Dreams and Reality Merge in Viviane Sassen’s Ode to Surrealism

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Belladonna, series Parasomnia, 2010© Viviane Sassen, Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Today, as a survey of Viviane Sassen’s photography opens at The Hepworth Wakefield, she shares her thoughts on Surrealism and the fluidity of her medium

For photographer Viviane Sassen, the worlds of dreams and real life are inextricably linked – especially when it comes to the images she creates. Sassen is in the UK for the opening of her new exhibition Hot Mirror at The Hepworth Wakefield, and is explaining how everyday life and “the dream world” merge in her work. “I have always had very vivid dreams,” she says. “I write them down in books, which I’ve done since I was a child. I have the feeling that the dream world is equally important to the waking world and I’ve long been intrigued by the work of the Surrealists – this ability to go into the undercurrent of your subconscious – which is a driving force in my work.”

The Dutch photographer, known for her work across fashion and art, is exhibiting at the award-winning Yorkshire museum alongside an exhibition featuring photographs by Lee Miller – a photographic force of nature who was instrumental in bringing Surrealism to the forefront of the British psyche in the 1930s. Stepping from this into Sassen’s show, the influences of Surrealism in her artwork become all the more apparent, from the dense shadows – a recurrent motif – to the abstracted figures that have become part of Sassen’s visual signature, photo collages, use of negative space and bizarre juxtapositions.

“I can relate to Surrealism because of the unexpected dream-like connections, the importance of the subconscious,” says Sassen. “Sometimes I wake up with an image in my head and I make small drawings – like for the picture of the man with the boy on his head [D.N.A, 2007, from Flamboya] – which I then need to create. Suddenly you have to work with reality as it’s presented to you, and the possibilities and impossibilities of reality, and then it becomes something else. The image in my dream is overwritten by the actual image I make.”

More than 60 artworks from Sassen’s personal projects created over the last ten years are on show in Hot Mirror. Familiar images from series including UMBRA and Flamboya are interspersed with experimental photo collages and large-scale works from her most recent series, Of Mud and Lotus, a meditation on life and fertility. For Sassen, one of the immense joys of photography is the ability to play with and create dialogues between images.

“I love the fluidity of what photography can be,” she says. “I’m intrigued by how you can take an image out of its original context and make it into something else, and then bring it somewhere else again. The meaning of the image can change if you put it in a different context. I’ve often referred to my images as words or sentences and you can make different stories or poems with them.”

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a new version of 2014’s film installation, Totem, comprising mirrored walls and projections. To be inside the dark, enclosed space as Sassen’s images continuously expand and contract all around is a disorientating and mesmerising experience. Something of a visual stream of consciousness, it is as though you have tumbled into Sassen’s mind and find yourself suspended in a half-awake, half-asleep state. “I’m obsessed by photography and image-making – it can lead me anywhere,” she says. “My work is always informed by what I experience,” she adds. “It’s a very intuitive process. All of my images relate to me and to my life, but I also hope they have a universal meaning so that others can relate to them.”

Hot Mirror runs at The Hepworth Wakefield from June 22 until October 7, 2018.