Brooke Lynn McGowan,
New York, May 2021
Challenging ideas of beauty and the ideology of advertisements, the Russian Collective bridges the divide between art and fashion, releasing an NFT, Circle of Life, first created to be a campaign for Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster. See the work here.
Beauty too often contains a betrayal. Even beneath the modest nudity and dismissive gaze of Botticelli’s Venus or behind the sinewy struggle of Laocoön, a morally instructive aesthetic is singularly triumphant; where—even in excess or seduction—the beautiful equates the virtuous and calls the onlooker into a punishing relationship with any and all difference, divergence, or discord. The old, the sick, and otherwise Other are rendered—especially at the later crossroads of the state apparatus and the aesthetic—monstrous, grotesque, deformed—in short, a threat to all that is beautiful and good. At few junctions of ideology and state power has the felt effects of iconological regime in the modern era been more acute than the interpolating force of Soviet Realism; forcefully erasing the avant-garde hard edges of Kazimir Malevich or monumental urges of Vladimir Tatlin, this state-sanctioned artistic production—with its earnest, buxom bodies, blessed with the bounty of beautiful children; with its virile, soldierly physiques, merrily engaging in the comradery of an arms race—not only sought to erase alterity, but to make it unseeable, unsayable, unthinkable: to place it beyond the realm of representation and thus imagination. Likewise, in the land of Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mantle and Marilyn Monroe, the rise of advertising in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, could be seen as no less culpable of attempting to capture the authority of desire as a desire for authority: the urge towards ideal form as ideological and capitalist command. Even racism here is a product (read: commodity) of seduction. We are too often our worst enemies.
Into this slipstream, between the collapse of Soviet tautologies that gave way to authoritarian capitalism, and the continued pursuit of consumer perfection in the increasingly diversified visual culture of advertising in Western capitalism, Russian artist collective AES+F was born. Founded in 1987, with at first three individuals and today composed of four members, Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes, AES+F has made a career of polyvalent critique, not only of global power and its discontents, but also of the remaining ideologies and their relations in the construction (or deconstruction) of sociological prejudices and perils. Pushing the boundaries of multi-channel video installation, the group gained international recognition for their presentation of Last Riot in the Russian Pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale, portraying a Baroque, apocalyptical mise-en-scene replete with nubile, physically stunning youths in a battle to the death, which nonetheless lacks blood, passion, or even heroism. Here the beautiful is not the good, but rather the agent of aggression without (even towards) virtue: an aporia of value, moral or otherwise. Staged in a deliberately virtual landscape, this bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all) presaged the violent and dystopic realities of social media and the internet over a decade later, suggesting the future as naught but an endless battle to the last man, woman, or child—nasty, brutish, and short. What is of perhaps greatest import to the development of their oeuvre is the stylistic and critical choice made by the artists in the Last Riot and elsewhere to use the aesthetic of the international fashion and advertising apparatus against itself; from an pleasing young forms to saturated realism, they use these social hieroglyphs as “‘readymade’ element[s] of the language of contemporary visual culture.” This strategy of aesthetic subversion further includes, they continue, “the combination of the formal beauty with critical content, including irony about beauty itself … [and the presentation of/use of] beauty as a kind of wrapper or capsule to deliver bitter contents.”
