Monday, February 16, 2015

The Complicated Thing About Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen, Etan / mint 21:00, 2013, Etan / mint 12:00, 2013, Etan / mint 15:00, 2013, c-print photographs

ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) London has a peculiar show currently on display and that is Viviane Sassen’s newly installed, Pikin Slee. It is a photography show and Sassen is a type of photographer that hinges on the art/fashion line with rare aplomb. She is hired by brands like Miu Miu and Stella McCartney but has also won the Prix de Rome. What does that mean? Well nothing besides proving that she is certifiably in the mix within these worlds and one can start thinking about how fashion vortexes contemporary photography, but this idea and bio-bites are not the thing that is complicated. Let’s forget I said anything about that and enter into this show with the vague blankness about context, which is exactly how I arrived to it.

This is a photo show, and a rare one at that, as it is shot with analogue film for the most part and I have to say, maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks on me but you can just feel the difference. Digital film will just never, ever have that embedded tone that analogue does. It is a different set of chemicals and processes and for me it is like comparing marble to 3D printing. Anyways, there is a suite of selected photographs that are of objects, barely discernable figures that are facing away and highly focused geometries of space, shadow and color. There is a subtlety to the works and a feeling of placement within each frame. This occurs even in those that include signs of nature like water, which one would suppose, is not so easily manipulated. Throughout the photographs there is sense of fixation, a staring gaze that looks so long it makes the eyes tear up. It is a mix of this intensity of gaze with a formal knowingness and imposed sophistication that makes these photographs so easy and desirable to look at. The strength of the photos should be duly noted as it is poorly installed in the lower gallery space. I have decided to not hold my breath for a well-mounted show at ICA for if I did I would have long ago been sent to the morgue.

That being said, what the photographs are taking photos of is another set of issues. Pikin Slee refers to a village in the Upper Suriname River within the Surinamese rainforest, which was a former Dutch colony in the Guianas and the current inhabitants, the Saramacca, are descended from plantation slaves from this area. Sassen first visited here in 2012 and was, “intrigued by the village and the inhabitants.” This statement is pulled from the show’s press release and reading this was the first indication that this was a show shot by an outsider and by a white person.

Now things get a bit more complicated and uncomfortable. As I previously said, I was not all too familiar with who exactly Sassen was upon entering the show. Her name was familiar to me, as I like both art and fashion, but seeing the photographs, which are beautiful and thoughtful in many ways, brought up a lot more issues then just seeing an art show.

The role of the photographer is one of authority and of outsider. There is a remove in the apparatus of the lens and of the camera, which positions the photographer outside of the presented focus even if they are in the shared space. This is a constantly intriguing concept and one that makes the form of photography such a compelling medium. Now, the photographer being this outsider but also director of the frame (in this type of photography) makes what is in the frame passive. You can see and feel this in the show’s images in the ways they are composed and styled. In these images Sassen has taken the “mundane” (again from the PR) everyday objects of the Saramacca people and captures and composes them into a poetics of form. She also does this with the people, creating silhouettes in some instances like that of Etan / mint (2013) which is the same person in three degrees of portraiture, or she has makes them nearly invisible sculptural pedestals like Vela (2013) where the back of a young boy is barely perceptible and has a white slash of tape diagonally across it and Alisi, (2013) in which you can barely discern a neck and head which has Cassava powder and palms stacked on top of it.

So what is happening here? One, these compositions create attractive and at times stunning images. Two, there is an unmistakable ethnographic gaze and purpose to these images. Is this second thing okay to do in order to achieve the first? I am not sure. To unwind this question, learning more about the subject and the photographer may be of use.

Sassen was born in 1972 in Holland but lived in Kenya for three years as her father was a missionary doctor. She returned to Holland when she was six. In various articles, most concisely this recent one in The Telegraph, this root experience with Africa is central to Sassen’s narrative. Actually reading this article and others like this made the whole ‘white women photographing former Dutch plantation village’ even more suspect but also lead me to other ways of thinking about this show.

It led me to think about ideas of authorship and permission. Sassen’s mere three years as a child in Africa has given to her, and hence her art, an expanded bracket in which her art is allowed to reside and explore which includes the retroactive colonial gaze. Her connection, attachment and sense of being and belonging to Africa is something she conditions and authenticates her work with and this presentation and framing of biographical/lived history amends as well as allows Sassen to be an outsider both in the Saramacca community and as a photographer. The more I think about it the harder it is to swallow but I am also very wary of knee jerk reactions to such massively complex issues.

Also, who am I to say or judge Sassen’s attachments and relationship to the subjects she is photographing? I don’t know so I have to give some leeway to this whole thing.  In addition, the way Sassen photographs is not even really about this village. In this series and in her more fashion-y works there is a muteness to the subjects and to the objects. It is all glorious surface and more then anything it is all really about Sassen and the tale she tells of herself.

This is possibly why I am not getting too bent out of shape about her declared investment and curiosity to the Saramacca community who, “are isolated from the outside world, living without running water, electricity, roads or the internet,” because there is a lack of any deep substance and that shallowness is not bad per se but it keeps it all so safe, so beautiful and so uninvested.