Translating History

Translating History

Unidentified figures embrace within baroque interiors. Anonymous arms encircle gleaming golden columns. Dutch artist Viviane Sassen’s (b. 1972) Venus & Mercury at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, is inspired by accounts of the French royal court in the 17th and 18th centuries. The images, which originated in Versailles, transpose intriguing historical stories into the 21st century – juxtaposing period architecture with contemporary styling. The narratives hold up a mirror to the human condition, looking at themes of eroticism, power, intrigue, illness, decay and death.

A guillotine is reinterpreted as a grand piano. Queen Marie-Antoinette’s secret love letters are painted with flaming colours. In Sassen’s hands, past narratives are transformed and brought to life. Venus & Mercury takes over the full breadth of Huis Marseille, including the outdoor gardens. Each room tells a different story – from medical histories to prophecies and romantic affairs. The exhibition encompasses paint, collage, posters and free-standing sculptures – expanding the definition of photography. A hypnotic video installation is voiced by actress Tilda Swinton.

Sassen’s signature use of abstraction, colour and performance runs throughout the show. Faces are obscured and limbs disconnected – asking questions about identity and space. Bright reds, golds and blues create bold contrasts whilst referencing royalty. A variety of textures come together: smooth marble statues and are overlaid with washes of ink and knotted ropes. Ornately sculpted furniture is obscured by layers of ruby paint.

The photographer returns to the theme of youth in this series. Sassen revisited her own childhood in in East Africa in Parasomnia (2007-2011) and Flamboya (2004-2008). Venus & Mercury features teenagers from the nearby town of Versailles. The three young women – Charline, Blanche and Leila – are photographed interacting with the 17th century architecture. The results are visually intriguing: denim jackets and modern fashion contrasts with antique upholstery. These works explore notions of the female gaze – a concept which Sassen explores in well-known images of her muse, Roxane Danset.

The exhibition runs 14 March – 31 May. Find out more here.

Lead image: Blanche & Leila, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
1. Untitled #052 from the series Roxane II (right piece), 2017
2. Untitled #051 from the series Roxane II (left piece), 2017