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The Wit and The Fury: notes on AES+F

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In August of this year, punk collective Pussy Riot made headlines worldwide after three of their members were sentenced to jail on a charge of hooliganism. The charge came after the band staged an anti-Putin performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It was not the first time contemporary Russian artists got in trouble with the law: members of the performance art group Voina (whose activities include having sex in public and shoplifting a chicken in the vagina of one of its members) are arrested on an almost daily basis.

But the interesting thing about the Pussy Riot trial is how typical it is of the divide in Russian culture. The anarchic urban attitude of the punk rockers on the one side, representing the progressive new generation, stands in stark contrast with the somber fire-and-brimstone preaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose teachings are still sacrosanct for many older Russians. It’s a conflict that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon in the largest country on Earth.

With this divide in mind, however, it is hard not to be impressed by the wit, insight and nimbleness that the artwork of AES+F brings to the table in this conflict. Their work is impossible to categorize in terms of “pro” or “anti”, and can often be read as a criticism on both sides of the matter at the same time. It’s thought-provoking in the best sense of the word.

Their Seven Sinners and Seven Righteous, for example, shows us fourteen pictures of young girls. Seven are ordinary schoolgirls. The other seven are convicted murderers. The artists don’t tell us who is who, but they do give us a list of grisly details about the murders. It can seen both as a criticism of the binary notion of “sin” and a criticism of our own snap judgment – who, after all, doesn’t try to figure out who of the girls is guilty and who is innocent, based on nothing but their face?

Or take their Defile series, seven life-size images of people in avant-garde fashions. They avoid looking at the camera, and their expressions are vacant. For a moment, they seem like ordinary glamour shots. Then you realize that the ‘models’ are dead.

Again, it’s hard to avoid religious interpretation (note, for instance, the recurring number seven). The dressing up of corpses in spectacular regalia is a common practice in many Russian churches, due to the Catholic teaching of ‘incorruptibility’, which states that the corpses of certain saints don’t rot. The people in the pictures, however, look beaten, thin, poor. Homeless people often freeze to death in Russian streets, and the piece can be seen as a critique on that. But then again, it can just as easily be seen as a criticism on the fashion industry.

AES+F is a collaboration between Tatiana Arzamasova, a conceptual architect; Lev Evzovitch, a conceptual architect and filmmaker; Evgeny Svyatsky, a graphic artist; and Vladimir Fridkes, a fashion photographer. In the exhibition of the Impakt Festival, they will present their new piece, Allegoria Sacra (Holy Allegory). The work is based on a strange, dream-like painting of the same name by the 14th-century Italian painter Giovanni Bellini. The painting shows a group of people on a mystical, otherworldly terrace, all deep in thought. Nobody seems to be moving, and the whole scene looks like it’s frozen in time. Academics have debated the meaning of the painting for centuries now.

You can see Allegoria Sacra at The Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography, the Impakt festival exhibition, at the CBKU untill October 28. Don’t miss this.