A new Silk Road: Russian art collective AES+F’s on “Allegoria Sacra” in Asia – interview

Russian art collective AES+F’s “Allegoria Sacra” goes on show in Asia for the first time.

Russian art collective AES+F is showing their work “Allegoria Sacra” in Asia for the first time at Hong Kong Art Statements from 26 October to 17 November 2013. Art Radar finds out about the artists’ practice, their explorations of contemporary society and their relationship to Asia.

AES+F, "Allegoria Sacra", 'Angels and Demons', 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 161 x 270 cm (small edition 80 x 134 cm), edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, “Allegoria Sacra”, ‘Angels and Demons’, 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 161 x 270 cm (small edition 80 x 134 cm), edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

Russian art collective AES+F is showing their work series “Allegoria Sacra” for the first time in Asia, in a solo exhibition at Art Statements in Hong Kong, from 26 October to 17 November 2013. The artist group was first formed by Tatiana Arzamasova (b. 1955), Lev Evzovich (b. 1958) and Evgeny Svyatsky (b. 1957) in 1987 and became AES+F in 1995 when Vladimir Fridkes (b. 1956) joined the collective.

Ever since AES+F’s establishment in 1987, the group has been exploring the possibilities of combining modern technology, Hollywood cinema, fashion photography, advertising, mass media, popular culture and youth obsessions with the classical aesthetics of old masters’ paintings, visualising a world that is partially familiar yet mysterious and alien. AES+F creates hyper-realistic images of mythological metaphors through digital collages of real life photographs, animated landscapes and objects, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, history and time.

AES+F, 'Allegoria Sacra', 2011, video still 3-05, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 40 x 126 cm, edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, ‘Allegoria Sacra’, 2011, video still 3-05, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 40 x 126 cm, edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

“Allegoria Sacra” (2011-2012) is inspired by Giovanni Bellini’s work by the same name in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. The subject of the painting is a mystery to art historians, and the artists have always been fascinated by it. The work is the last part of a trilogy, along with “The Last Riot” (2005-2007) and “The Feast of Trimalchio” (2009-2010), that comments on the modern world seen through the concepts of Hell, Heaven and Purgatory.

AES+F has shown extensively around the world in institutions such as The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (2007), The Cobra Museum of Modern Art in the Netherlands (2007), Moscow Museum of Modern Art (2005, 2007), Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’Art Contemporain (2006), the 4th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2002), Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (2004), Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm (1999), Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (2010) and at various editions of the Venice Biennale (2005, 2007, 2013).

Art Radar asked AES+F to talk about their artistic practice, their explorations of contemporary society through allegory, the significance of their work “Allegoria Sacra” and their relationship with Asia.

AES+F, "The Last Riot 2", 'The Carrousel', 2007, Lambda print on canvas, 150 x 185 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, “The Last Riot 2”, ‘The Carrousel’, 2007, Lambda print on canvas, 150 x 185 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

Who are AES+F?

How would you describe your artistic practice today, how has it developed and evolved over the years, and what is its relevance in contemporary society?

From the time of our earliest projects the subtle references to major myths and meanings, such as the living and the dead, male and female, the real and sacred, social and existential, were very important for us. We always felt something bigger behind the flickering images of reality and tried to give our version of it.

Since the project “Suspects” (1998) we shot girls of the same age (thirteen-fifteen years old) from the regular school and girls-killers in prison, mixing their portraits and bidding the audience to identify the killers, which was impossible. But questions of innocence and guilt, of age, of the female nature, of the right of the viewer to judge and find good and evil in the young faces of our real heroines, came up for the viewer and frustrated him.

We believe that the discovery and extraction of the Big Myth in art is what creates a healing frustration, which helps to understand oneself and the time in which we all live.

Are there any particular influences from artists, art movements and styles in your creative process, or can you identify your practice and ideals with those of other known artists, perhaps someone that you particularly admire?

Not one serious artist in any time period ever worked on an “empty plane.” But it is always sad when you clearly see forms, methods and meanings taken and repeated literally. We have always considered the spirit of culture [to be] important, with humans and their ambiguous nature in its centre.

