S, E, F and A

Russia’s Gem – AES+F 0

Anna Iltnere

Under the initials, AES+F, is hidden a quartet of four Muscovite artists who are currently Russia's most successful – and most expensive – contemporary art export. It wouldn't be fair to say that AES+F gained worldwide recognition only after taking part in two Venice Biennials in a row – in 2007 and again in 2009; they were already known before then. Venice did, obviously, press its slender foot down on the gas pedal of AES+F's career, and the deluge of international solo shows began – and at an ever increasing pace. On September 28, AES+F's exhibition at Berlin's Gropius-Bau Museum will open with a collection of three video installations (“Last Riot”, “The Feast of Trimalchio” and “Alegoria Sacra”). The trilogy itself actually premiered (i.e., the first showing of all three in one venue) on September 25, when it was featured at the re-opening of the new Moscow exhibition hall, Manege. Located next to the Kremlin, the hall is part of a larger complex of art halls built in 1817 and considered revolutionary for their time. Having survived the wars, at one time the building even served as a giant garage for government automobiles; it became an exhibition hall in 1957. In 2005, Manege was destroyed in a fire; after reconstruction, it served as a distinctive marketplace where home-made honey, furs and the Millionaire Fair could all be found under one roof. Vera Mukhina's famous sculpture, “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman”, stands right next to the Moscow exhibition center; it was returned to its original home in 2009, after having spent six years undergoing restoration. With ambitions of becoming the Russian version of Paris's Grand-Palais, the opening of the 20,000 square-foot renovated art space is an important event in Moscow, and great hopes are being set upon it. Practically the whole front page of the September issue of The Art Newspaper Russia has been devoted to it. Next autumn, Manage will host the 5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.


It wasn't difficult to find the workshop of AES+F in Moscow. The Artists' House towers above the other buildings in this periphery of the city. Being post-soviet citizens themselves, the Latvian delegation doesn't even loose its way in the building's greenish, dimly-lit labyrinth of corridors and narrow lifts. At the party for this globally renown group of Russian artists – thrown by the esteemed Russian art magazine Artchronica and the gallery Triumph – a woman with big hair is the first to greet us. “I am A,” she says as she shakes our hands. As the evening progresses, the remaining three members of the group also introduce themselves by the first letter of their last name. At the beginning, when the 80's were morphing into the 90's, they were simply AES; then in 1995, the graphic designer and two architects were joined by the fashion photographer Vladimir Fridke, or “+F”. While mingling by the table set up with hors d'oeuvres, I ask “E”, aka Lev Evzovich, what is it like for an artist to work as part of a team, and for such a long time, at that. He answers: “It gets easier”, and adds that sooner or later, artists will come to realize that it is much more reasonable to work in groups, rather than wasting away in loneliness. This is something to remember, since AES+F have deservedly garnered fame as predictors of the future. It should also be mentioned that AES+F and their works will be coming to Riga in March of next year.

AES+F's “hobby horse”

When Samuel Huntington's book, “The Clash of Civilizations”, came out in 1996, it quickly became the inspiration for AES+F's ongoing series, “The Islamic Project”. The project takes on many shapes and forms, even as a “Travel Agency to the Future”, with accompanying souvenir mugs and printed T-shirts. But at the project's core are photographic images – collages of powerful national symbols, which also happen to be identifying features of cities and popular magnets for tourists. Through the almost-trivial-seeming method of collage, a series of “inflammatory” images have been created; the pictures can burn the same finger that is wagged at such multicultural hybrids as London's Big Ben – topped with the rounded “cap” of a mosque, and other, even more disturbing images. The now legendary photograph of the American Statue of Liberty – draped in an Asian paranja, was made in 1996, at the very start of “The Islamic Project”. Although the starting platform for “Travel Agency to the Future” was instigated in 2006, one of the group members admitted in an interview that “The Islam Project” understandably came to a halt on September 11, 2001.

AES+F. Liberty. 1996. Knoll Galerie Wien

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future,” wrote the protagonist, Samuel Huntington, in the mid-nineties.

Space Beduin. Binladen in astronaut costume. There are used later mentioned mannequin head

The either contrapositioning or mediation of civilization with culture is a never-ending story. Already at the start of the 20th century, the British master of storytelling, Rudyard Kipling, wrote: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, / Till Earth and Sky stay presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” This is also fertile ground for the flourishing of myths and stereotypes, as confirmed by the artists: “We try to offend the basic myths, of which there really aren't that many; but, no matter how strange it may seem, they continue to stay alive, even in this age of new technologies.” This is an opportune time to recall what Roland Barthes once said about myths – that the knowledge contained therein is messy, unclear and based on supposition. It is not for naught that art historian Dorothy Barenscott, who has carefully researched AES+F's “Islamic Project”, has remarked that the central axis of the project is a deep intellectual crisis that could, at some time, cost us our understanding of reality. AES+F's studio is set up across two floors. On the first floor is the kitchen, on the counter of which, squeezed in between the dishes, sits the head of a manikin: a bald woman with rather expressive facial feature and full lips. As we are leaving, we can't help but ask: Who is this woman? Evgeny Svyatsky, aka “S”, laughingly answers: “That's Bin Laden! But without his hair and beard.”

