In celebration of Sassen’s nomination, the gallery asked three people from completely different disciplines – an astronomer, a psychoanalyst and the curator of photography at Tate Modern – to speak about Sassen’s shadows in relation to shadows in their fields of expertise. 

Shadows are an inherent part of both Sassen’s personal work and of her fashion work. In a short introduction to the three talks, Sassen explains how shadows have impacted her life from very early on: “From a very young age I’ve been confronted with death. When I was very young I lived in Kenya, and I vividly remember things like a dog dying on the side of the street, or the goat carcasses hanging in the marketplace, covered with flies. My father worked at the local village hospital so there was always talk of people who were ill and people who had died.”

Reflecting on Sassen’s Umbra, David Morgan, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, spoke about our obsession with an idealised self image, whereas Marek Kukula, astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, highlighted the importance of light in the presence of darkness in the discovery of new galaxies, and Simon Baker, the Curator of Photography at Tate Modern, spoke about capturing everyday things in a very unusual way.

It was incredible to see Sassen’s work — which is admired by many students at Central Saint Martins — analysed from these completely different points of view, and to see it in the context of the world (or in this case, even universe) at large. It’s something we forget to do in fashion and art sometimes and is, frankly speaking, enlightening and refreshing.

Read and learn.

Simon Baker, Curator of Photography at Tate Modern

“We all know what the world looks like, but photography helps us to see it differently, to see it as another person sees it.”

The way in which I thought I’d approach the shadow is through the history of photography, because the shadow has been and remains fundamentally important for the way photography works. In the 1840s, Henry Fox Talbot described the art of photography as the “art of capturing the shadow”, and Moholy-Nagy later said that photography “allows us to see light and shadow in a way that has never happened before”. And this is vital. He doesn’t say that if you understand light and shadow you’ll understand photography, he says that if you understand photography you’ll understand light and shadow.

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This photo is a Brassaï, a joke one, a silly face made of a shadow. But this idea of the shadow and the everyday is very important for the ability of the world to be rendered unlike itself, which we call “de-familiarisation”. We all know what the world looks like, but photography helps us to see it differently, to see it as another person sees it. In Viviane’s work, we see the world in a way that is extreme and that is very unusual, through things that are very very simple, and very very everyday.

The other thing I want to say about light and shadow is to do with this idea of the subjective, emotional sense of the shadow. Daido Moriyama made the book Light and Shadow in the 1980s, immediately following a quite severe personal crisis where he decided to stop making photographs. And the way that he got back to photographing was to go back to this very basic dialog with light and shadow – looking at the world anew. Moriyama’s case, in a way, has really strong parallels with some of the work Viviane has made, really looking at very ordinary, very overlooked fragments of the world around him, and finding the ability to transform that into something meaningful, into an image which is poetic and beautiful. Using the shadow to create form, but also using it to be expressive.

David Morgan, Psychotherapist and Psychoanalyst

“Your shadow is out there in other people.”

People lose contact with their inner self, and they fill their empty place by creating an idealised self – an image of the person we want the world to see when they look at us. The heavier the reliance on our idealised self, the more out of touch we become with our inner self.

It takes energy to maintain an idealised image. If we allowed ourselves to experience a full range of feelings, we would have to adjust our idealised image to reality rather than to the ideal. So we choose not to feel those feelings that threaten, challenge or undermine our idealised image of self.

A lot of the patients I’ve seen, try to deal with these frightening sorts of experiences by evacuating them into other people. Putting their shadow, aspects of themselves they don’t like, into others.

For example, if I cannot accept that I am jealous of other people, which I still am, even at my age, and have competitive feelings towards them, I might project those feelings onto others by seeing them as jealous and competitive, and myself as the object of their jealousy. Indeed, I might go around and try to provoke envy and jealousy in other people.

It’s easier for some people to provoke anger in another person rather than knowing that they carry anger inside themselves. The remedy, as always, is to bring the focus back to one’s self. The first step back on the road to self is to know how long you have denied your true self by evacuating it into others – your shadow is out there in other people. So the people you find most annoying usually carry aspects of one’s self.

The much calmer way of dealing with these ‘less than perfect’ feelings, is to cast them into our internal darkness. There they continue to live and grow in the shadow self; the self we attempt to deny.

Most of us form idealised selves to cope with overwhelming and conflictual pain, or out of control feelings, or feelings that conflict with our image of ourselves. I think we all seek to get rid of the dark sides of ourselves: they’re disturbing. And along the way we can use a shadow: by evacuating these disturbing things into other people, we try and live an idealised life.

I would say that the work I’ve seen is a struggle to bring the light and the dark together – to bring life and death together. A struggle to integrate the thing we’re all most frightened of: that life is temporary. To live life at a deep, meaningful level, I think one has to try and integrate life and death together.

Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich

“A shadow is the absence of light in the presence of light. You can have darkness without light, but you can’t have a shadow without light.”

Astronomers like to think we’re all about light. We’re about detecting light: tiny amounts of light that travel across enormous distances; the light is very precious to us. But the more I thought about this, the more I realised that actually, shadows are everywhere in astronomy. And in fact, I have now decided that astronomy is as much about shadow as it is about light.

As astronomers we do most of our work at night. What is night, except the time when we’re in the shadow of the earth? We can’t do our work unless we’re shadowed.

But of course a shadow is not the same as darkness – a shadow is the absence of light in the presence of light. You can have darkness without light, but you can’t have a shadow without light.

The familiar faces of the moon actually are just shadows. The moon is round; it is being lit up by the sun, and as it moves around the earth, we see different fractions of the surface lit up.

