Olivier de Sagazan and the dancing self

(All sculptures, paintings and photographs by Olivier de Sagazin)

For Genouni …

All pictorial or plastic work is useless: let it then be a monstrosity that frightens servile minds, and not sweetening to decorate the refectories of animals in human costume, illustrating the sad fable of mankind.

Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918 

If our life lacks a constant magic it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in consideration of their imagined form and meaning, instead of being impelled by their force.

Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

The body is the Figure, or rather the material of the Figure. Above all the material of the Figure is not to be confused with the material structure in space which is separate from this. The body is a Figure, not structure. Conversely, the Figure being a body, is not a face and does not even have a face. It has a head, because the head is an integral part of the body. It can even be reduced to its head. … There is a big difference between the two. For the face is a structured spatial organization which covers the head, while the head is an adjunct of the body, even though it is its top. It is not that it lacks a spirit, but it is a spirit which is body, corporeal and vital breath, an animal spirit; it is the animal spirit of man: a pig-spirit, a buffalo-spirit, a dog-spirit, a bat-spirit… This means … unmaking the face, rediscovering or pulling up the head beneath the face.

Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation

Painting and art in general appear to me as an instrument of war, a Trojan horse.  Artists are viruses.  I want to colonise consciousnesses with images, disturbing and fantastic, to try to re-make the face an enigma.  I am a stranger to myself!  I am at the service of my interior, cellular milieu (Claude Bernard) and not the opposite.  One must scream it, draw it without end.  Disfiguration is the art of deregulation, the skewed path, the search for new forms.    

Olivier de Sagazan

Domination seeps deeply into a social fabric.  It is in no way the privilege of autocratic and authoritarian States.  If States are agents of domination, they are so because they are able to capture, appropriate (and render possible and reinforce) the many, overlapping relations of power that so commonly characterise societies.

States and their parallel economies demand transparency in social relations.  That is, State power presupposes the ability of the State to “read” social relations.  Opacity at any level of the latter is an impediment to ruling, permitting as it does dissimulation, stealth, flight and resistance.  If no State is ever completely able to “illuminate” society, it must nevertheless strive towards such a goal against the flows and currents of social life that would place social actors beyond its control; something that is equally necessary for the economic management for social production and reproduction.

This picture of the State’s almost parasitical hold on society is however incomplete, if not deceptive.  The State does not stand above social relations as an external, almost foreign, agent, controlling and manipulating society like some master puppeteer (however much conceptions of political authority and political practice may suggest the contrary).  A State’s power permeates social relations, sinking deeply into them, thus creating the subjects-subjectivities and their corresponding relations that contribute to reproduce State power.  In an “ideal type” scenario of the capitalist State, subjects emphatically and enthusiastically identify as citizens, workers, consumers; all subjectivities that “free” human behaviour along certain paths, and constrain and prohibit others.  The extent to which different, dissident subjectivities are marginalised, silenced, repressed is the extent to which capitalism is a “system” of domination.

What thereby follows however is that we are the State, that we are the agents of the reproduction of our domination.

(Gloss: I say this not to blame anyone, nor to distribute responsibility for domination more evenly, in our societies (something which a slogan like “We are the 99%” can suggest).  To moralise is not my intention here, nor should a critique of the State and capitalism confine itself to demonstrating that they are unjust or evil – they are, but not by their own lights and how much “goodness” has not depended, depends, on “injustice” and “evil”.  Our criticism of capitalist society is that it radically represses, destroys, the joyful and beautiful possibilities of human creativity to repetitive and ever more debasing gestures of production and consumption; gestures of survival for the sake of survival that condemn the majority to slavery for the “comfortable” survival of the few.  Contemporary capitalist society is to be condemned for its profound ugliness: it produces ugly people productive and desirous of ugly things in an ugly world.  And if beauty has anything to tell us about what is good or true, then capitalism can also be said to be evil and false, but in the sense that it weakens or impairs the possibility of beautiful life.)

