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May 4, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Viviane?

Lexicon – Viviane Sassen
City Gallery, until 15 June

Let’s talk about negative space. About what is said when everything else is left out. About how insisting one thing may reveal exactly what one is trying to conceal. Like, for instance, the introductory wall-text to Viviane Sassen’s current exhibition at City Gallery, in which the Dutch photographer claims she has no interest in engaging in a debate around race and the power dynamic between photographer and photographed. Let’s not talk about how a white man (me) claiming a white woman’s depiction of black bodies is problematic may be, in itself, problematic.

Lexicon’s setting is an imagined Africa. A place, that for Sassen, is informed by nostalgia; she lived in Kenya between the ages of three and five. For the viewer, however, this place is informed by every previous imagining of Africa as Other.  In lieu of any concrete details of place, we are offered suggestions of latent violence – whether they be in the form of three figures in gold foil bodybags; a man face down among fishing nets; a woman in stilettos, on her knees in red dust, an arm stretched behind her back, peering into what could be a grave – somewhere foreign, somewhere almost erotic. This setting is vast and dreamlike, and to an extent, it acknowledges its own artifice. Sassen’s background is in fashion photography; her attention to symmetry, positioning, colours that are both more vivid and subtle than in real life, are wielded here as much for seductive ends as her commercial work, only more covertly. On sale here is her own fantasy, one which simultaneously acknowledges its place among other fantasies, and tries to avoid it through appearing undeniably staged.

Lexicon was originally exhibited at 2013’s Venice Biennale, the theme for which was ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, based on Marino Auriti’s proposal to build a museum to hold all the knowledge in the world. It seems appropriate, then, that the body here is treated as a sculptural object. Sassen’s images operate almost contrary to how photography is supposed to operate: she reveals herself through shadows. Faces are almost always obscured, either by shadow, or by objects. Bodies are contorted; sometimes limp, sometimes angular. Often, they hang off one another in embrace, implying an intimacy denied to the viewer. The cataloguing of knowledge requires a distinction, between those classifying and classified. At one end of the gallery, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 film Statues Also Die plays on a loop. The film begins as an examination of items in the Musée de l’Homme’s anthropological collection, eventually launching into a seething attack on French colonialism. It is difficult to interpret whether the film acts as provocation or exoneration.

The film, though it contributes to a reading perhaps not intended by Sassen herself, reminds the viewer that images, once disseminated, cease to exist within the consciousness of the artist, and intent does not necessarily determine execution. Sassen’s images exist within a lineage of representations of the black body. A lineage which has, for the most part, neglected representations of black subjects. Historically, colour photography has proven itself insufficient and unwilling to represent images of black subjects. Syreeta McFadden, in an interview with NPR, explains that for most of the 20th century, film manufacturers operated with a “wilful obliviousness” in relation to how best render black skin. Kodak issued developers with an image of a “pale, white-skinned woman [with] dark hair” as a means of metering skin tone. The default mode of recognition for colour photography quickly became a white one because the market demanded it. Black skin was washed out, or erased, with a consistent lack of tonal variation. This persisted, in part, because the people using the film assumed “they [weren’t] very good photographers”.

Sassen’s working method is more advanced: she shoots on a digital Mamiya 6×7; her colouring is arresting; her concern, foremost, is for the effective rendering of black skin. Her problem is one of figuration. Kerry James Marshall, in a recent interview with frieze, discusses the persisting neglection of black subjects in art. In part, it is market-driven. Black populations have, historically, been excluded from the art market, and in terms of the contemporary landscape, Marshall states: “Abstraction … is more easily commodified than figurative work.” Consumers are less interested in figurative work; the body as subject has expired its purpose, unless the body is turned into an object of fascination. In a way, Sassen’s photographs occupy a liminal space between figurative and abstract representation. From this position, it is difficult to tell whether her models exist for their potential as sculptural objects, and are thus denied subjectivity, or whether the subjects control the space within the photograph, in hiding themselves from the viewer – in placing the viewer in an uncomfortable position between seeing and not seeing. In Sassen’s insistence on their own artifice, however, we are reminded that we see exactly what the photographer wants us to see; and this vision, of the black body as an exotic object, as strategically removed from a discernable location, is one we’ve seen before, and we are right to be wary.

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