How did you come to meet each other and decide to work together as a collective/group? What are the pros and cons of working as a group and why do you prefer that to working as individual artists?

Working in a group is not something that’s unique today. Honestly, we do not see any disadvantages because each of us completely expresses themselves. We have worked together for a very long time and think that only the loss of interest towards art itself can sabotage that. However, with experience you definitely begin to understand the disappointing circumstances of art’s function in the modern world. But just the opportunity to express in the form of art our attitude towards the world still inspires.

AES+F, "The Feast of Trimalchio", 'The Arrival of the Golden Boat', 2010, Lambda print mounted on Diasec, 295 x 495 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, “The Feast of Trimalchio”, ‘The Arrival of the Golden Boat’, 2010, Lambda print mounted on Diasec, 295 x 495 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

Allegory and contemporary society

You have chosen allegory as the main ‘channel’ through which you convey your views and ideas. Can you explain more about this choice and the significance of it in your work?

Allegory, fiction, tales and myth – all of these genres (theatre, literature, film, comics, etc.) are more about works that are based on verbal platforms. In our case, meaning and its allegorical interpretation appears to the viewer who takes some self-woven story with him. In reality, he became a witness to the sequence of forms (from light, colour, soundtrack and tempo in the case of video).

In “Allegoria Sacra”, we combine various myths of different cultures. We create that channel by which [man’s] own primordial levels open up to him. But we do this with a sense of humour.

Your work provides a commentary on modern society with poignant imagery and symbolism coming from ancient culture and history. Do you want to represent the contemporary world in a universal way, meaning, in a global way? Or does your point of view especially reflect on your own roots and origins?

We answered this question in the last one, in part. We do not claim to have a universal method, and globalism in its contemporary phase has not at all revealed perfection or made people happier. Born in the USSR, we more than once witnessed the relativity of everything, and perhaps that’s why we cherish the fundament of the Big Myth and an individual’s experience and understanding.

“Allegoria Sacra” is the third part of a trilogy project you started back in 2005. Could you tell us about the concept of this trilogy? Can you tell us briefly what the first two parts of the trilogy were about?

We did not conceive the Trilogy, we just worked on projects. After “The Last Riot” (2007) with its “ballet” of virtual violence under the soundtrack of Wagner and Gagaku, came “The Feast of Trimalchio” (2009). It was a visualisation of rituals of pleasure in Rome in its decadent times, with its bitter triumph of consumerism. It represents three versions of the “world’s end” – colonial, postcolonial and some new one, inside which we depicted the identity crises of all of our various characters.

The “Liminal Space Trilogy”, in our understanding, came together only with the creation of “Allegoria Sacra” (2011) with its connection to the painting by Giovanni Bellini – one of the most mysterious works of the Renaissance.

We realised that all these years we were interpreting society of the beginning of the twenty-first century, doing it at the same time with criticism, humour and awe.

AES+F, 'Allegoria Sacra', 2011, video still 3-03, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 40 x 126 cm, edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, ‘Allegoria Sacra’, 2011, video still 3-03, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 40 x 126 cm, edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

The airport as modern day Purgatory

“Allegoria Sacra” uses the idea of “airport” as a sort of Purgatory, as an “in-between” space and time. Could you expand on the meaning of this concept, the Purgatory, in relation to today’s society?

In “Allegoria Sacra”, we really placed the heroes of Bellini, sometimes literally recognisable, in a waiting area of an airport out of which no plane will ever take off again. Only the dreams and visions of “passengers,” in which the viewer can guess something, drive the change of forms and ghostly movement.

Purgatory, in accordance with Catholic faith, is a state in which the souls of dead sinners or righteous are waiting for Hell or Paradise.

Our airport is undetermined in size, time and geography liminal space – a place of transition to a new state. In dreams of our characters, it is at one time covered by a blizzard, at another by the hot sands of a desert and yet another by a wild jungle. This, for us, is a place of collective memory, Purgatorium, where sacred symbols of various cultures mix. It is a place where the incompatible combines, where it is possible for Ganesh to meet a Centaur, the past (demon-cannibals) to meet the future (angels-attendants from 2001: A Space Odyssey), where it is possible for old man Job to reincarnate into a child-mutant.

