By Marie Chatel
With thirty years of exercise and more than a hundred solo shows to this day, Russian art collective AES+F has established itself as a key player in digital practices and the contemporary art scene. What’s most intriguing in their absurd parodies is how narratives look both shallow and buried at the same time. Driving viewers in a relentless quest for meaning is probably one of the group’s most successful and overriding strategy, and it all revolves around one term: allegory.
Allegory: Back to Basics
Before delving into AES+F’s approach to narration, let’s go back to the definition and traditional use of allegory. While you might think “Duh, I know this!”, the clarification provides critical elements to understand the Russian collective’s construct of satirical pieces.
Allegory is one of the most recurring devices in Western art tradition because of its ability to represent historical events and inculcate moral values. It can appear in both comic and tragic settings, and functions as a device rather than the attribute of a specific genre within art history. According to historian David Macey, the word accounts for:
“A form of narrative or visual image whose literal and obvious meaning masks one or more meanings often with a didactic purpose.”
Allegorical figures follow specific codes in the bearing of signifiers which allows the process of identification and dissemination of the author’s message. The metaphorical process also depends a lot on interpretations, as exemplifies the appropriation of images from pagan Ancient World by the Christian Church, notably in the depiction of the many Virgin and child. Most importantly, in AES+F’s case:
“A successful allegory is consistent and coherent at all levels.”
An Obvious Choice of References
In AES+F’s environments, pleasures contrast with political correctness and taboos pass on, masked under humanist principles of democracy and maintained through the consented practice of surveillance and control. A method they describe as follow:
“In our brilliant world, a person is oppressed by the excessiveness and availability of pleasure. We do not deconstruct this but look at it through a magnifying glass that takes us to a new grotesque, hallucinatory level.”
AES+F use obvious references to communicate ideas of contemporaneity while setting their worlds in a-contextual, multi-cultural societies. Works feature diverse ethnic groups as well as a plethora of social signifiers taken from today’s fashion, video game, and movie industries. You might recognise white underwears and poses typical of Calvin Klein ads, or the realistic guns and camouflage from your favourite shooting game. These symbols of mass consumption and visions of idealised bodies and lifestyles reminisce of our present time in the form of a glossy, marketing stunt.
The collective also offers references to Western Art traditions, combining styles of the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-classicism notably. These allusions appear in the form of media, materials and format. On top of their work as illustrate their use of 18th-century-like porcelain sculptures in Mare Mediterraneum (2018), friezes and triptychs — in print or videos — for Inverso Mundus (2015) and Allegoria Sacra (2011–2013), as well as Tondos and white enameled sculptures giving a Renaissance vibe to the representations of The Last Riot (2005–2007).
The content within the compositions also shows direct historical influences. Allegoria Sacra, for instance, initiates a dialogue with Giovani Bellini’s 15th-century painting of the same name. The three graces clothed as stewardesses, Virgin Mary, a Centaurus, a hipster-version of Saint-Sebastian in shorts all come together, most probably accompanied by the likes of St Catherine, Job, and St Paul. Similarly, The Feast of Trimalchio (2009–2010) is a visible tribute to the lavish reception that takes place in Petronius’ novel Satyricon. AES+F’s artwork bears the same name as the banquet in the essay, making the reference apparent. It frames this story of Roman decadence within a contemporary setting where the excessively-consuming and pervasive lifestyle of high-net-worth individuals prevail. As such, when using past references, AES+F eminently relies on the European art historical canon, which implies a continuous use of visual and narrative conventions.
As we know, an allegory acquires meaning with repetitive use in a given context– much like a contract between author and viewer. Each time we recognise a pattern or motif, it automatically wires our brain into thinking about the message left for us to uncover. But what if AES+F didn’t use this device to deliver a message? What if we, viewers, inferred meaning to these artworks instead?
