According to Tatiana Arzamasova, the art of AES+F is all about the grey areas. “In art images and in real life, we have no real recognisable samples of what means ‘good’ and what means ‘bad’,” she says, enunciating each word slowly and deliberately in her dry Russian inflection.
“In history, there are examples in which this relationship between good and bad also was not completely clear,” she offers. “But this is especially the case now, in our modern situation.”
Though their work assumes a kind of colossal scale and complexity that invokes the Baroque and blockbuster in equal measure, AES+F – Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes – find traction in global culture’s indefinites and ambiguities, or as Arzamasova puts it, “the stimulation of questions” regarding “the modern consumerist process”.
Her clinical mode of speech somewhat betrays the all but cosmic level of awe AES+F have conjured amongst their audience since forming in the years prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, first as the trio AES in 1987, before photographer Fridkes rounded out the quartet in 1995. Assuming vast scales and confounding degrees of fastidious detail, their manipulated photographic, video and sculptural works have seen the quartet celebrated as one of international contemporary art’s most potent and socio-culturally subversive forces.
Early works like Suspects (1997) saw the collective take groomed portraits of seven girls, aged from 11 to 14, who had committed murders, alongside seven girls of the same age attending one of Moscow’s most privileged English language schools. While it proved fascinating social study in its own right, the fact that the 14 girls were impossible tell apart worked to dramatically defy social typecasts of criminality and class-based notions of ‘good breeding’. Indeed, audience members who happened to somehow guess the seven juvenile murderers were awarded a prize.
Another key work was the Islamic Project, which played out in various international contexts between 1996 and 2003. Framed as a “visualisation of fears of Western society about Islam” the project eschewed images of iconic Western cities and landscapes with Islamic symbolism and architecture. One particularly striking work featured the Statue of Liberty adorned in a burqua.
The Feast of Trimalchio (2009), meanwhile, was a clear highlight of the 2009 Venice Biennale and 2010 Biennale of Sydney, featuring three huge, curved cinema screens and booming, symphonic surround sound, which enveloped the viewer in a sumptuous amalgam of computer-manipulated photographic imagery and complex post-colonial signifiers. Drawing on Satyricon, the 1st century Latin work of fiction by Gaius Petronius, it depicted privileged whites being waited upon hand and foot by Asian and African servants at an excessively luxurious island resort. But as the narrative wore on, the relationship between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ became increasingly ambiguous. Just who was serving who became the chief question.
While its socio-political and cultural undertones are clear, to describe AES+F’s work in such a light would undersell its purpose. Indeed, according to Arzamasova, who along with husband and AES+F collaborator Evzovich trained as an architect in the former Soviet Union before founding the collective, AES+F’s work does not endorse a particular moral or poltical posture. “We are not coming from a didactic position,” she says simply. “We are just posing the question.”
For Arzamasova, the group’s missive is rather to stimulate and awaken. “Most people are just living mechanically in the current consumerist condition and they’re thinking just about usual life, which is full of usual problems, sometimes important and sometimes not very important,” she says. “There’s not enough time to ask yourself what, in reality, is going on. We just try to let people find their own answer, or at least just to start to think.”
There are few works more abruptly activating than Angels-Demons. Parade, which debuted in the French city of Lille in 2009 and will dominate Swanston Street and St Kilda Road for the length of the Melbourne Festival in October. In something of a coup for festival organisers, the six-metre-tall, glossy, black, infantile sculptures – replete with wings and prehistoric tails extending from their nappies – are an ode to the purity of childhood innocence as much as an embodiment of the demonic colossus.
But as with most of AES+F’s work, there is another lurking element at play. “When we came up with the babies, we worked with images of babies traditional to Renaissance art,” explains Arzamasova. “But we totally changed the traditional European face to the face of Asians, Africans and Indians, who have been seen as aliens in Europe… The babies are from the so-called ‘new world’, but which of course are ancient nations in themselves.”
Arzamasova – who cites the experience of living through the transition from Soviet to contemporary Russia as a definitive contributor to her art – ties Angels-Demons. Parade to recent European discourses on multiculturalism. “There is a lot of talk now that the policy of multiculturalism in Europe failed, but I don’t believe it,” she urges. “We are celebrating the real global situation of information which is part of all our lives.
“All the knowledge we have, all the events in the art world, all the new artists from around the world; it is all thanks to this level of globalisation and multiculturalism we have now.”
Indeed, as global borders buckle and fold and a new future awaits, AES+F are beating the drum. “The future is a special subject,” says Arzamasova, pausing for moment as if to gather her thoughts. “It’s hopeful on one hand and it is bit fearful on the other. The image of the child is a concentration of this fear and hope.”
The Melbourne Festival runs from October 6 to 22.