Could an entire generation be psychically altered by media images of violence and war? By computer technology and its virtual capabilities? What about the unsparing assault of advertising? Last Riot (2007), a video by the Russian collaborative artists AES+F at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, jacks around in a big way with these questions. Last Riot is a breathtaking, unhinged piece of work that draws from fashion photography, print-ads, video gaming, popular culture, film animation and Caravaggio. And then there are the fornicating mice.
“It was the strongest thing there,” said Station Museum’s Jim Harithas about Last Riot’s success at the 52nd Venice Biennale . “I did everything I could to get it here,” he said, which was not easy given the artists’ heavy exhibition schedules. “They’re the biggest thing in Europe,” Harithas said. The “they” in AES+F are Moscow-based video and photo artists Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes. The exhibition’s curator is Olga Sviblova, Director of Moscow’s Multimedia Art Center. Presented on three HD screens, the Station Museum’s exhibition of Last Riot marks the first time the work has been shown in an American museum.
A battle fought by fashion model-looking young people dressed in Benetton-type sportswear drives the video’s narrative. They swing swords, daggers, and other obscene weapons in a constantly changing landscape. As the rioters’ figures slowly and majestically shift in battle, their pimply adolescence is magnified, exacerbating the horror of their machine guns. The Leonardo putti face of a curly-headed male child is a brilliant casting choice. The battle scenes are interspersed with allusions to death–dark clouds, flying nuke warheads, rolling Desert Storm tanks, 9/11 crashing planes⎯ all vivid metaphors for cataclysmic doom and worldly destruction. Meanwhile, those humping lab mice, along with random flying dinosaurs, conjure visions of an earth repopulated without humans. Check out the music –you don’t have to be capable of discerning Tristan from Valkyries to be moved by the power and sweeping majesty of Wagner. This music is big like death.
Despite the video’s death imagery, blood and dying are absent from the kiddie battle. Stylistically, Last Riot’s battle action borrows from video gaming; it’s a commentary on computer game warfare that permits virtual annihilation of an enemy without risk of death. There exists a Western-world generation for whom war has become sanitized. “We lost the knowledge of war,” Sviblova explained. “Death has become separated from our consciousness. Blood, death⎯it’s not a reality. That can change human nature!”
Just as Last Riot dissects virtual war, it also offers discourse on the advertising world’s cultivation of un-caged consumerism. The rioters’ mall clothes, media-genic beauty and runway physiques, along with print-ad style compositional arrangements, parody advertising’s glossy packaging, which is gangsterish in its persuasive power.
There can’t be a more damaged crackpot in all of art history than Caravaggio, a murderer and fugitive whose dissipation, homoerotic utterances, extensive police record and sublime talent make him perhaps the weirdest of the old masters. AES+F pay homage to the painter by appropriating elements of his aesthetic program.
Caravaggio posed androgynous youths in mythological compositions, staged scenes of dramatic struggles and grotesque torture in his religious works, and created dizzying emotional intensity in his paintings’ conversion and burial narratives. A boy staring into the water like the mythical Narcissus is one of AES+F’s many allusions to the Baroque master.
Along with Last Riot, AES+F present two powerful but warped photographic series. Defile (2000-2007), offers jaw-dropping conceptual creepiness with life-size light box photographs of morgue corpses digitally dressed in high fashion. The viewer is not spared grotesque deathbed details such as IV punctures, bruises, edema, and ghoulish opened-mouth rigor mortis. Pairing the faddishness of designer fashion with the inevitability of death devilishly mocks the funeral practice of trying to dress-up death. Try to imagine the artists’ refrigerated photo sessions. These images are as shocking as they are beautiful.
Just as twisted is the series
Suspects (1997), in which the artists photographed fourteen young girls-seven of them are convicted murderers, and seven aren’t. All of the portraits are shot in the same attractive frontal style, making it a game for the viewer to guess who is a killer and who is innocent. Included in the installation is chilling wall plaque text describing each crime–a 13-year-old kitchen-knifed her 40-year-old male neighbor, a 15-year-old stabbed her uncle, a 15-year-old helped her friends kick a man to death, etc. The series addresses the tragedy of those who detonated due to the tremendous societal changes during mid-1990s post-Soviet “wild capitalism.” “Women and children were the weakest link. The evidence can be seen in the prisons,” Sviblova said,
Controversial art can get your ass in trouble. A now iconic work from the group’s 1996 series, Witnesses of the Future: The Islamic Project, which depicted the Statue of Liberty holding a Koran and covered in a burka, caused some fuss. The work’s ironic commentary on Western paranoia about the spread of Islam was lost in the post-9/11 climate, drawing inconvenient attention to the artists. AES (this was the pre-Fridkes era) was dubbed “anti-Islamic” and called “media terrorists.” Curator Olga Sviblova has also been controversial. This is the woman who brought the work of Mapplethorpe to Russia when things were “opening up.” She has also exhibited images by Andres Serrano of “Piss Christ” fame. The exhibition at the Station continues the provocation.
AES+F’s “Last Riot” “Defile” and “Suspects” remain on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art through February 29, 2008
All images courtesy of the artists, MAC, Moscow, and Triumph Gallery, Moscow.
Virginia Billeaud Anderson is an artist and writer currently living in Houston.