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings”, Gustav Landauer wrote a century ago.  And thus it cannot simply be smashed, like a thing; “we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another … We are the State, and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community and society of men.”

What is also fundamental in the understanding of our social roles and their constitution is that they are not constructed at the purely conscious level.  We are not merely the children of ideological manipulation, even if ideology plays a part in the making of pliable subjects.  We are more than conscious beings; our psycho-physical being is far more a creature of unconscious reflex and habit than self-conscious will.  And the creation of disciplined subjectivities, moulded in the social fabric colonised by State powers, occurs then at all of the multiple levels of our reality.  We are, as subjects, a kind of subjective and living geology of sedimented layers of social life.  The concern of the State and capital is thus to shape the different dimensions of subjectivity such that they become sufficiently coherent and docile to management and governance, the euphemisms that cover over interested and violent social reproduction.

There is no one ideal subject of capitalism, even if general, though changing, traits can be discerned.  As a necessarily hierarchical social system whose reproduction calls for the differentiated application of apparatuses of domination to different population groups (i.e., the domination and exploitation of some, the many, for the benefit of the few), divisions are introduced into the social body (colonisation is impossible without them): divisions of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and the like.  These divisions are fundamental to the domination of capitalist social relations, and therefore the identities that structure them must be fixed, stabilised, naturalised.  We are not born as any of our social roles or identities, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, we become them: we become worker, black, woman, heterosexual, muslim, etc.  And if again these roles/identities have conscious expression, they are created primordially at non-conscious, psychic-somatic levels.  And all of these are roles/identities of dependence, that is, they emerge within a political-economic-normative matrix that renders each dependent on the social body within which they are constructed.

If dissidence and rebellion are always present in the fissures and cracks of the processes of social reproduction, the success of the latter rests upon the marginalisation or co-optation of dissidence.  State-Capital can in no way permit a rapid overturning or general fluidity of roles/identities without undermining, destroying even, the conditions of domination which characterise them.  The enormous edifices of laws, of systems of surveillance and evaluation, of judgement and punishment, to assure that we keep to our assigned roles is testimony to the needs of capitalism.  The happy consumers of “developed” demand vast supplies of exploited labourers, with the intensity of the exploitation varying according to the domestic and global economic geographies of class, race, sex-gender, etc.

Rupture, sabotage, rebellion of dominant capitalist social relations thus requires, among other things, contesting the identities-subjectivites of capitalist subjects.  Such defiance calls for far more than ideological critique, for the reasons cited above (i.e. oppression cannot be conceived to function on a purely ideological plane).  And because such critique must challenge the unconscious psychological-physical constitution of each individual, it can only be in turn physical, in the broadest sense of the term, and “violent”.  It is an armed critique, so as to be able to shatter the layers of imprisoning armor that we each carry upon our bodies.

It is in this context that we celebrate the art of Olivier de Sagazan.  Painter, photographer, sculptor and performance artist, he has sought through his work, and most notably, through the work that he performs directly upon-with his body, to tear away our illusions of self, to unmask the folds of sedimented life that animate and confine us, to lead us to grasp that what we take ourselves to be is but an impoverished moment in what we can be.

Perhaps no greater illusion burdens us than that of being or desiring to be sovereign subjects, imagined paradigmatically today in the roles of citizen and consumer.  The latter as “free” serve to ideologically justify “liberal democracy” and “consumer-spectacle capitalism”.  And yet they are violent fictions; instead of being the ideal servants of freedom, they are rather masters of the domestication of impulses, desires, passions, actions, in sum, ways of life that are not reducible to labour and consumption.  De Sagazan’s art is an experiment-exercise in transgression, violently assaulting our sensory and cognitive habits with the aim of tearing us away from the fears and anxieties of “abnormality”, “madness”, to bring us to the thresholds of experience and thought that are potentially liberating.

To share then, words, paintings, photographs, sculptures, performances of Olivier de Sagazan …


Fortunately for life and the artist, there is mutation and transgression. … Violence is therefore a means to escape conditioning and the background noise of daily life.  Nothing is worse than habituation.  I have to strain against the reins to tear myself away from religious and biological prototypes, to stigmatise a heavy, oily and ballsy “survival machine” bound to an implacable determinism.