Possible social commentaries on AES+F’s work are evident (therefore opposing allegory’s function of hiding an educational purpose). In Inverso Mundus (2015), the group recalls 16th-century engravings where the world goes upside down. Animals supersede humans, beggars are rich, white men are a minority group, and women torture men as a repeal on the Inquisition. Although the call for more equality sounds obvious, the link between all the figures portrayed is confusing. Metaphors barely connect, and paradoxes intensify. Same goes for the meaning of Allegoria Sacra. The presentation of the international airport, today’s crossroad of destiny, takes origins in a Renaissance depiction of the purgatory. Is this social criticism, voyeurism or fantasy? Is it inclusive or cynical? Hard to say.
Despite allegories’ function to articulate a socio-political message, AES+F’s depictions might hold more of a descriptive role. In the composition of The Last Riot, for instance, adolescents mimic the poses and gestures of Renaissance and Baroque figures, but they conversely show no emotional signs. This U-turn is all the more visible that AES+F depict intense scenes of lust and suffering. We expect faces and bodies to express feelings of love, pain and trauma. Still, all we see is young, flawless bodies with similar demeanours. Actors only retain a sense of identity through their appearance and set of movements — this lack of personality concludes in the non-existence of eye contact and physical interaction.
The process also contributes to the delivery of a detached discourse. AES+F photographs actors separately and repeatedly to depict their movements. This technique prevents models from gazing or interacting with each other. It gives them a distance with the artwork’s subject and helps convey both lethargy and excessiveness. Later, sequences of each figure are assembled to illustrate an action. But erotic and violent mise-en-scènes never lead to neither sex nor blood. Once the tension is visible, and the culmination is near, scenes go in reverse motion, preventing a definite ending. While figures repeat their movements in a controlled, slow motion, Classical music, on the contrary, delivers dramaturgy and ardour. In The Last Riot, for example, Richard Wagner’s funeral march Twilight of the Gods (1848) intensifies the action.
These devices can trigger varied and impulsive responses. They contain a plurality of oppositions: conformism and insurrection, negligence and tenderness, masks and extravagant displays. In perplexing the potential message, AES+F withdraws from the creation of meaning and reverses the metaphorical function of the allegory. The reader/viewer is free to decipher. Here lies the key to AES+F’s design: they use a traditionally discursive device to fulfil another function, an aesthetic one.
Allegory as Aesthetic Device
What drives the group’s decision making might be what Russian linguistic theoretician Roman Jakobson called the poetic function of communication. This practice stresses the importance of form in composing a literary text or image. When observing the group’s work method, curator David Elliott noted:
“Each project has a directory of visual references, mostly sourced from the Internet, containing diverse possibilities; each set of references has a place within a larger map of the project.”
The use of mapping critically shows the existence of an underlying pattern. It seems very likely that AES+F posits a visual language to govern their compositions. Elements such as tropes, paradoxes, parallelisms, repetitions, and disrupted metrical patterns repeatedly appear in their work. In which case, allegory becomes another tool in their visual vocabulary. AES+F displaces the emphasis away from the narrative and puts the poetic function in the foreground — a method which links back to Russian Formalism. Estrangement or Ostranenie, as Viktor Shlovsky outlined, consists of making the familiar appear unusual. Semantic shifts result in a defamiliarisation which slows down the process of interpretation and forces to observe the image. Art provides no more shortcuts in delivering content, but a time to appreciate fine visual details.
In tricking viewers into an endless, visual quest for meaning, AES+F enacts one of the most recurring taboos in our societies. All lives deserve purpose, but individuals mostly guess what their’s is. The performance of dissertating AES+F’s content when no direct answers exist becomes the metaphor itself, and compositions earn credit in their consistent convey of non-narratives. Similarly, AES+F’s ultimate focus on visual poetics echoes the “fake it til’ you make it” motto, where everyone pretends to achieve something. Excesses or lack thereof might not be a real deal, but the way we control events through appearances sure is. For all one knows, we vain to eclipse our shortcoming of purpose in a grotesque masquerade.