AES+F is a Russian art powerhouse comprised of Tatiana Arzamasova, a conceptual architect; Lev Evzovitch, a conceptual architect and filmmaker; Evgeny Svyatsky, a graphic artist; and Vladimir Fridkes, a fashion photographer for the likes of Vogue. The group combines their diverse skills to spectacular effect: Their work is slick, smart and infused with a sense of the macabre. Three phenomenal installations by the collaborative are on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in "AES+F," curated by Olga Sviblova.
The installation Suspects: Seven Sinners and Seven Righteous (1997) contains large photographs of 14 teenage girls. Seven of them are convicted murderers, and seven are ordinary Moscow high school students. AES+F doesn't tell you who's who. The portraits, hung in a freestanding circular gallery, are all taken the same way; they're head-on, mug shot-like images against a white background. All the girls are similarly clad in long-sleeved T-shirts.
Lacking any identifying labels or context clues, you're left to scrutinize the girls' faces like some 19th-century practitioner of the pseudoscience of physiognomy. Hmm, her eyes seem beady and close-set. She looks devious. Her expression seems surly. But are we accusing an innocent? Ultimately, anybody could be anything.
Text on the wall describes the "unmotivated murders" these girls were convicted of committing. One of them stabbed a friend to death over a two-hour period. AES+F is trying to drive home the idea that even the most unlikely people can simply snap, as they often did in the political, social and economic chaos of Russia in the '90s. It's a provocative installation, but — call it a cultural difference — some of these "unmotivated" murders seem more motivated than others. In one case, a 13-year-old girl stabbed her 40-year-old neighbor in the stairwell of their apartment building because "she believed that the sexual advances of her neighbor warranted his murder." I don't know if he needed killin', but to me, some 40-year-old making sexual advances on a 13-year-old doesn't sound like the poster child for blameless victims.
The photographic series Defile (2000-2007) presents seven life-size images of people clad in avant-garde fashions. You might think it's just Fridkes exercising his fashion-photography skills — until you notice the models' sunken eyes, crudely stitched autopsy scars and rigor mortis. AES+F shot pictures of unidentified corpses at the morgue and then digitally clad them in edgy fashion. The photographs are presented as tall, vertical lightboxes — they look like glowing coffins.
The models' dead bodies are gaunt, and they're attenuated in a strangely fashion model-esque way. But they don't really look like the kind of people who could afford high fashion in life. One man, in a purple silk shirt and cravat, is old and wizened. A woman in a flouncy red skirt and fur jacket has roughly shorn hair — like it was cut by some prison or hospital for lice control rather than style.
In their exhibition catalogue, AES+F talk about "the idea of pairing fashion, with its extreme temporality, with death, with its constancy and inevitability." It's a provocative strategy, and showing big pictures of dead people has a creepy allure. Russia's capital city of Moscow contains the wealthiest people in a largely impoverished country. I lived in Russia in the mid-'90s and remember Moscow's superrich, in head-to-toe Versace, walking past elderly babushkas trying to sell the knobs off their stoves to make a few rubles. Sometimes those poor old anonymous women would turn up dead in the snow. And sometimes those wealthy New Russians in their designer fashions would turn up dead, shot in contract killings ordered by their business rivals. Something about Defile especially resonates in the context of modern-day Russia.
Last Riot (2007) is the centerpiece of the exhibition. When this apocalyptic three-screen video was shown at the Venice Biennale, it caused a sensation. An updated version (using better high-definition technology) of Last Riot is making its U.S. debut at the Station.
The three screens of HD video present a surreal, digitally animated panorama of the end of the world. It looks like someone dropped our planet and glued it back together with all the pieces in the wrong places. There are Ferris wheels, chalets, windmills and pagodas on snow-covered mountains next to beaches with tanks and palm trees. Hot pink Asian dragons rest on oil platforms.
Planes and trains slowly and flamelessly crash; rockets are launched into the air. The only remaining combatants are a band of young, attractive people, teens and preteens on a snowy mountaintop. With their impassive faces and casually hip wardrobe, they look like the bored participants of a fashion shoot. But they're armed with brutal weapons like bats, swords and the occasional golf club. There's no bloodshed, only slow-motion, stylized blows and thrusts that never seem to injure or draw blood.
Lizards scramble over sand, birds soar, and horny white mice hurry to reproduce as man snuffs himself out. AES+F use a lot of Wagner in the sound track. The favorite composer of the Third Reich is hard to beat for ominous drama.
Last Riot is a tour de force, a dark and intensely contemporary vision. We live in a time when average teenagers routinely engage in virtual bloody conflict in their virtual worlds. Our cultures are rapidly changing, spreading and intermingling, and our environment is undergoing drastic climate change. But is Last Riot a warning shot or a premonition?
For the American viewer, looking at AES+F's work is like having a conversation with some brilliant but cynical old Russian dissident. He's seen it all, and he is, not unkindly, laughing at your youth and naiveté. You're foaming at the mouth about George Bush, and he's reminding you about Stalin.