“Lexicon” features images from Sassen’s acclaimed publications Flamboya (2008) and Parasomnia (2011), in addition to some previously unpublished photographs. Specifically for this installation, the photographs have all been printed at the same size, 30 x 42cm, like ‘cue cards’ to an understanding of the artist’s discourse.
Sassen describes the logic of the presentation as “a kind of ordered chaos. I never work in series; I rather build collections of related images. If you combine photographs in a particular way you can tell stories that go further than an isolated image.” The men and women in her photographs are in a sense also combinations of images; they are more compositions than individuals.
Sassen is not a portraitist, as she explains “I don’t show the face because I don’t want the work to be about that person in the picture. What I am trying to capture or produce is an archetypal image, an image that goes beyond the description of the physiognomic and physical specificities of an individual. I seek to provide the work with a universal dimension, more abstract, more about mankind.”
In his essay published in Flamboya, Edo Dijksrterhuis writes that we can discern a triptych of archetypes in Sassen’s work. These themes and compositions are all present in “Lexicon”: the faceless subject; the figure on the ground; intertwined figures that become one. Another recurring element is the surreal still life, subverting our perceptions of nature, of quotidian objects and situations. Sassen does not describe or explain; she suggests, inviting the viewer into an alternative experience of reality. Reviewing the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography exhibition, a New York Times critic noted that her images “convey how strangely vivid and tantalizingly sad the world can seem to a mind and eye divested of the usual filters of perception”. Her photographs constantly disrupt our sense of reality because some are carefully constructed while others are incidental scenes she encounters on her travels, leaving us unsure which are imaginary fictions and which scenes from life. Her distinct visual language is articulated by a deep awareness of the formalist concerns of painting, sculpture and photography, as well as an acute sense of colour and the optical resonances of pattern and design.
Sassen spins curiosities into her pictures: a woman lying in a draped white sheet; two young figures hugging each other over a banana tree leaf; a man engulfed by green fishing net; a silhouette floating in milky water. Here the body is sculpture; faces are veiled by fabric or leaves; forms are cut out, and shapes encountered in nature cropped to form mysterious objects. Paint is used to transform the subjects, casting them in theatrical roles. Manipulating and shaping the body, overlapping limbs, weaving hair and melding torsos: Sassen’s emotive visual language creates two-dimensional sculptures. The artist spent her childhood years in East Africa. She describes that, on her family return to the Netherlands, she felt like a foreigner in her homeland but knew that she had also been an outsider in Africa. Her images resonate with these feelings of dislocation between home and away, night and day, life and dreams.
“As long as I can remember, I have felt very close to Africa. This is probably due to the fact that I lived with my family in Kenya when I was a child. Yet, this very experience of closeness has also engendered contradictory feelings. While feeling a part of this world, I have equally been aware that I will never really be a part of it. Early on, I came to understand that I would always remain a stranger. I try in my work to figure this ambiguity. You feel close but at the same time distant. And this is something that is usually absent in traditional Western depictions of Africa, which clearly reflect the interpretation and gaze of Westerners. I am trying to put that in doubt, but at the same time I am also that Western person so I can’t completely free myself from that background. But I think doubt is always good.”
She continues: “If you see the world as a human being, Africa would be the shadow that a lot of people project their fears, longings, sexuality onto. Africa can’t help that. It’s imposed on it. The play of shadows allows for multiple interpretations. You can read them at different levels. You should always be able to judge a photograph on different grounds – on political, social, emotional, but also personal grounds.” In recent years Sassen has travelled to South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal, where she worked with collaborators, acquaintances and friends. “It is really important to establish a relationship with the person I am photographing,” she says. “Often I make little sketches or drawings, which I show them. Then we talk about the idea or the concept for the picture I want to make.”
”For me it is important to have a general idea about the picture. Of course, things should happen naturally as well. It’s those little unexpected things that make a picture interesting. Ultimately my work is much more about the gaze of the viewer and about my own perspective than about trying to express some truth about the photographed subject.”
A retrospective of 17 years of her fashion work, In and Out of Fashion, opened at Huis Marseille Museum for Photography, Amsterdam, in 2012, and travelled to the Rencontres d’Arles festival, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Fotografie Forum Frankfurt and Fotomuseum Winterthur.
Recent solo exhibitions have also taken place at Hordaland Kunstsenter, Bergen; Atelier Néerlandais, Paris; The Photographers’ Gallery, London; ICA, London; and Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam. Sassen was included on the main exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace, in 2013. Other notable group shows include New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011); No Fashion, Please! Photography between gender and lifestyle at the Vienna Kunsthalle (2011); Figure and Ground: Dynamic Landscape at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto as part of the Contact Photography Festival (2011); and Six Yards: Guaranteed Dutch Design at the Museum for Moderne Kunst Arnhem (2012).
Sassen was awarded the Dutch art prize, the Prix de Rome, in 2007, and in 2011 won the International Center of Photography in New York’s Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography. In 2015 she was awarded the David Octavius Hill Medal from the German Photography Academy, and was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for her exhibition Umbra. She has also received numerous awards for her publications.