Last September while I was in Moscow for the Moscow Biennale, I, along with a small group of art fans, dropped by the studio of renowned Russian art collective, AES+F. In fact, the studio we visited was one of four in a drab Soviet-era artist building that the group uses for its projects; they have one for editing their videos, one for photography, and another in the basement for sculptures. The one we meet in is their communal meeting room where the artists gather for meals and group discussions.
The creative quartet, composed of Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovitch, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes, have been working together for over two decades, and almost three decades as a trio (minus Fridkes, who was also absent during our meeting). Although the name sounds like a corporation, AES+F, an abbreviation of each of their surnames, was taken on for the sake of ease. “Journalists always messed our first and last names”, explains Lev. Any non-Russian speaker who has tried memorising the names in Anna Karenina will relate to this. But the abbreviation also stands for Advanced Encryption Standard, Lev informs us with tech nerd humour. “It’s the most useful encryption system,” he laughs. I had to look it up.
I’ve long admired the group’s cutting-edge digital works which fuse influences from Hollywood cinema, advertising, fashion photography, video games and Old Masters to create futuristic and super-stylised slow-motion films. Their Liminal Space Trilogy – the culmination of eight years work which includes ‘The Last Riot’, ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ and ‘Allegoria Sacra’ – look like polished advertising campaigns populated by a multi-racial cast of beautiful people. But these aren’t glossy Gap ads. Beyond the tightly choreographed compositions, reminiscent of mannerist and Baroque paintings, you will find a tongue-in-cheek discourse on contemporary issues like multiculturalism, technology, consumer culture, and our ongoing obsession with physical perfection.
The group formed in 1987 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union when creative possibilities expanded. “We belonged to the Soviet Union. We are generation who started from scratch, trying to find a new way forward in this open world,” explains Evgeny, the chattier of the group. “We started to work together as a conceptual design project. Me and Tatiana, we are architects by education (and a couple), so we’re accustomed to working together and in a group. It’s also very interesting and very productive to work in this way; we discuss everything together. It is a different energy and we all specialise in different things and can divide those skills up. We do the sculptures, the videos, the production, as a collective,” he says of the group dynamic and work process. “Vladimir joined us in the mid ’90s when we started working more with photography. During that period in the ’90s it was interesting to us to use media in our work so we invited him to join our group,” he explains.
Asked what drives the group to continue working together for longer than most marriages ever survive, the artists jokingly banter like married couples in a mix of Russian and English.
“Fear!” answers Tatiana as the studio erupts in laughter from the other two.
“No, I would say this is pleasure. It’s fun,” adds Lev. “I cannot imagine how to work as one lonely artist. I’m sure that nobody but us can do these big ambitious projects,” he earnestly states.
“You create something new as four. You have your own idea but also another three that can contribute to something new,” says Tatiana.
“We are against this cult of personality,” Evgeny announces.
“Exactly. We have a personality as a group,” says Tatiana. “As artists we try to create something that is more than us, not just repeat what is in society.”
Of course, there are times when the group disagrees on the direction of projects.
“Then, we fight,” say Tatiana and Evgeny, in unison. “But we have to continue to discuss until we agree on the vision,” adds Lev.
Clearly, whatever they’re doing works. The group has exhibited in some of the most prestigious art institutions and events, including the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, which held their first ever mid-career retrospective in 2007; the 2007 Venice Biennale; the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in the Netherlands; Moscow Museum of Modern Art; the 4th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea; Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney; Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm; Martin Gropius Bau in 2012; and this year their work will be shown at Royal Academy of Arts in London during Frieze.
Below are some snaps of my visit.