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Olivier de Sagazan

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For over two decades the Congo-born French-based artist Olivier de Sagazan has “developed a hybrid practice that integrates painting, photography, sculpture, and performance,” explains his website. “In his existential performative series Transfiguration, which he began in 2001, de Sagazan builds layers of clay and paint onto his own face and body to transform, disfigure and take apart his own figure, revealing an animalistic human who is seeking to break away from the physical world. At once disquieting and deeply moving, this new body of work collapses the boundaries between the physical, intellectual, spiritual and animalistic senses.”

The “Transfiguration” video itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before: It is primitive, dark, intense, and disturbing. “This is pretty much my two-year-old eating yogurt,” joked one Metafilter commenter, putting the clay and paint meld into humorous perspective. “In my Transfiguration performance, where I transform my face,” revealed de Sagazan in an interview with Loving Mixed Media, “my purpose is to descend into the depths of my being, to bring out what is buried deep inside me. The masks or images that emerge are not merely seen, but felt in a visceral way, and so they create emotion.”

While a variety of press clippings and interviews are available on the artist’s website, little exists in English, leaving much to the imagination for non-French speaking onlookers in terms of intent and motivation. Yet each individual medium seems to bear its own direction while simultaneously conforming to a broader ideal. Taking inspiration from Rembrandt and Francis Bacon, his paintings replicate the grotesque nature of his performance work, vividly speaking to de Sagazan’s ability to manipulate his materials. His sculptures are fitting for this Halloween season, invoking hellish images while simultaneously breathing humanity (and reminding me of Adam Jones’ groundbreaking music videos for Tool). “My work is essentially a hymn to life,” he said to LMM. “[A]n attempt to understand what it means to be alive.”

But the way in which de Sagazan speaks with his performance work is unlike his use of traditional mediums. A rough translation of his 1994 piece “Bandages” reflects his longstanding relationship with the urge to reveal the human within, “Arrive the bandaged face, undo slowly his mask / Open its veins and mark with his blood: ‘This is my body, this is art.’” “I dreamed of being a dancer,” he continued with LMM, “using my own body as an essential element to express my anguish and my fascination with being alive. My performances are another way of channeling this urge. My main inspiration is in looking at nature with the eyes of the biologist I was and the philosopher I am trying to be.”

I don’t have a particularly well-grounded position to place Olivier de Sagazan’s work within the broader artistic landscape. I’m ill-informed when it comes to modern art, let alone the performance niche, and am oblivious as to whether his work is either derivative or groundbreaking within the field. To pretend to know is beyond me. But when I watch him I am moved, my pulse increases, and I’m left in a state of wonder, curious about what it is I’ve just seen and what it might be saying. “We must remain alert and lucid, aware of this amazing thing happening to us.” Transfiguration is just that: a vibrant announcement, awakening dulled emotions and desensitized nerves.