In The Circle of Life, a one minute and thirty-seven second video AES+F created to be a campaign for Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster and now released as an NFT, the formal beauty has not receded but rather remains in use as an aesthetic strategy in the service of alterity, in the presentation of the monstrous, grotesque, and deformed, and in the pursuit of an ultimate formal, even dramatic, even meta irony: the deliverance to the world of fashion and advertising its own auto-critical visual diegesis. A trepidatious and portending score by Dmitri Kourliandski (somewhere between the inviting overtures of Fantasia and the impending terror of The Birds) resounds throughout a surreal landscape—barren for all but a strange, floating, amorphous mass—from which a macabre, multiplicitous menagerie of phantastic hybrid animal forms swoops into the foreground: a twin headed seal born on the body of a seagull; a flying, hairless cat with four viper tails; a dog’s face carried aloft by dragonfly wings, trailing the tentacles of an octopus; something resembling a boar with a long tentacle tail and the head of a fish. Standing on this desolate plane, the old, infirm, and other—rendered in the formal beauty of rich, inviting saturation—quickly present themselves to the screen: an aged Caucasian heiress in cascading, sculpted blue velvet; a young man of Asian descent lost somewhere between 20 and 40; a Germanic gentleman of professorial, even Freudian demeanor, beside a woman equally pale and restrained; an elegant black figure garbed in brilliant pink; yet another white man of more poetic and bohemian countenance; and a white woman with ginger hair approaching middle age. Only as the shot cuts does the exclusion become obvious. There, in the foreground, in a surrealist violation of scale and perspective, a young boy stands dwarfed by the statuesque proportions of the stately matron’s azure robes; while each of the other figures are bespectacled exponents of the so-called bourgeoise, (borrowed from the artists’ previous universe of Inverso Mundus), only the helpless and hapless child seems to not need such prosthetics in order to perceive the strange and wonderful scene to which he is witness. As the work progresses, each of these well-heeled characters of advanced age begin to float, each grasping the empty air around the curious cacophony of monstrous animals drifting just out of reach. Only the young boy remains anchored, looking up.
When asked if their work contains elements of the surreal, the artists sidestep, defining their practice as a “stylistic palimpsest”, but nonetheless conceding, “You could say that we reflect the surrealistic reality—an exalted reality of contemporary media (press, TV, film, advertising, internet, etcetera). In our projects you could find elements of surrealism, but we are … closer to symbolism.” Yet, if something is literally represented in their work, it is in fact the symbolic aim and agency of the historic avant-garde—that is, the Surrealists, or Surrealism tout court. For the efforts of those within the milieu of Surrealism include the interrupted bodies of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, George’s Bataille’s disembodied eye or the headless Acéphale, Leonore Fini’s animalistic human hybrids, or Yves Tanguy’s lumpen, abstract but strangely anthropomorphic forms stranded in a wasteland—each composed with the intention to use shocking, offensive, often grotesque, deformed, or monstrous imagery in order to violently disturb the psychological moorings and thus preconceived notions of the all too settled (presumably grounded) and sedate ruling class. In these works, like that of AES+F, though they may be formally beautiful, they are the very opposite of beauty: occupying a space of moral disruption, discord, and divergence, the place of “beauty as a kind of wrapper or capsule to deliver bitter contents.” In AES+F’s Circle of Life, as the characters representative of the bourgeois class are removed from any agency or stability through and while in the act of reaching towards this phantastic Boschian bestiary, ugliness, one might say—unseeable, unsayable, unthinkable—gains the upper hand.
… But another layer remains of this “stylistic palimpsest,” for the Circle of Life, though borrowing from previous bodies of work, was not in the first instance composed as a standalone artistic project but rather as a globally distributed advertising campaign. After years of critical flirtations with the visual culture of “the surrealistic reality of contemporary media,” wherein fashion brands especially have often cited AES+F’s compositions in their commercial campaigns, the artists have decided to self-consciously close the loop. This ironic gesture bordering on kitsch is not without the force of criticality. Richard Prince once stated that the power of advertising lies in the fact that its “images aren’t associated with an author. It’s as if their presence were complete… They look like they have no history to them—like they showed up all at once. They look like what art always wants to look like.” If that is true, then making advertisements submit to the subjectivity of artistic authorship is to deny them their transcendent and violent ideological effect. AES+F in this way, presents and completes the paradox: returning the artist to the process of advertising, through a “formal beauty with critical content, including irony about beauty itself.” Or the irony of the ironic. The circle continues.
Brooke Lynn McGowan is a writer and curator living in New York. She is also a contributor to AES+F’s upcoming retrospective catalog to be published by Rizzoli, from which some of the research for this essay has been adapted.