The Theatrical Subversion of AES+F

AES+F is a Berlin-based Russian collective made up of four artists: Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes. First established in 1987 as AES Group by Arzamasova, Evzovich, and Svyatsky, the trio later changed its name to AES+F when their fourth member Fridkes joined in 1995. The cutting-edge collective works with both traditional and digital media, well-known for their monumental video-art installations, which have been exhibited internationally including at the Venice Biennale. In addition to having participated in numerous international art festivals, the group is represented in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions such as the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow), and the Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide).

Circle of Life, AES+F

Their practice, which they define as a kind of “social psychoanalysis”, focuses on global contemporary issues and culture. One of their most acclaimed projects is The Liminal Space Trilogy, a three-part series of large-scale, multichannel video installations. Set in imaginary, virtual worlds, the trilogy aims to explore the 21st century while referencing art-historical traditions and motifs as well as popular culture. Though surrealist to an extent, the artists have said of their work: “You could say we reflect the surrealistic reality – an exalted reality of contemporary media (press, TV, film, advertising, internet, etc.) In our projects, you could find elements of surrealism, but we are… closer to symbolism.”

The first part, titled Last Riot (2005-2007), debuted at the Russian pavilion at the 52nd Biennale di Venezia in 2007. Combining animation, video stills, prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, the work depicts a surreal landscape of snow-covered mountains, desolate beaches, planes and trains crashing without combusting, and a group of young adults engaging in combat. Despite charging at one another with swords, the avatars are expressionless and have one identity, that of participants in the last riot. The new epoch celebrates the end of ideology, history, and ethics, where divisions along the lines of gender, race, and class cease to exist and the only battles are against the self and the other. Last Riot skillfully incorporates allusions to art history ranging from Caravaggio to Romanticism with elements of contemporary visual culture such as advertising, film, and video games.

Trailer for Last Riot

The sequel is equally provocative and otherworldly. The Feast of Trimalchio (2009-2010) takes place in a decadent hotel on an imaginary island, a temporary paradise which one has to pay for entry. The hotel is equipped with modern amenities like a ski resort, tennis courts, exercise equipment, and fine dining. Its title is derived from a section in the Satyricon, a Roman novel by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, called Trimalchio’s dinner. Trimalchio, a wealthy former slave who hosts extravagant and erotic dinner parties, has become associated with luxury, gluttony, and hedonism. The island is occupied by two main groups: the hotel guests, who assume the role of the masters, and the employees, their servants. Unlike Last Riot, social hierarchies are at play, but being to deteriorate as masters act out their fantasies and make sexual advances on the servants. At dinner, the roles reverse, where slaves dressed as patricians are waited on by their masters wearing slaves’ tunics. By the end, catastrophe strikes, fracturing the illusion of paradise.

Trailer for The Feast of Trimalchio

Premiered at the 4th Moscow Biennale in 2011, Allegoria Sacra (2011-2013) is the final instalment of the trilogy. For this video installation, AES+F reinterpreted many of the characters depicted in Giovanni Bellini’s painting Holy Allegory, including mythological creatures and biblical figures. A few figures retain their original forms, but others are reimagined as modern-day people; St. Sebastian is represented as a young, shirtless hitchhiker and Apostle Paul as an airport policeman. The angelic stewardesses appear on flying machines like the cabin crew in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Allegoria Sacra is not a mere reinterpretation of a Renaissance masterpiece, but a nuanced commentary on contemporary life. It's setting in an international airport serves as a metaphor for purgatory, a transitory place where travellers coexist before reaching their final destination. The surroundings dissolve and morph into new landscapes from a jungle to an underwater kingdom to a snowfield, which melts into the mythological river Styx, connecting the Earth and the Underworld. Allegoria Sacra won four awards: the Sergey Kuryokhin Award (2011), the main award of the Kandinsky Prize (2012) and Nordart Festival (2014), and the Pino Pascali Prize (2015).

Trailer for Allegoria Sacra

Since then, AES+F returned to the Venice Biennale in 2015 with their project Inverso Mundus, inspired by 16th-century engravings of absurdist scenes. In a similar vein to their past video installations, Inveso Mundus portrays a world where conventions and decorum have been turned on their heads with scenes of children and seniors fighting in a kickboxing tournament, policemen transforming into thieves, and street-cleaners littering the city with rubbish. From 2016 to 2019, they worked in set design for theatre and opera, creating video set designs for reinterpretations of Sarah Kane’s play 4:48 Psychosis and the Italian opera Turnadot. Earlier this year, their work Inverso Mundus was selected for a group show at the Zionskirche in Berlin, which aims to promote global unity and solidarity in the face of division and adversity. Currently, AES+F is exhibiting at the 4th Mediterranean Biennale, alongside a talented cohort of 60 international artists, including Tracey Emin, Mario Pfifer, Carlos Amorales, among others.

Psychosis, Mushroom Field, AES+F

In recent months, the group got in on NFTs, which are considered by SuperRare to likely be among the most provocative minted on their platform. Their NFT artworks have sold out quickly, each valued between $6,000 and $27,000. Three of them are part of the ‘Psychosis’ series, video excerpts from the digital stage design produced for their 2016 reinterpretation of the play 4:48 Psychosis. The NFT’s Verisart certificate includes access to the full 18-minute ‘Psychosis’ video, which the artists have not shared with the public. Their most recent upload, ‘Allegoria Sacra, Reincarnation’, is a 1-minute excerpt of the award-winning video installation shown at the 2011 Moscow Biennale. The owner also receives access to a private screening of the full 40-minute piece via its Verisart certificate. Last, but not least, ‘Circle of Life’, created as a campaign for Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster, the work blurs the boundaries between art, fashion, and advertising by existing as an artwork and a fashion campaign. Somewhat ironically, ‘Circle of Life’ contests notions of beauty and the ideology of advertisements with its grotesque images of flying hybrid animals.

Over the past three decades, AES+F has taken a unique and innovative approach to artmaking, solidifying their position as key players in the contemporary art ecosystem. In their exploration of 21st century issues and global culture, the artists do not seek to provide answers, but raise questions, prompting audiences to reflect on the problems within contemporary society. NFTs are only their latest venture as they strive to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital, the historical and the contemporary, and most significantly, art and life.