There are two terms that seem to simultaneously bore and frustrate many people now days. That would be “conceptual” and “modern art”. They’re words that bring to mind the stereotypical artist obsessed with themselves and finding meaning in meaningless things. Many people may consider Olivier De Sagazan one of those artists – But nonetheless I still want to take a look at him today.
Now while I agree that there’s swathes of contemporary art that I don’t understand, that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It’s just expression, i’m glad someone sees the world differently to how I do. I would rather that artist had the chance to express that then just ignore it completely. Doing that would be like denying the presence of the sun, ignoring a fundamental part of our existence. Even now though I can feel myself taking about this kind of thing and feeling pretentious. Because the ironic thing is that this is just my opinion, my own paradigm and anyone else could disagree with it. I guess my overall point is just this – surrealism is something that’s conceptual, it’s weird and sometimes it can seem pointless. The same can be said for a lot of contemporary art (which is a broad way of putting it I know.) That doesn’t mean that we should just ignore it. If you were to walk through the Tate modern, Mario Maurona or the Saatchi – and hate every single piece of artwork in there then the trip would still be worth while simply because you’d have experienced that art. You’d probably be better equipped to know what you like in art, and what you don’t like. My first experience with Sagazan was the same as this.
Olivier De Sagazan was born in the Congo but is French by nationality. Studying and actively painting for 20 years he was constantly influenced by the power of sculpture. He claims to have also been influenced by the Nkondi (otherwise known as fetish sculptures) an African sculpture tradition that portrays small figures in acts of rebirth, decay and fertility. The first time I saw him in a video on YouTube though, he was doing something quite different. Sagazan says that after 20 years of painting he felt trapped in his own way of seeing things, believing instead that an audience should be made to see ‘further’ than what they usually do – simply by demonstrating a different perceptive on stage or in art. Then one day he became so frustrated that, just for the hell of it, he smeared all his paints, clay and materials on his body to physically embrace his art in an attempt to feel some kind of inspiration. The result was horrifying, but ultimately changed the way Sagazan saw his art – claiming that it was “more interesting than anything i’d done before”.
And this is essentially what Sagazan does. He begins most pieces (as a performance artist) in a clean, ‘human’ state. He then proceeds to cover himself in clay, materials, paints, twigs, clumps of hair – anything he has to hand and blindly transforms himself into a monstrous image of distortion. Sagazan claims that by confronting an audience with these terrible images makes them see something they wouldn’t everyday, changing their perspective and giving them a fresh model of perception – even if they don;t like it. And in a way I suppose this echoes what I was saying about modern art. We all have points of views and an infinite number of ways to see existence, and that’s what art can represent – even if other people hate it. He will often moan or whisper during his performances, parodying situations of everyday life but in a sinister setting. Despite this Sagazan maintains that his work is not done out of morbid fascination but rather a celebration of life, he says that by appreciating “the singularity of every moment” one can truly appreciate the complexity of the world we live in.
In a physical sense, his art seems truly surreal. We’re presented with this trans-formative process which appears akin to the deconstruction of humanity to base urges. In some pieces he wears a suit at the start, and as he begins to water down clay and cover his face in it he stains the whole environment, making anything he was feel like a parody of this new image an audience holds on to. He’ll often paint small markings, eyes, lips in the way of crude lines. Some aspects of his design are almost child-like ad that’s quite frightening to me. In another performance he transforms himself into a female figure and makes a regnant belly, carrying it around in an agonising movement. It’s weird because this is such a natural process and yet in this context it feels harrowing, especially when he tears through the belly with red paint and constructs a baby from the clay – tearing it out of his artificial womb. The look of twisted joy on his face could be one in appreciation of this process, but I like it more because it feels dark to me. Like a desperate clinging to love despite all else -but that’s juts what I thought. In fact many of his pieces rely of physical deliberation, and so they feel quite primal. In another piece, Sagazan begins to lodge branches into the mask of hardened clay that surrounds his head. It changes the shape of his skin and he appears deformed, or maybe just different. His art is formed from base ingredients like wood and clay and so feels like a primal, abhorrent beauty. His inexplicable mutterings also add to the overall sense of ritualism. There’s no doubt that his pieces are trans-formative, he undergoes a process of both deconstruction and reconstruction.
Don’t get me wrong though. When I first saw one of his pieces I wasn’t impressed or enthralled. I carried on watching something else and quickly forgot about Sagazan. However his work came up a few times and the more I watched his surreal transformations, reflecting those singular moments of human experience in bizarre scenes of primal disturbance – and all of a sudden I liked it. The image of his masks, those clay faces changing and twisting over him. I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be a reflection or a telescopic image but I suddenly liked it. There’s no other reason than that. And really that’s what reminded me of surrealism in this sense. In a way, much of conceptual art these days owes a certain debt to the original Dada artists – who also provided art that was based in a simple relationship with the audience, where a new point of view was demonstrated – a new way for the audience to see their own lives, to see the world.
You can see much of Sagazan’s work in online videos but if you ever get the chance to go to one of his exhibitions do – I never have and it’s something I so want to experience. It’s not up to me to tell you what you should and should like in art, not even in surrealism. That would defeat the point. All I would say is go and look at everything, you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to do anything. The point is that experience gives us both knowledge and development – it gives understanding sometimes and other times it just gives us nothing. The point is we get the experience and we can do with that what we wish. That’s true power, and I think that’s true living.