Interview Mouvement


Can you present your career to us briefly? 

After my MA in biology, I had the chance to go to Cameroon for two years. These years really saved me, allowing me to take a step back and return to my roots: Africa, where I was born. Just before I left, I discovered, by looking at a Rembrandt painting, another amazing way of questioning life. Coming back, I spent a year locked up working on a comic strip, Ipsul ou la rupture du cercle, and then I immersed myself in painting and sculpture. Performance was something I worked on later, as a realisation of the desire that I always felt while painting, to leave my body’s mark on the canvas. Then came the moment when I decided to go ‘underneath’ my painting. To become a living canvas. It’s this journey that inspired me to start performing, at first just in private, in my workshop, and then in public.

Would you say you enter into a trance-like state in your performances?

It’s a mix; there’s a madness which increases with pressure, but there’s always a sense of my conscience being in control. Two or three years ago, I punched something really hard during a performance and broke a few bones. It expressed a certain level of excitement, but I don’t know if it was a trance. Perhaps it was more of a fury to wanting to discover something about myself. I was bewitched by this existential question which pushed me to try and understand who I am, what my body is, etc. I told myself that I had to shake things up, make the machine, my body, talk at any cost.

You often say you aim to “disrupt the familiarity of life”, can you explain this?

Braque said that we must break the mould. Having studied biology, I understand to what extent we are controlled by our genes and all these urges which push us towards survival and the maintenance of our species. How do we avoid falling into the same behavioural pattern, to not keep painting the same thing? ‘Blind’ painting set something free within me. Before I was too involved in this idea of the artist who slaves away to make a pretty picture. But what counts isn’t beauty in the classical sense, but what we can call the question of a presence. Transfiguration is, in short, the transformation of the Holy Face into the ‘Meat head’, of the verb into the unspeakable.

Is there an ‘educational’ dimension to your work? Do you want to give your viewers a wake-up call?

The presence of an audience is fundamental, for the validation or non-validation of the work, and a founding element of the trance. In this particular performance I lost my sight and the audience became my eyes. Coming back to my masks, I do hope that these astonishing sights open up some new parts of the spectator’s brains.

In a very fleeting way, we all have moments in our life which Freud calls ‘oceanic movements’ — such as the death of someone close to us— where suddenly, we become aware of the terrible and magnificent nature of life. However very quickly, we fall back into the banality of daily life.

My daily practice, my studio, my performances, are only ways of reminding me of this unreality and the simple fact that I am alive. I don’t know how else to word it, but it seems the people feel the same feeling through my performance even if they can’t express it through words.

You seem to embrace anxiety in your work, whilst most people try and escape this feeling through illusion…

It’s through this anxiety that I saw a way of bringing myself back to life. I was very religious until I was about 20, and then after studying biology and philosophy, it all kind of fell apart. After a year suffering from depression, I had a thought that saved me: yes, life is meaningless, but I’m going to make my life a quest for meaning. From that moment onwards, I transformed what was causing me so much despair into pure, independent source of energy. Anxiety about life became an infinite source of possibility, and something to celebrate. Unlike religion, which tries to ‘catchetise’ life, and which reveals itself to be profoundly a-metaphysical.

You’re putting on a new performance, Lenfermoi, in which you run in a wheel shouting out words. What new elements does this introduce, with Transfiguration in mind?

It’s all about destabilising what constitutes an individual’s identity, questioning your presence, your identity; all in all, about selfhood. In Transfiguration, in fact, It looks like I’m not my face, but that I am actually far beyond that. In Lenfermoi, if I am what I say, then I am not my own source, since the words that I’m saying in the performance are ones which are coming to me completely improvised. They’re words and sentences that I’m discovering at the same time as the audience.

I want to try and unveil the way in which our identity is constructed. In these works that the self who says “I” is like the needle of a record player.

