Stag & Deer: THERE, THERE / Viviane Sassen: Parasomnia

Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Crawford Art Gallery was one of five different spaces recently occupied by the guerilla exhibition project Stag & Deer, founded in 2010 by Pamela Condell and Pádraig Spillane. Sassen’s exhibition formed part of THERE, THERE, an ambitious multi-part presentation of contemporary photography staged in various venues around Cork City. Condell and Spillane, themselves both practicing photographers, prefer to describe their role as exhibition-makers rather than conventional curators, and THERE, THERE, had something of a ‘slack space’ modus operandi. Thematically, the five shows moved between expressions of otherness and separation, and a hope for bringing back together what the modern world has disconnected or obscured. The possibility of reconciliation was probed on three planes simultaneously: through the photographic medium itself, through an appeal to a global array of photographers, and through the appropriation of several civic spaces.
The orchestration of such an ambitious and far reaching project, both in terms of the sheer amount of exhibited works and in the fact that the show synchronized five separate urban zones, is in itself impressive and deserves recognition. The partisan nature and the wide scope of the event necessarily attracted a number of diverse spectators. For me, the experience became centered around the dialogue of the artwork with the space which it inhabits, and consequently with the spectator entering this zone, which by no means is ever transparent or free from tension.
The whole event was launched with Parasomnia, a photographic series by Viviane Sassen exhibited in the Sculpture Gallery at the Crawford. Sassen’s works essentially refer to sleep disorders and all sorts of quasi-oneiric manifestations present in waking life. The shots taken in East Africa are vividly traced by scorching sunrays, which sharply delineate forms, underpinning them with dense shadows and saturating with high-pitched, vibrant colours. Sassen’s photographic eye tends to focus on single bodies (either whole or fragmented) within various inhabitable spaces, which by their particular visual quality present themselves on the pictorial plane as a set of peculiar ‘dream-morphoses’.
Sassen operates as a dream-weaver employing the camera as the shadow-catcher par excellence. All the images are constructed on the basis of a tension between light and shadow, presence and absence, becoming allegories for waking and sleeping states. We can contemplate objects and forms (morphs), defined in the visible world by their materialisation in light and delineation with shadow, captured by Sassen for their suggestive ‘para-oneiric’ quality. It seems common sense that light literally and symbolically denotes life in its waking state, while shadow and darkness inevitably call to mind the non-being, twilight and the oneiric- all that stands for the realm of Somnus and Morpheus. However, in the case of the Parasomnia series the opposite holds equally true: here an intense, overwhelming light becomes a signifier of dream. The more the forms are highlighted and imbued with colour, the more they accentuate and are accentuated by the shadows, the more they indexically imprint themselves in space and on a photographic plane- effectively the more they become ‘para-somniac’.

Viviane Sassen: Belladonna, 2010. C-print. 100 cm x 125 cm. J.F., 2010. C-print. 80 cm x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town. Installation shot of Parasomnia at the Sculpture Gallery, Crawford Gallery, Cork. Image courtesy of Jed Niezgoda.
Viviane Sassen: Belladonna, 2010. C-print. 100 cm x 125 cm. J.F., 2010. C-print. 80 cm x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town. Installation shot of Parasomnia at the Sculpture Gallery, Crawford Gallery, Cork. Image courtesy of Jed Niezgoda.

Let us imagine the scene: midday with the sun at its highest, a young black boy in a red T-shirt is sleeping on the ground. Absurdly, he is still seated in a blue plastic chair tipped onto its side. The clearly delineated forms of the boy’s body and chair lose their sense of solidity by being flattened to the two-dimensional plane, morphing together intertwined by hieroglyphic shadows. Sassen captures this within a vertical format, where the silhouette of a boy nested in his dream-chair seems to be hovering over the rusty earth. Sassen’s conscious insistence on verticality of this image, which stands in opposition to the actual horizontality of registered event, together with the indeterminable plane of the burnt sienna dust functioning as the image’s background, is what makes the picture uncannily anamorphic. This visual conundrum of forms meshed with the spaces they inhabit (which are often hard to establish at first glance), is the most compelling achievement of the series. The uncertainty of our vision enhances the ‘para-somniac’ quality of Sassen’s images, which lend themselves differently to our eye from different vantage points within the space they occupy.

So, how do these images function within the space into which they have been inserted by Stag & Deer? My first impression was of the photographs being oppressed by the overwhelming presence of Canova’s classical casts. Not only were Sassen’s modestly scaled images not granted their own space, but they had been humbly inserted on the walls behind the sculptures and were often obscured by these self-assured monumental presences. My first impression was that of a missed encounter, I had a feeling that the juxtaposition did not work. Nonetheless, I gradually became captivated by the series and I started to work against the grain according to it, re-discovering the photographs within the space along their apparent oppression and ‘out-of-place-ness’ in relation to Canova’s Vatican casts. On reflection, it became clear that Sassen’s photographs were well able to defend themselves, to mark their own territory and to operate effectively and critically in relation to the classical casts, the gallery space and the viewer.
On entering the gallery, when the works are seen at a distance and just emerge as radiant ghosts in the background a game of constant push and pull ensues. The spectators, magnetically drawn to the images, have to fight their way through the gallery space. They are tactically forced to maneuver between the statues in order to gain the access to the photographs. However, during this meandering tour they experience more than just the sense of casts as spatial obstacles. They rather acquire a growing awareness of both dimensions: that of a spatial sculpture, and that of a pictorial plane. The images, which are literally flat, present a challenge to the sculptures as in a contemporary paragone (the Renaissance dispute over the primacy of sculpture and painting), claiming some form of mastery over the three-dimensional plaster effigies. Gradually, their material flatness dissolves as they adopt a unique dimensionality of their own- the virtuality of a phantom presence. They start to haunt our consciousness as they emerge from the gallery walls, little by little passing into the forefront of our visual field. Slowly, like vibrant specters they begin to hover around the space, eclipsing the white, cold casts as they project themselves on their empty plaster surfaces.
Literally and symbolically the Parasomnia series is everything that the Vatican sculptures are not, thus positioning itself as their direct negation. Consequently, Sassen’s images function as visual freedom fighters, hot living presences put up against the cold, rigid absences of the sculptures (more effectively if we consider Canova’s series as copies- casts of the originals which they are not, flimsy and hollow in themselves, thus in fact having a less unique presence than the photographs, which by their nature encapsulate the problematic of the copy). As spectators, we are entering an age-old discourse: classic vs. modern, high vs. low, institutional vs. autonomous, and it is entirely up to us whether we join the partisan game. This playful visual and spatial revolution unfolded to me as a soft yarn of rich wool, its thread was weaving itself around the cold faux-marble corpses, creating vibrant tension. And thus the gallery space became a place of syncopation, Stag & Deer’s intervention brilliantly jazzing up the morbid classical tone, working effectively precisely because it was not working in accord.
Viviane Sassen: Parasomnia was on view 18 October – 3 November 2012.