It is Viviane Sassen’s images in Hotshoe Gallery’s latest exhibition Other I that emanate from the wall with such effervescence and sincerity one is almost blinded to the work of WassinkLundgren and Alec Soth that also adorn the walls of the gallery. (more)
As you are buzzed through the door and enter the gallery, you are stopped stark in your tracks by an image of an African boy half painted in blue, wearing only sandals and trunks and reclining on a rust coloured floor. The obvious associations flash through my head as I stand in the doorway trying to search this image for its meaning. Traditions of the reclining nude, representations of Africa throughout art history and the significance of body paint in certain African cultures all rush into my head and leave shortly after as once again I am totally immersed in the overpowering colours and shapes of this image. It would be wrong however to put all of Viviane Sassen’s imagery into an overtly aestheticised (ethically problematic), fashionable series of portrait pictures.
It is the picture Kathleen that speaks volumes about the underlying issues of Sassen’s work; a woman in a duck egg blouse rests against a handrail with a cityscape behind her; her face is veiled in shadow almost to the point of making her features invisible. One can, however, just make out lips, nose and eyes all catching the weakest hint of the unforgiving African sun. It is the context of this woman that says more about her than her face. By removing the features of this woman -we can presume her name is Kathleen- she begins to represent every woman (including the photographer herself) that has lived or been part of this environment she is framed within. The use of shadow to shroud features, obscure limbs or make the entirety of the body difficult to see is a technique employed frequently throughout Sassen’s images in this exhibition, and it is this technique that also correlates to Aaron Schumans concept for this exhibition most plainly.
The exhibition title Other I is philosophical in its premise; this exhibition attempts to deal with such philosophical problems as the Other and the Self. Without launching into a vast project on Hegel’s philosophy - not to mention Levinas, Said, Sartre and the many more who have explored this subject - it would be hard to interrogate this exhibition from the philosophical standpoint it proposes. However to take Schumans concept more literally, and to look at the work of Sassen in this simplified context, would provide an interesting entry into her work and begin to move beyond the colour and form that so dominates her images. It is precisely Sassen’s history in Kenya that makes this work autobiographical (concerned with the I). However it is also deeply aware of the wider perception of Africa in the West, a perception that is understood through media dominated imagery that drives a wedge between our own society and way of life, and African cultures and custom - a wedge that has resulted in Africa and its cultures regularly being perceived as the Other.
Contrastingly WassinkLundgren’s work Tokyo Tokyo appears to show a much more individual interpretation of the Self and Other. The diptych images of Tokyo streets show WassinkLundgrens own attempt to acclimatise to a new environment - the restlessness of the imagery reflects their Otherness in an area that they are unfamiliar with, forming a well observed contrast with Sassen’s relaxed portraiture.
An exhibition with such a heavily philosophical concept will always implore dense readings and blunt criticism. It is not that this exhibition theorizes above its weight, it is merely employing well-known philosophical ideas to provide an alternate entry into a photographers work. Photography transcends many discourses - advertising, family albums, Art, journalism, fashion etc. There is no reason why it is to shy away from ideas rooted in philosophy; to widen the breadth of the medium once more can only ever be a good thing for photography.
Other I is on at the Hotshoe gallery, London, until 27th November, 2011.
~Christopher Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org)