe the potential of Surrealist imagery. Shadows appear upon the landscapes periodically, generating a Rorschach effect in conjunction with the mirrors. These desert scenes populated by nebulous forms recall the surreal painting of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy, for whom the desert symbolised the unfettered realm of the subconscious. Echoing her process when photographing human subjects, this installation is a collaboration between Sassen and the viewer, completed by the presence and unique interaction of the latter. As the viewer enters Totem, their shadow mingles with those on the projected images, layering the unknown absences with shapes and forms created by their bodies, and inviting them to draw on their own associations to interpret the undesignated figures. Within this immersive environment, they are transported to a parallel surrealist world, one of shadows and dreams, uncanny landscapes and disconcerting reflections, ultimately conjuring, in Breton’s words, ‘the presence of the marvellous’.[27]

• • •

[1] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ in Manifestoes of Surrealism, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969) p.36

[2] Viviane Sassen in conversation with Matt Williamson, ICA, 4 March 2015

[3] ‘Both Ways: Viviane Sassen talks to Aaron Schuman’, Frieze, January-February 2015, p.92

[4] Viviane Sassen in conversation with Matt Williamson, ICA

[5] ‘Both Ways: Viviane Sassen talks to Aaron Schuman’, p.94

[6] Interview with Hansi – has this been published previously? Publication details

[7] Ibid.

[8] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.16

[9] ‘I feel very connected to the Surrealists of the last century’, Viviane Sassen interviewed by Robbert Ammerlaan, in this publication, p.XX

[10] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’. p.15

[11] Ibid. p.26

[12] Pierre Reverdy from Nord-Sud, March 1918, quoted in Ibid. p.20

[13] Ibid. p.34

[14] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.12

[15] Viviane Sassen interviewed by Robbert Ammerlaan, in this publication, p.XX

[16] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.12

[17] Viviane Sassen interviewed by Robbert Ammerlaan, in this publication, p.XX

[18] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.39-40

[19] Viviane Sassen interviewed by Robbert Ammerlaan, in this publication, p.XX

[20] Viviane Sassen in conversation with Matt Williamson, ICA, 4 March 2015

[21] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.47

[22] Eileen Agar, ‘Womb Magic’ in Island, Vol. 1, No. 4, 15th December 1931, (emphasis added)

[23] Eileen Agar, A Look at My Life (Methuen: London, 1988), p.146

[24] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.21-22

[25] Viviane Sassen interviewed by Robbert Ammerlaan, in this publication, p.XX

[26] André Breton ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, p.37

[27] Ibid. p.14

[SP1]East Africa, or more specific countries? Or, Other collections have also included images taken in East Africa.

[SP2]Suggestion: An exploration of illusions, evocative of the dream-like state between waking and sleep

[SP3]East Africa?

[SP4]Not sure if this is right word – death can be serene too?

[SP5]Not just in Africa. Would suggest Shadows can also offer precious shelter from the sun, their darkness intermingling protection and threat …..