Are you familiar with Confucian and Taoist philosophy and if so, what is the link between your Purgatory concept and the context of these eastern philosophies?

We are only superficially familiar with the principles of the Tao. It is very difficult to find direct connections between Purgatorium and Tao, but they can definitely be discovered. One can say that we completely conform with one of the main principles in our creative process – “To follow the path of reason, ignoring intuition – means to be at odds with the Tao, and one who is at odds with the Tao unavoidably brings harm to himself and others.”

AES+F, "The Feast of Trimalchio", 'The War of the Worlds', 2010, Lambda print mounted on Diasec, 205 x 290 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, “The Feast of Trimalchio”, ‘The War of the Worlds’, 2010, Lambda print mounted on Diasec, 205 x 290 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

Criticism and censorship

Have you encountered criticism on your work for its allegorical nature, which also uses religious symbols?

We never especially sought to create provocative images. But in some cases – Islamic Project (1996-2003), Who Wants to Live Forever (1998), Défilé (2000-2007) – we were met with a critical reaction from bureaucrats, as well as the press and the public. The reactions called for outright censorship to requests for prosecution, to private opinions, for example, that this shouldn’t be shown at all. However, we don’t find this approach to art at all productive since that is probably the only area where exciting topics – confessions and atheism, politics and problems of society, existential problems and general phobias – can be freely opened and investigated.

What about the relationship between art and politics in the Russian context? Do you also comment on politics and how is that received? Have you been censored or criticised before for expressing political views in your artwork?

Power in contemporary Russia is negatively predisposed towards not only contemporary art but art in general, as a territory of free expression on any topic. Infamous politicians in parliament create investigations and demand sanctions in regard to certain artists, including even the Chapman Brothers (during their show in The Hermitage), or such figures of pop-culture as Madonna, for example. There are almost humorous facts of censorship of Pushkin’s stories or demands to prohibit the publication of Nabokov’s work.

Aside from political criticism in art, the attention of bureaucrats in power is focused on the question of homosexual “propaganda” and erotica – all the many areas of an individual’s personal space. All this is expressed in the form of corrections in laws, regulating the “moral health” of the people, taken as a combination of religious postulates and morals. After our personal exhibition in the central exhibition hall Manezh, one influential Member of Parliament sent a request to the Moscow office of the prosecutor, demanding to investigate the artists and organisers of the exhibition, in spite of our international recognition. The management of the exhibition hall was forced to give explanations to the prosecutors. Although everything turned out fine, one can’t say that this kind of “attention” of authorities gives us any satisfaction.

AES+F, "Allegoria Sacra", 'The Battle', 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 161 x 270 cm (small edition 80 x 134 cm), edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F.

AES+F, “Allegoria Sacra”, ‘The Battle’, 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 161 x 270 cm (small edition 80 x 134 cm), edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

A personal Silk Route to Asia

It is interesting that you participated this year at the 55th Venice Biennale in a show titled “Silk Map” at the Padiglione Venezia, symbolically marking the beginning of a voyage to the East for you. What does showing in Venice mean for you (you have shown here in 2007 and 2009 as well), in its cultural and historical context that links it to Asia?

We liked the concept of the “Silk Map” exhibition since for us the cultural connections of Europe and Asia are always interesting. The curator chose Arrival of the Golden Boat – a large work from “The Feast of Trimalchio”, Panorama #2 from “Allegoria Sacra” and a sculpture from “The Last Riot” installation, never before shown in Venice. Overall, our works could be interpreted as a reflection of a contemporary version of the Silk Road.

This is your first solo exhibition of “Allegoria Sacra” in Asia. What is the importance of such an event in your artistic career? And what is the relevance of showing in such an art hub as Hong Kong?

We periodically exhibit works in China, Japan and Korea. Every journey to the East for us is evidence for the dynamic development and changes not only of the economy, but also culture. With great pleasure, we prepared this exhibition for Hong Kong, together with our galleries – Triumph (Moscow) and Art Statements (Hong Kong). This also is not our first experience in Hong Kong – even earlier we showed our works in the Art Statment Gallery.