The brain and its millions of neurones are constantly active, even if we don’t ask them to be. You see how an idea can stick in your head like a piece of music, and you can’t be free of it. Who is talking when the idea is talking?

Interview Art media agency (25/02/2015)


Inferno:  Following you research on the question of identity, in which domain are you working today?

Olivier De Sagazan: I continue to dig along this path, perhaps more on the side of animality.  It is a matter of defining the main features that define life and render them the points of departure for the creation of painted or sculpted forms.  I take up again for example the question of evolution and I try to express that we are the bearers of a whole history, a phylogenesis which resulted in our appearance.  This history tells us that through me, it is a whole bestiary that is inscribed and the I carry, consciously or not.  We are all biologically carriers of an immense world that we must cross to better sense it.

Inferno: There is nevertheless suffering in this crossing?

ODS: A mixture of suffering and fascination.  Man is what he lacks and this search sustains a whole life.

Inferno: Does it come to legitimate life?

ODS: For me, this search is the very essence of life and to question oneself about what one is and what one carries in oneself is what appears to me to be the most fundamental.  See for example, for three billion years living beings with ever varied forms colonised the biosphere and what is incredible is that with each one it is the world that is re-constructed in the sense that each animal subject has a different perception of the world.  To each animal form corresponds a singular sensibility.  Each living being is the place of a sensibility and of an “appearing”.  It is this extraordinary thing that I want to dig.

Inferno: To do it with the aid of the body is something essential?

ODS: Yes, one has to interrogate the sensible with the sensible.  A painted or sculpted form only interests me when I have annexed it, in living it.  This idea so took hold of me that at one moment I really passed into my painting, that is i entered into it physically.  My face and my whole body became at the same time the support for painting, sculpting and the blind painter who paints them.  Through this performance “Transfiguration”, there is the visible and explicit passage from the painter to the dancer.  The painter who paints his canvass who then paints himself on his body, who then inhabits his canvass and becomes a dancer; there where one understands suddenly that dance is the painting.  The dancer has with his body brush a space time to cross and inscribe.

Inferno: In repeating the performance, does it not change the power of Transfiguration?

ODS: There is an intensity, a beauty in a gesture made for the first time, but, and it is here that art is also a technique, to repeat something allows its meaning to be taken hold of and to shape it better.  To the naivety and the sincerity of the first gestures one can with time add a know how and a knowledge of how to present that is essential, without which, the greater part of the feelings of a dancer fail to reach the spectator.  Now there is very much this idea for me of stirring the spectators with strong and meaningful images, to bring them to suddenly re-evaluate that thing that we banally call a face and which is in truth the bearer of an extraordinary profoundness.

Inferno: In your performances and in Transfiguration, can one say that there is something tied to the sacred, to the religious, as the presence of clay might lead us to believe?

ODS: For the clay, in the beginning it was its ductility that attracted me.  It is like an expansion of the flesh, it is a material that one can shape very quickly.  I move as quickly to create a buffalo nose with my earth as a smile on my face.  The logic of the living, for three billion years was to create a panoply of extravagant forms.  Each species is a new way for the living to integrate a form, an identity, a feeling, a relation to the world, a new “appearing”, and it is what I try to translate in my own way in Transfiguration.  At the beginning, I am a proper office worker, in suit and tie, then little by little the deformation, like a kind of overflow, takes over my whole face.  These mutations are in resonance with the whole logic of the living that brought us into being and in a certain way can also interrogate us about a possible future.

Interview Inferno Magazine (12/02/2016)


Video of Transfiguration performance …

… performance, Ghost in the mud

… performance, Hybridation

… collective workshop with Olivier de Sagazan …

Olivier de Sagazan, performance and commentary …

For a more complete exploration of Olivier de Sagazan’s work, see among other things his website and his youtube channel.

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1 Response to Olivier de Sagazan and the dancing self

  1. Pingback: [CTS1]Session 3 – Craftivism: Artists and Activists – Chunhui (Chris) Sheng

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