“We see ourselves as vampires when it comes to the work of other artists” On the eve of their latest show, we talk to the Russian collective AES+F about multiculturalism, the market and their new work

One of the most talked about works at the last Venice Biennale was a slick digitalised three-screen video in the basement of the Russian Pavilion in which a host of beautiful youths worthy of any Gap ad engaged in stylised slow motion battles in a fantasy landscape to the strains of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”. The piece was Last Riot by the Moscow-based collective AES+F—the name comes from the initials of members Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovitch and Evgeny Svyatsky, who joined forces in 1987, with photographer Vladimir Fridkes arriving in 1995. Although the group were no strangers to the art world, this epic, bleakly futuristic extravaganza has catapulted it onto the international stage. They have just had a major exhibition at Macro in Rome and this month they open their first UK solo show at RS&A which then tours to Les Abattoirs in Toulouse, the Salzburg Museum and the Ormeau Baths in Belfast.

The Art Newspaper: Did you intend Last Riot

to be a criticism or a celebration of our high-tech, perfection-obsessed world?

AES+F: It has some kind of criticism but we try not to be very didactic in our criticism so it is both admiration and criticism—all the time we try to be on the border as we have very mixed feelings about what is happening now.

TAN: It created a weird world where technology and fashion fused with direct references to art history.

AES+F: We wanted to make compositions reminiscent of mannerist and Baroque painting and especially Caravaggio but also to construct

a virtual world which refers to contemporary virtual culture and virtual reality and all these kinds of computer games, video games and Hollywood movies; it’s a landscape that is continuous throughout and goes from a desert at night to a snowy morning in the mountains.

TAN: What is it about mannerism and the Baroque that appeals to you?

AES+F: We feel that contemporary visual culture is very similar to that of the Baroque: everything is extremely expressive, figurative and very visual and founded on images and at the same time very decadent. We try to make it seductive but when you make it too beautiful it begins to be ugly so we are also trying to establish the border between ugliness and beauty. It is also not clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and it is very important to us that it should not be clear.

TAN: And the fighting never starts or stops, it just continues on an endless loop.

AES+F: Yes but without any blood, which is important for us.

TAN: Last Riot has spawned a series of pristine white sculptures which you are now showing

in the UK for the first time.

AES+F: We are premiering the whole series of eight aluminium figures painted with white enamel paint that is usually used for cars. They come from Last Riot but in the Last Riot prints and videos they are just normal figures. In these sculptures they became mutants, they are part monsters: for example one girl has the tail of a dinosaur.

TAN: So their perfection is blighted, however the white is still a symbol of purity.

AES+F: White is also the colour where the spectator can add any other colours and give way to his imagination.

TAN: Before you started working with photography many of your early paintings were also dealing with notions of physical perfection by using quotes from art history.

AES+F: When we made these paintings at the beginning of the 1990s, they were also a reaction to the conceptual art of the time which operated mainly with found words, with installation and which used some Soviet symbols, and so on. So it was some kind of reaction to make art that used some eternal aesthetics and meanings. We are very happy that we spent the 1990s in Russia so we saw all the transformations but we didn’t want to reflect a specifically Russian situation but reflect the global things that seemed to us more sharp, more dramatic and more visible.

TAN: From your early paintings to the current sculptures, many of the heroic poses also have the appearance of classic Soviet Totalitarian art, filtered through mannerism and the Baroque.

AES+F: Yes we also used Totalitarian art and artists such as Alexander Deyneka for example but we just took their form without any ideological context because I think that Totalitarian art has a lot of energy, but this energy cannot be directly connected with Totalitarian ideology.

TAN: So you tapped into this energy and then used it in your art?

AES+F: We see ourselves as vampires when it comes to the work of other artists.

TAN: Three of you worked together as AES since 1987 then in 1995 Vladimir joined you and gave rise

to the F—what made you decide to work under a collaborative name rather than your own?

AES+F: It was a very organic decision—the name was just a play on our collective way of producing art: we are a union of very different people who all work together and all discuss things. It is not a system where there is one leader and the others work more technically. Some members can work on some videos or sculptures more than others, but at the same time everybody always discusses the entire process. It is is very interesting—we are really very different, it is like some kind of micro society.

TAN: Another work that you are showing for the first time is Europe-Europe, a series of porcelain figurines in the 18th-century style of amorous couples. But instead of presenting frolicking shepherds and shepherdesses, you depict more controversial contemporary couplings: a skinhead and a Turkish girl, a blonde female police officer in full riot gear undressing for an Arab teenager, a western manager and three Chinese toy factory workers—what is the intention of this piece?

AES+F: This is generally a very interesting question for us, what is Europe now? And what is so-called multiculturalism? The task was to put some questions about contemporary European identity and so we made this kind of impossible utopia—and the question is, can these communities live together culturally, or not? So we wanted to present this utopia of possibility, this idyllic situation.

TAN: Last Riot and the large sculptures are created by, and use the language of, digital technology but these new pieces rely on more traditional, handcrafted techniques.

AES+F: We just use any techniques according

to the ideas of the project so we can use very traditional bronze sculptures and porcelain and also digitally manipulated video and prints. They are all tools.

TAN: Russia is now becoming a major player in the global art market. What do you feel about that?

AES+F: It’s just the beginning of the boom—it is going to get bigger and bigger. New private museums are opening (see p11) and also state museums, and the public interest inside Russia is growing very fast. Step by step these new rich people are turning from collecting antiques to collecting contemporary and also international contemporary art also. Hopefully after, the art that is just marketable will follow more deep and serious engagements.

TAN: What are you working on now?

AES+F: We have just finished shooting Trimalchio, a very big project inspired by Petronius’s Satyricon, which is now in post-production. This time the models are of all ages from children to very old people and the piece is about the situation in the big international hotels where the guests are white and the servants are black, Asian and Latin America. The idea is that it is not very clear who is the servant and who is the master, so it has a political meaning as

in the piece it is not very clear in the contemporary world who starts to dominate.

TAN: How do you feel about your meteoric success over the past year? Has it changed your position?

AES+F: We don’t change our position very much, we just have more opportunities to do what we want to do. n

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