As far as we know, Hong Kong is one of the most active regions where contemporary art attracts new fans and collectors. Since we belong to a number of participants in the international art scene, we are especially interested in Hong Kong’s institutions and viewers who concentrate their attention on contemporary art.

The art world is expanding Eastwards and Asia is becoming a centre of exciting activity for contemporary art. How do you think your presence in Asia can benefit you and what do you hope to bring to the Asian public with your art? Have you had any response to your exhibition so far since the opening and how has it been received?

We already spoke before about focusing our attention on the global culture and myth, on the platform where our viewers and we understand the same language. The visual language of our work is clear to the viewer without translation or additional explanation. The soundtrack is each time developed by us as a separate audio polyphonic installation capable of integrating the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Chopin with medieval Japanese music Gagaku and electronic music from the contemporary Russian composer Pavel Karmanov.

Asians, open as never before to perceiving diverse visual and auditory languages in contemporary art, find a lot of the work emotionally understandable. This is a very pleasant public for AES+F.

Hong Kong is a big metropolis, skyscrapers and walkways connecting buildings, continual hustle and bustle. At the same time, it is also a place of transit for people who come on business trips or who pass through to travel somewhere else, giving it the feeling of an airport. It seems to me as if showing “Allegoria Sacra” here is particularly appropriate. Was it a thought choice you made? Or did it just happen by chance?

You are absolutely right – this is an ideal place. But nothing happens by chance. For us, natives of Russia, it is innate to address the West as well as the East where we find just as much understanding.

AES+F, "Allegoria Sacra", 'A Melancholy', 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 161 x 270 cm (small edition 80 x 134 cm), edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

AES+F, “Allegoria Sacra”, ‘A Melancholy’, 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 161 x 270 cm (small edition 80 x 134 cm), edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

In between East and West

What do you think about the Hong Kong art scene and that of the Asia region as a whole? How does it compare to your home scene in Russia? Do you consider Russia to be a gateway between the West and the East?

As far as we know, Hong Kong, as it happens to be a well-known platform for contemporary art fairs, intensively develops institutions and builds contemporary art museums. This will mark it even more as an international centre where being represented is very important not only for artists and galleries, but for curators as well.

Regarding Asia – we think, and this is a banal view, that it is a uniquely diverse region in its culture and contemporary art trends. This feature is difficult to compare to Europe or America. Speaking about Russia’s place, especially when looking from Asia, one can definitively say that its culture, including contemporary art, belongs to a western tradition.

And this is a very paradoxical situation, when culture and the mentality of its bearers (European or western), but politically Russia currently looks like an old type of Asian state.

AES+F, "Allegoria Sacra", video still 1-33, 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 70 x 81 cm, edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

AES+F, “Allegoria Sacra”, video still 1-33, 2011, Epson UntraChrome K3 ink prints on Barite paper, varnished, 70 x 81 cm, edition of 10. Image courtesy AES+F and Art Statements. © AES+F

Your work, although it includes imagery from different cultures and people, seems to be mainly based on western cultural constructs (what I mean is that the basis of your works are for example, masterpieces of western art). My question is, are you planning or considering in the future to perhaps base your work on any Asian masterpieces?

At the dawn of the millennium we came up with, but never realised, a painting project, which could have been similar to what you described in this question. We imagined ourselves as an elderly Chinese artist with a semi-fictional, semi-real biography, who studied in the USSR, who left to the provinces at the time of the Cultural Revolution and who was discovered anew in our time. In his style, of course, would have represented all the traditions – eastern and western. Of course, this story is for a conceptual project. Nevertheless we were surprised when we found out that a photographer from Germany, living in Hong Kong, is working under a Chinese name.

We find for our projects a lot of Asian links and cultural roots. We want to create a picture of our world which is connected with reality – and today and in the future it appears polyphonic.

 C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: Russian artists, interviews with artists, events in Hong Kong, gallery shows, art and globalisation, art and migration, art between reality and fantasy, art and mythology, censorship of art

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