Far from the mainstream version of chauvi-porn beauty, Viviane Sassen’s brand thereof is softly, magnetically sublime. Often rendered in unusual poses, with long limbs cut off or faces hidden, her models are introverted and strangely alive. You look at them and look at them, again and again, wanting to seize their line of sight, which refuses to tell. We spoke to the artist on the heels of her Savannah College opening about art school nudity and the longing for oneness.
The palpable eroticism within your images makes me wonder about what kind of life you live.
Viviane Sassen (smiles): I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 18. I was very shy. But I was dreamy and creative and I went to art school [Institute of the Arts, Arnhem], and everybody there was free. They would walk around bare breasted and in their underwear. We were in the fashion department and were making clothes right on each other’s bodies, so it was normal to just not wear any clothes. It was like a mass nudist coming out. So after three weeks of this, I began walking around in my underwear too.
There was the Love Ball at the Roxy Club, the most important club in Amsterdam then and because I was tall, I did some modelling for that. I would walk the show with outrageous hair and outrageous clothes and makeup, loving being in the spotlight but being too timid to be very good at it. I was a shy exhibitionist. I think this is something that still comes through in my photographs. Some are very erotic but yet you never get the girl. It is the opposite of porn where the actors are all there to be grabbed like junk food. Being shy makes me more interested in the mysterious and in creating mystery around a girl. I love to make work that asks questions and doesn’t give answers, where unsatisfied seduction creates a longing.
I love to make work that asks questions and doesn’t give answers, where unsatisfied seduction creates a longing.
Longing is a big theme in your work, isn’t it?
Viviane: Yes, very much. My father died when I was 23. He was a doctor and he chose to take his own life. This made me feel very vulnerable for a long time. I had a lot of anxieties and fears – and also longings.
One of the things I like to explore in my photographs is the longing to become one with another human being. I have experimented with this by intertwining two bodies together. It looks beautiful but we never achieve this total oneness. When you are pregnant with a child you feel something like this oneness but you don’t know the child yet, so it is an abstract oneness. And when the child is born, they very quickly drift away. In love we try to be one but it is not actually possible in love either. This desire is a very deep longing that we never fulfill.
You are a romantic.
Viviane: I like things to be sensual and layered. You often don’t see the faces of my models. If you don’t show the face, the image is not immediately graspable emotionally. When you do see the eyes and the face, it is easier to read a picture. I long for pictures that leave you in the dark, confuse you, and you don’t know how to read them. This is not about being submissive at all. It’s not about being an object to consume. It’s about being a strong character.
How do you choose your models?
When I started walking around in my underwear at art school, I was also fashion modeling.
Viviane: When I started walking around in my underwear at art school, I was also fashion modeling. Even though I was a little less shy than I had been when I first arrived, I didn’t feel comfortable with how direct the feeling was from the photographers, it was too close and they were wanting something sexual out of me that I wasn’t prepared to give. So I started experimenting with self-portraits and being erotic in my own pictures. I was really intrigued by the body—weird body shapes, new angles I could see it from, how it looks when you bend this way or hide those fingers or close one eye. I created an intimacy that I still work with today.
I prefer working with girls who have had some life experience and gained self-knowledge and are not afraid to be ugly or experimental. Younger girls are so lovely but they are still unformed and insecure and they have pre-conceived ideas about how fashion should be and how they should look. A model who dares to be herself is more interesting.
When I started working as a photographer I was really attracted to the experimental magazines like Self Service, iD, Dazed and Confused and Purple Sex. Nan Goldin and Araki were shooting for them doing these inspiring ego documents. Before them there was a basic way to photograph nudes and sexuality, which was either like the old masters—black and white with beautiful lighting—or it was hardcore like the porn pics. Purple Sex was showing something closer to the real and the domestic, which is where I see myself, although my work has evolved into something more spiritual now.
Fashion has a reputation for being superficial but do you feel it might be a mercurial sort of mirror that reflects who we are in our zeitgeist?
Viviane: Yes, I do. Fashion doesn’t have one face, it’s very diverse and has a temporary feeling. It’s immediate and swift and playful, and I agree that it reflects who we are in our era. That’s why it’s difficult to understand it when we’re in it.
I live in Amsterdam so I’m outside of the fashion industry circus. I don’t go to the parties and I don’t go to the shows. I’m too Dutch to really believe in all the fuzz that surrounds it. But I do love it.
How do you see your pictures within it?
Viviane: I sometimes find it hard to see my position within fashion but it’s not really for me to say. I like my own pictures. I look at them and they make me cheerful. I even make up my own stories about them when I’m feeling very curious. I begin asking What is she feeling? What is she wishing? Who is she? and I want to turn her around to see her face. But of course I can’t because I’ve captured her the way she is inside my photograph.
“In and Out of Fashion,” an exhibition of Sassen’s work at the Savannah College of Art&Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia, runs thru May 8 as part of SCAD deFINE ART 2014.
All images copyright Viviane Sassen
Caia Hagel is a writer living in Montreal.