Huis Marseille’s Nanda van den Berg, on Viviane Sassen’s Venus & Mercury

You were the first museum to give Viviane’s fashion work a comprehensive show, in 2012. When did you first encounter Viviane’s work and why did you decide to do her first show with you on her fashion photography.

I just started working at Huis Marseille (in 2011) and visited Paris Photo and Viviane’s photography was everywhere on their banners. I immediately felt it was an obvious choice for Huis Marseille to start working with Viviane, an important Dutch photographer whose subject matter – a lot of it focused on Africa – was in line with one of the main focus points in the Huis Marseille collection and exhibition programme (South-Africa). Moreover she was represented by Stevenson, a gallery Huis Marseille had a good working relation with. So the previous director (Els Barents) agreed that I would investigate the possibilities with Viviane. Once Viviane and I met in her studio, we referred to a previous meeting, when I had interviewed her for a Dutch fashion anthology. Then she said pensively: ‘Perhaps it is time to do something with my fashion photography’ and I immediately knew that was it. It was a brilliant idea and it had not been done before. Yet her fashion photography was her so called ‘laboratory’ where a lot of her iconography originated. This became the seminal exhibition ‘In and Out of Fashion’.

Of course you have kept in touch with Viviane in the interim and have done many successful shows with other artists in the recent years. You seem to like working in a developmental style with an artist, building an exhibition together in a truly collaborative style. So, I’m curious, last year when you visited the installation in Versailles, what did you think about this new work emerging at this point of Viviane’s career.

It is definitely an important (founding) aspect of how De Pont Museum and Huis Marseille work (the two museums are related): to work within the field of contemporary art / photography and to work with living artists with whom the museum builds a relationship. Once you have done a show with an artist, works by that artist also end up in the collection, and once you start collecting an artist, you build further on that and when there is a new direction in the work of the artist, you follow up on that. Either with collecting or by doing a new show together. It had been already 8 years since ‘In and Out of Fashion’ – that is a good interval to try and do a new show again. I met Viviane during dinner in Paris (during Paris Photo, again!) and she showed me what she was working on on her phone: it was the Versailles work. And I immediately knew that was it! (again): it was obvious to me that she had taken yet a new great and inspiring and daring direction within her continuous renewal as an artist, and I thought this would be perfect for Huis Marseille. Also perfect because both venues – Huis Marseille and Versailles – are historical venues, adding an extra layer of ‘shared history’. So we agreed to do a new show at Huis Marseille there and then. It was months later that I visited the actual show at Versailles in July, and it was mesmerising of course. But we already agreed to do it months before that, on the basis of a few works on her phone, trust and intuition.

Can you draw together a few threads for us that really excited and compelled you to work on installing it at Huis Marseille only a few months after.

This was exciting because the show that was originally conceived for Grand Trianon in Versailles was going to be expanded and adapted, ‘tailor made’ for the galleries at Huis Marseille. Viviane added more stories to the original five to match the amount of rooms at Huis Marseille. It is so connected to the museum and its history. At my request, she even wove in two threads related to the book we published last year (A House Named Marseille) about the history of the people who lived in these two houses since the seventeenth century. I fully trusted Viviane and Hugo to come up with the best curation for Huis Marseille, and they did. What is exciting to me is that Viviane always tries out new directions in her art, she is not afraid of experiment, and ‘Venus & Mercury’ shows a lot of new techniques and adventures that premiered at Huis Marseille, like the neon.

Viviane’s video installation work is (I think) really powerful within a gallery or museum setting. Working with Hugo (her husband) to create very intimate viewing settings. I cried when I saw this video in Versailles. We know that Viviane’s work is totemic but what are your thoughts about the video work she does - why do you think it has this visceral quality.

I see the video installation as some kind of ‘birth’, the stream of images is being birthed from out of the corner of the installation and pours out sideways to both sides. And the association with the uterus (as in being representative of Viviane’s most personal inner thoughts, wishes, associations, longings) makes it so strong for me. Here is a kind of metaphor for her unending generosity and the creativity that she kind of ‘anoints’ to the images she creates. It is amazing to see images of statues that – presented by Viviane – actually makes you associate with lust, love, sex, debauchery etc. I mean: who else can make an exciting, sexually laden photograph of a statue. Only Viviane can, it is her eye. It is her intuition, her fearlessness, her unfailing eye that makes her work so special. And by giving so much (through this stream of images in the installation for example), always so much, so generous, I think we are truly moved. At least you and I are.

I know you couldn’t open because of COVID-19 and I have heard stories about galleries that on opening again have people wandering around in a daze, absorbing the experience. Seeing as the work hung silently in the museum for almost 3 months - how was the re-opening?

It was installed in March, and during March and April the museum was closed. In May, Viviane invited guests, friends and family on a very personal basis. She was present herself and gave tours to one or two people at the time. And it was great to see her so happy by being able to show the work to the people who are the closest to her. Then June was very odd, as we were allowed to reopen for the public, but all restrictions were really off-putting, the atmosphere was strange, but we were very lucky to have such a great new show, because people put up with all rules and restrictions just to come and see it. July was the best month (when the obligation to make a reservation was lifted by the government, thank God!) Now – because of the heatwave and holidays – it’s quiet in the museum again. So it is different than before, because with Viviane you expect crowded rooms, the kind of rooms that are now forbidden. And yeah, I guess Viviane’s ‘Venus & Mercury’ will forever be anchored in the history of Huis Marseille because of Covid. We couldn’t have wished for a better show to share these times with.

There are only a few weeks left and then quickly the show will be replaced. What particular work or works will stay in your mind and how will you remember this time do you think.

There is this Covid-bond that will never go away (see what I wrote above). ‘Venus and Mercury’ will be part of Huis Marseille’s history forever. We acquired works from the show for the collection – including the video installation – and seeing these again will always bring back these times. It is of course a pity that we cannot recreate the whole exhibition later, as so many people were unable to see it due to Corona... this is a great pity. But in any case Huis Marseille will have the opportunity to show a few pieces from the show (like the installation) in a smaller incarnation in the future.