When Venus is passing in front of the sun, we are in Venus’s shadow – it is blocking lots of the light. And this is actually profoundly important to us now, because when we look at stars other than the sun we like to know if they have planets hanging around them, too. Unfortunately, unlike the sun, they don’t have little disks, they’re just dazzling points of light, and how do you see the smaller point of light next to a tiny point of light like that? Well, we can’t. We can, however, see their shadows.

This is how we found hundreds of planets around stars – not by seeing them, but by seeing their shadows. They only block a fraction of a total percentage of the light of the star, but we can detect that and that tells us a new world is there, one that we could never otherwise have seen. Now Simon talked about photography capturing shadows. Photography and astronomy have been deeply intertwined right from the beginning, you can’t separate photography and astronomy. Many of the early photographers were astronomers. And astronomy has been completely transformed by the ability to capture light and shadow.

In this picture taken by Hubble Space Telescope, you can see many many galaxies, each of them containing literally billions of galaxies. But in the last couple of decades we’ve realised that the stuff we can see — the stuff that gives off and absorbs and reflects light — is only a tiny fraction of what’s actually there. In 1998 we discovered that the matter AND the dark matter were not all that there was. That, in fact, 75% of the universe is made up of something else that is invisible, which is called dark energy. Now this is like a shadowed universe: the dark matter and the dark energy are 95% of everything there is, and we didn’t know about them until 1998. Although we can’t feel them, they are here in the room with us now. And on the larger scale the universe is utterly shaped by this matter, and the stuff that makes up us, the sun, and the planets, is here only because of the way the other stuff is disposed. So this shadow universe has shaped us right from the beginning, and we’ve only just realised that this exists.

The Hobble Space Telescope pointed at the same patch of sky for one million seconds to take a picture. This is a one million second exposure. That’s about a week and a half, just gathering of light. This is what it saw.

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Each of the blotches and dots in this image is a galaxy made of billions of stars. And I think this picture does really show the power of photography. This is not what it’s representing – it is not a flat plane. It is a tunnel into the sky, because the smaller dots are galaxies which are further away. And this is looking down about nine billion lightyears of space and nine billion years of time. So what photography does, which I think is really fascinating, is it doesn’t just capture objects in space, it captures moments in time. And this is not just a million seconds of time captured: it’s nine billion years of time. So the light from here set out much later than the light from some of these more distant objects.

What about shadows? Well, look at the picture, we look at the light, but of course most of the picture is dark. And the fact that the sky at night is dark between the stars, between the galaxies, even after Hubble had stared at it for a week and a half, tells us that the universe hasn’t been around forever, because it hasn’t had time for light to fill it up. And that’s why that shadow between the galaxies tells us something profound about ourselves and about our own origins.

Viviane Sassen

For me, photography is a way to deal with my fears. When I was nineteen I had an awful experience. I became very ill and was hospitalised while I was in India. I really became mad at some point, and I was absolutely positive that I was going to die there on that hill in the middle of nowhere. And I had these hallucinations of me in a coffin, being dragged up the mountain by some people. It was absolutely traumatic. And when I was twenty-two my father died. He ended his own life. He was very depressed because he had a tumour in his head. Not a malignant one, but because it was in the middle of his head, he couldn’t function anymore after the operation.

Back then, for some time, I couldn’t photograph. I couldn’t take any pictures because it was a very traumatic experience to lose him. I got this kind of anxiety disorder as well, and it was pretty rough. I couldn’t pick up my camera, but then at one point I thought “I’d better take really bad pictures than no pictures at all”. So at that point I started doing a series about death.

“People like artists to be emotional people, but they never like to have to talk about the emotional content of art.”

SIMON: I do think that the emotional side of things is really interesting. As a museum professional, I can say it’s something that most people in my field feel really uncomfortable with. People like artists to be emotional people, but they never like to have to talk about the emotional content of art. It seems to me that we are not used to talking about art that’s formally sophisticated in emotional terms. We’re used to dividing it up into Tracey Emin on the one hand and Don Judd on the other hand: something that’s very formal and precise and something that’s very emotionally engaged. And actually, when the two intersect, then it starts to become fascinating. The stories you tell and the way you describe the idea of the shadow is something that I think is very unusual, because it sits at that intersection.

PSYCHOANALYST: I’m envious of artists. They have the capacity to symbolise. You went through a period where you thought “I can’t create” because of your father’s death. Death and creation – they are so close together. But then your creativity began again, you began to take pictures, even though they weren’t very good, you began to come alive again. Once you put your shadow into something symbolic, you’re coming alive again. You begin to discover your creativity. To create something out of the anxieties of life and death – without going mad, without becoming perverse, or depressed – is a major achievement. Especially when you’ve been exposed to things so early, like you have. So that’s the profundity of art and photography: the capacity to symbolise what otherwise can come out as a form of anxiety or something very concrete. And when it comes to the shadow, we’re all talking about the same thing, really.

VIVIANE: Yeah, it completely resonates with everything I do – but I pick up on all these things on a very intuitive level. And this existential fear, I mean, we’re so tiny… There’s a certain beauty in that at the same time.

ASTRONOMER: I think it’s good to be able to admit that as well. You know, astronomers are the same as art curators – we don’t talk about the way this stuff makes us feel. Here I can say the Hubble makes me think of oblivion and my insignificance. I’d never say this at a scientific conference… But I think it is useful to talk about those dimensions – why else are we exploring the universe if it’s not to understand ourselves? And, professionally, science stops short at that, because that’s not what it’s there to do. But art can help us to take that last step.

Words by Julia van IJken

Photography courtesy of Viviane Sassen

Special thanks to The Photographers Gallery

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