Neither black, nor white

I'd like to make it clear that AES+F are not didactic in their works of art. In all three video installations, it is difficult to make out who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy”. This has been done on purpose; there is also never any blood. “We're not making Hollywood movies. In our works, we'd like to destroy the cliché about the good guys and the bad guys, as portrayed in the media. Even in the Soviet Union, when we were growing up, it was always crystal clear who was the oppressor and who – the victim. With art, we're attempting to describe the new situation, in which complete ambiguity rules. It is a problem of liberal global capitalism, and that's what we're trying to show.” As a result, when looking at the works, the viewer is overcome with two differing emotions – excitement and anxiety. The artists have similar feelings about today's culture, saying that they both criticize it and admire it. Yes, even our consumer culture creates a great climate for the flourishing of myths and symbols. As an aside, AES+F are not being payed for the overt use of famous fashion brands in their trilogy; the subject had come up from some of the guests as we were shown the work that goes on behind the scenes of the artists' creations. This background to the making of the art works will also be shown in the exhibition at Manege. Interestingly, there is never a clear outline or “storyboard” behind the video installations – just approximate ideas. The final result comes about after almost a year of post-production, at which time the field is open to improvisation. On the other hand, the working material, i.e., ten-thousand photo stills with characters and situations, is shot beforehand and over a period of about ten days, in a special pavilion. In other words, the process is a reversal of how usual productions, such as films, are made.

A plait of cultural histories

Another manner in which the AES+F trilogy has achieved its unique atmosphere could be the way it weaves together the cultural history of the previous century with today's hi-techiness and splendor. Already in the compositions of the trilogy's first part, “Last Riot”, one can see references to mannerism and baroque painting (especially that of Caravaggio), whereas today's contribution is the super-sterile, practically virtual environment, as borrowed from computer games and Hollywood's materialism. As AES+F explain it, to them, the visual culture of today seems very much like that of the baroque; this is due to the supremacy of exaggerated expression and figuralism, and the dominance of visualism – which is, at the same time, also decadent. Their latest piece, the video installation “Alegoria Sacra”, has also been inspired by painting, specifically, Giovanni Bellini's 15th century painting of the same name.

Luxury and orgies

In the trilogy's second part, “The Feast of Trimalchio”, close parallels can be drawn between cultural history and the peak of modern-day consumer culture. The installation premiered in 2009, and was inspired by Petronius' “Satyricon”, a work of fiction that describes wealth, grandeur and pleasure, and its contrast to the insignificance of human existence. Written over a period of time that spanned most of Petronius' life, only fragments of the work have survived to this day, but they are rife with orgies and celebrations. For “The Feast of Trimalchio”, AES+F tried to create a third millennium analogy, which is why it's only logical that it's set in a glamorous five-star hotel.

In the 1930's English language translation of “Satyricon”, there is an accompanying foreword to the reader (the young gentleman), that puts the historical text into the context of the times. Written by a Scottish author, the foreword aptly points out that the theme of orgies and carousals periodically becomes topical in society, and that these occurrences can be seen to closely correspond with the centuries when “Satyricon” has again arisen in the social consciousness, and translated anew. It seems that AES+F's 2009 video installation is much like another one of these “translations”.

In describing the life-style embraced and documented by Petronius himself, and which was reanimated in later years – for instance, in the middle of the 17th century (which is when one of the English translations of the Latin text was published) – the Scottish writer Moncrieff mentions an interesting term – the “ante-supper”, in which the Latin “ante” means “before”. It turns out that the wealthy lords of the time not only liked to eat well, but the presentation of the meal was just as important to them. A whole industry arose to satisfy these needs, with fancy cutlery and tableware, and numerous other ostentatious frills. In order for the guest to take in all of this finery, a good amount of time had passed, and the food had inevitably cooled. So, the servants removed this untouched “ante-luncheon” from the table, and brought in another, still hot, meal. This forgotten practice is a spot-on metaphor for describing the pointless and wasteful excesses of today, which have once again returned on their historical orbit.

After my visit to the artists' studio, I returned to my hotel room and the pocket-sized book that I had taken along – “What is Contemporary Art?”, a publication by e-flux journal. Following the instructions, as given by a marketing gimmick for a book fair on Facebook, I turned to page 52 and wrote down the fifth sentence on the page. In the spirit of dadaism, perhaps the context of it can add something of significance to the above: “Neighborhoods have long since vanished, but their imprint on popular culture can still be seen in such simulacra as cyberpunk science fiction, gangster and horror films, manga and computer games.”