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Viviane Sassen’s Hot Mirror
“Belladonna”, series Parasomnia (2010)Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Viviane Sassen’s latest show is a Surrealist dream

New work sits alongside images from the past decade and explores the duality of dreams and reality

Nothing fuels Viviane Sassen’s magical, creative energy quite like contrasts. Hers is a world of ever-present duality – one where light embraces shadow, life espouses death, dreams mingle seamlessly with reality. “In my work, I constantly question the idea that photography can capture truth, or depict reality as such,” the Dutch artist tells us. “Two people can look at the same picture and see something completely different. It’s essential to create a space where perception and subjectivity can run free.”

Sassen’s vivid interest in the inner workings of the human psyche nurtured a lifelong affinity with Surrealism, a movement she largely credits for shaping both her gaze and her personal philosophy. “Surrealism, to me, is the ability to experience or look at things in a way that’s unbiased, free of judgement and convention – almost like looking through the eyes of a child,” the photographer asserts. “It’s also about being in touch with the parallel universes within us, and embracing the huge role that the subconscious plays in our identity.”

“The ways in which I perceive the light, the shadows, the bodies, for example, are all somehow linked to my memories of Africa” – Viviane Sassen

Her most recent solo exhibition, Hot Mirrornewly opened at the Hepworth Wakefield, is a captivating, visually saturated homage to the prismatic world of dreams. The show assembles a selection of individual images from Sassen’s notable art photography series accumulated over ten years, as well as new photographs and collages. These selections are combined in the form of  ‘image-poems’ drawing on the Surrealist strategies of collage to create unexpected juxtapositions. Fittingly, the exhibition is held in conjunction with a retrospective dedicated to Surrealist pioneer, artist Lee Miller – a singular and highly influential figure in 20th-century art history, known for her provocative body of work as well as being Man Ray’s muse.

Besides their artistic careers, the two artists also share a close relationship with the world of fashion – Miller was an established model, while Sassen has become widely acknowledged as one of the most important fashion photographers of the last two decades. Her vibrant, luxurious colour palette is reminiscent of Guy Bourdin, and the sculptural shapes of her shots understatedly bear a mark of glamour – yet, for Hot Mirror, Sassen didn’t seek inspiration in Helmut Newton-esque silhouettes as much as in her most cherished, intimate childhood memories. “I partly grew up in Kenya, and the years I spent there have always informed my work and continue to do so,” the image-maker explains. “The ways in which I perceive the light, the shadows, the bodies, for example, are all somehow linked to my memories of Africa.”

Sassen’s early years were also instrumental in shaping her personal understanding of beauty – a concept she has continuously found ways to demystify. “My father worked as a doctor, and we lived right next to the crippled home, where a lot of kids who had polio used to live,” the photographer recalls. “They had these malformations on their bodies, but at the time I had no idea what polio was, and I thought these were actually quite beautiful. Those kids were my playmates, and that was beauty to me.”

Ultimately, Sassen sees her medium as a vast realm where energies collide, bringing together the personal and the external, the subjective and the objective, the real and the imaginary. “That’s the interesting thing about photography,” she concludes. “You may have a starting idea, but if you open yourself up to the unforeseen, that idea might morph into something completely different. It’s like staging a dream but also dealing with the practical constraints of reality and physics. Anything could happen when the energies align a certain way. I love the magic of that unpredictability.”

Hot Mirror runs at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery until 7 October 2018