Between the ages of two and five, photographer Viviane Sassen lived in a small village in Kenya. Her father worked at a local hospital. Children with polio played on the jungle gym. She remembers a “big eye in the eucalyptus tree” and a dog, fly-bejeweled and swollen, in the streets.
Sassen wasn’t there long. She grew up in the Netherlands, mostly. But Africa had a disproportionate effect on her imagination and on her sense of belonging. “For a long time,” she says, after returning to Europe, “I felt like I was stuck in a parallel universe that was not my own, and I really longed for Kenya.”
That longing never went away. In fact, it colors almost all that Sassen has achieved over the past ten years, starting with Flamboya (2008), a monograph inspired by her return to Africa when she was 29. In that germinal reunion, Sassen introduced what would become her signature motifs: the chameleon-like endowments of the body, the sudden eruptions of chaos in the midst of form, and the shadows that whisper to every living and nonliving thing, “Et in arcadia ego.”
These central themes come together in Hot Mirror, a retrospective catalog that accompanies two recent exhibitions, one at The Hepworth Wakefield in the U.K. and the other at the Musée des beaux-arts Le Locle in Switzerland.
But Hot Mirror isn’t just a retrospective. Drawing from a decade’s worth of publications and exhibitions, including Flamboya (2008), Parasomnia (2011), Roxane (2012) and Roxane II (2017), Umbra (2014), Pikin Slee (2014), and Of Mud and Lotus (2017), Sassen mixes her previous collections into something new. Forgoing chronology and context, Hot Mirror privileges “instinctive associations,” says Simon Wallis, Director of The Hepworth Wakefield, using “Surrealist strategies of collage.”
Case in point: a photograph of a satellite dish beside a woman wrapped in white linen, brown leaves placed like coins for the ferryman over her eyes and mouth. Or consider, on another page, a mirror in the sand, warmly shadowed in red hues, above a picture of five mysterious white sacks, and next to these, an image of a woman’s pregnant torso frothed in rose-stained shaving cream.
There is no way to predict what the next page might show, which can be refreshing. It can be maddening too. The human brain loves to infer design from scattered facts. In Hot Mirror, reason is fitted snugly with a straightjacket.
In a dreamy series of recollections that accompany the photographs in this book, Sassen describes “the evening light” she knew as a child—light in which “the trunks of the baobabs were blue, the sky red,” light in which “the river became black.” Hot Mirror cultivates the surreal, not to make sense of the senseless but to see things as a child again.
That’s what surrealist art can do. It can revive the magic of childlike wonder. In the catalog’s closing essay, Eleanor Clayton, Curator at The Hepworth Wakefield, writes about the history of surrealism and its influence on Sassen’s work. André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto (1924) “championed the reclamation of childhood ways of seeing,” writes Clayton. In his own words, Breton prioritized “the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” That’s exactly what Sassen does so well.
Disinterested play often goes hand in hand with disorder. But that’s the point: stick and carrot, chaos and essence. “I try to introduce structure in the chaos,” Sassen explains, “I’m crazy about chaos—of all the things I see. To find the essence”—that’s the appeal.
It’s also, at times, the consolation. In Umbra, for instance, Sassen reflects on the suicide of her father, a man she describes as “sweet” and “calm,” a man “who knew how to enjoy life.” For years, he suffered from headaches, until doctors discovered a cyst in his brain. Though the surgery was successful, the pain worsened. In the end, it proved too much.
“Umbra” is the Latin word for “shadow.” One can only imagine the breadth of the shadow cast by that particular event in Sassen’s life—a life already paralleled, as she describes it, by the shadow of her early childhood in a place so very different than the one she would come to know.
How do you reduce the scale of something that immense? How do you make it accessible so that the work you need to do can be done?
In an interview given by the Dutch publisher Robbert Ammerlaan, and republished in Hot Mirror, Sassen talks about the influence of Kazimir Malevich’s early twentieth-century painting Black Square. “In that small square everything is compressed and reduced to a human scale: creation, life, death. We can project all of our fears and longings onto the abstraction of that work.” Though Sassen pays tribute to Malevich directly in the Axiom series, where square mirrors transform light into dark geometries on the hot sand, it’s the essence of Malevich that informs the broader sweep of photographs—as if the Black Square had been shattered, its fragments strewn wherever life glimmers.
A lot has been made of shadow in Sassen’s work, and I don’t want to overexaggerate its importance. After all, there’s so much humor and brightness and felicity in Hot Mirror, so much strangeness and surprise. If Darkness leans against the lamppost, he does so with nothing in particular on his mind. And anyway, there’s still the “big eye in the eucalyptus tree.” What about that? Let’s ask the children in Sassen’s photographs. They’re playing, just now, on the beach.