Interview: AES+F

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If one thing’s certain, the Muscovite art collective AES+F are certainly not timid. Since their inception in 1987 as AES (photographer Vladimir Fridkes, aka ‘F’, joined in 1995), the quartet has embarked on a series of conceptual art projects that thrust the human psyche under microscopic scrutiny – with almost painfully accurate articulation. In their 1997 photo exhibition Suspects: Seven Sinners and Seven Righteous, 14 images of seemingly guileless teenage girls faced out, leaving it up to viewers to decide who’s a convicted murderer and who’s an innocent schoolgirl. 

From 1996 to 2003, their now-infamous project Travel Agency to the Future: Islam Project aimed to illustrate collective Western beliefs and fears about Islam. In the project, they digitally altered images of famous landmarks and tourist sites (such as Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty, with the latter clad in a burqa) as radical-Islam-oriented destinations, even going so far as to create a fake tourist office advertising these locations. The tragic turn of events on September 11 prompted the group to temporarily shut down operations. But the hauntingly prophetic nature of the Islam Project – in its reflection of Western Islamophobia rather than as a criticism of Islam – still echoed loud and clear in the art world. 

AES+F completed their first film in the Liminal Space Trilogy in 2007, Last Riot, which displays a virtual world – inspired in part by video games and Star Wars – that deconstructs the ideals of humanity in an epic dance battle. Their second in the series, The Feast of Trimalchio, is set in a five-star hotel and was inspired by Petronius’ classic Neronian novel Satyricon, which explores the excessiveness of guilty pleasures and wealth. The two films were shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and in 2009, respectively. Completing the trio of Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, AES+F now present their third and final film in the series, Allegoria Sacra, in Hong Kong alongside a number of photographic works.

A visually sumptuous nod to the Holy Allegory painting by Italian Renaissance master Bellini, Allegoria Sacra was created from thousands of photographic renderings of a contemporary Purgatory. A modern-day airport is the setting. Passengers of different ages, sexes and races await the final judgment as their flights are delayed again and again. As the narrative of the film unfolds, the sequences take a wilder turn: centaurs gallop awkwardly across the screen and a dragon-headed plane glides down a snowy runway, all set to the tune of a dramatic orchestral soundtrack. It is a fitting finale to Liminal Space Trilogy.
In keeping with AES+F’s style and philosophy, the film does not simply point in a single direction but is a polyphonic exploration of good and evil, clashing cultures, and the expectations of happiness in different corners of the world. Because perhaps in life (and in death), there are no answers. Ysabelle Cheung

AES+F Art Statements, Oct 26-Nov 17; artstatements.com

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