The Ritualistic Art of Olivier de Sagazan

Exploring the Metamorphosis in Olivier de Sagazan’s Performances

Olivier de Sagazan is a French artist born in Brazzaville, Congo. For more than 20 years, he has developed a hybrid practice that integrates painting, photography, sculpture, and performance. His most famous performance, “Transfiguration,” was created in 1998 and is continuously evolving. In this performance, which features ritualistic elements, the protagonist’s identity is composed and decomposed through multiple clay masks that the artist models and flakes off his own face. “Transfiguration” has been performed over 300 times in 25 countries, offering a unique spectacle to audiences worldwide. During the performance, de Sagazan completely covers his head with clay and gradually enters a form of trance, sometimes vociferating, until his identity disappears into a hybrid and metamorphic figure that is both human and animal. This figure appears as a soul trapped in various dimensions, seeking to understand its own identity and attain stability.

De Sagazan’s ability to represent the sublimation of emotions and personify himself in front of the audience creates what can appear as a monstrous or alien entity. His performance highlights the unique qualities of life and challenges the viewer’s conscience. The artist’s transformation evokes primordial faces devoid of pain or sadness, reminiscent of creatures frozen for eternity. As a performer, Olivier de Sagazan has graced the international stage, performing at Fabbricaeuropa in Florence, David Lynch’s club Silencio in France, the C.I.A. in Hong Kong, the Venice International Performance Art Week, Kontrastmoment in Munich, the Fringe Festival in Macao, as well as in Poland, Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Korea, India, and more.

Interview with Olivier de Sagazan in French
Olivier de Sagazan’s official site, Facebook, Instagram & Youtube

Can you share your early experiences in the field of art? Who are some of your major artistic influences, and how have they impacted your work? What initially attracted you to art and performance as a means of expression? What were the main challenges you faced at the beginning of your career?

I have always been fascinated by organic life, and as a result, I began by studying biology. But the question of the sensitive subject and subjectivity escapes science by definition, which is why I turned to philosophy and artistic creation. For me, painters like Rembrandt or Francis Bacon, whom I adore, are also a form of biologists who study life in their own way. Painting, for me, is an attempt to project oneself into the material of the canvas to try to give it a form of autonomy and presence; in this way, a work of art is akin to a living being in that we feel in it a human presence capable of moving us.

Unfortunately, bringing a painting or sculpture to life is immensely difficult. This is why one day, as I struggled for weeks to complete a sculpture, I had the strange idea of entering the material of my sculpture, that is, to over-mold my body with clay, because I thought: at least this way, I would be sure there would be life inside my work. By chance, I had the idea to set up a camera, and the film I saw afterward was an incredible shock: the masks that appeared, although made blindly, were all incredibly powerful! This was the discovery of this performance: Transfiguration, which I have performed over 300 times since 1998.”

The residual image of the action evokes the paintings of Francis Bacon, the body art interventions of Günter Brus, and the Balinese possession rites, all compressed into a single event where painting, sculpture, and theatre coexist.

Olivier de Sagazan interview dos
© Olivier de Sagazan

How did you develop your distinctive practice that combines painting, sculpture, and performance? What are the biggest challenges you encounter as an artist working across these multiple disciplines?

Painting, sculpting, and dancing are actions, each with its unique effectiveness. The painter dances in front of their canvas, and their movements mark the canvas. When sculpting, it’s somewhat similar, but one embraces their medium in three dimensions. In dance, our body becomes the canvas or the sculpture, and we draw in space. With this performance, Transfiguration, I paint and sculpt my body, and in doing so, the painter becomes a dancer

Can you describe your creative process when developing a new project or performance? How do you decide which artistic medium to use for a particular concept or message?

After imagining this work of overmolding my body with clay, the idea was to reproduce this on other people and thus create living paintings. I remain fundamentally a painter, meaning that above all, I seek powerful images. All my performances go in this direction: I start from a central question that I then re-examine from different angles with the materials that come to mind.

How has moving from Congo to France influenced your artistic perspective and creative process? What aspects of your background have shaped your identity in your artworks?

“My whole life is an inquiry into the question of our presence in the world. I seek to understand what it means to ‘exist,’ what separates us from the world, and how we are connected to it. For this, I am fascinated by the first arts, because in those times, art and life were not separated, and there was probably no word for art. In Congo, a sculptor creating a Teke sculpture places pieces of the deceased in the belly of the sculpture. This gesture engages the life of the group and that of the deceased in an otherworldly realm. I paint so that my images transform me and also affect the minds of others.”

Olivier de Sagazan’s “Transfiguration” is also featured in Samsara, a film by Ron Fricke, and appears in Mylène Farmer’s music video for “À l’ombre.”

Your performances often involve intense physical transformations. What motivates you to explore themes of metamorphosis and identity in such a visceral way?

Our faces are already masks, and the trivialization of everyday life means that we barely consider them, except as potential attractors in our social lives. In short, masking the face is, paradoxically, an attempt to pierce through our masks and to try to enter the endless world that is the human psyche. Transfiguration is a kind of odyssey within oneself, aiming to bring to the surface of the body an unknown world that nevertheless inhabits us and makes us move.

One might judge the images I produce as simply monstrous, but they are a way for me to reconsider the strangeness of our ‘being’ in the world.

Reflecting on your career, how has your artistic practice evolved over time? Were there specific turning points or experiences that significantly shaped your current approach? Is there a particular piece or performance that stands out as especially significant to you, in terms of personal growth?

Transfiguration is my inaugural performance. It is the matrix that has spawned my other shows. Ultimately, I always work on disfiguration because, for me, distorting reality is a way to reconsider it with fresh eyes. I believe we all live in a kind of collective hallucination; to the point that we have forgotten we exist, except when suddenly we lose someone close to us or fall in love. Disfiguration produces states of instability that trigger metaphysical awareness.

You have collaborated with many artists from diverse disciplines and performed at prestigious international venues. How have these collaborations influenced your creative process and the final artwork? How does performing on a global stage impact the meaning and message of your work?

The other is a soul complement. Working with someone else is exciting because we then intimately share the mechanisms that drive our artistic gestures. These exchanges give rise to hybrid creations that only collaboration can bring to life.

In today’s world, what do you see as the role of the artist? Your performances often push boundaries and can be provocative. Is the aim to challenge, comfort, or something else entirely? How do you approach audience interaction, and what kind of response do you hope to evoke?

Yes, once again, I think we spend most of our time sleeping because our brain is in instinctive mechanical mode. We need disruptive events to wake us up, and that’s the function of art.

Can you share a particularly memorable experience from one of your international performances?

“I am on stage performing my piece ‘Transfiguration.’ I have about 5 kg of clay on my face and skull, I can’t see anything anymore and my ears are blocked. I don’t move, I wait, I hear nothing, and suddenly I think: “if it turns out, all the spectators have left and I’m alone on stage” Then another anxiety grips me:and if it turns out since my birth, I’m alone on stage and I imagined everything, the world only exists in my head”

“if it turns out, all the spectators have left and I’m alone on stage”, then again I worry: “and if it turns out since my birth, I’m alone on stage and I imagined everything, the world only exists in my head”.

Photos and Images courtesy of Olivier De Sagazan

Last Updated on June 30, 2024 by retrofuturista

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