From Russia With Love

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Here’s a nice surprise. Some artists whose work never interested me before show up at the Biennale in a different light — and it’s the same work, more or less. The Russian pavilion features four individual artists and one collective, AES+F, which stands for Tatyana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes. Their piece, called Last Riot, is a panoramic video over three large screens that mixes teenage performers and animated backgrounds, all set to music, mostly by Wagner. In a landscape that varies from arctic to desert to mountainous, scattered with everything from pagodas and chalets to ferris wheels, an international assortment of adolescents rumble with knives, swords and baseball bats, assuming pouty postures as they point their blades into one another throats. Behind them all eras collide, 1930s aircraft, trains, tanks from World War I. It’s a perverse Modernist fantasia, the modern world breaking down again into the inevitable human bestiality.

My only previous exposure to their work was to the photo stills connected to the video. The stills — of the kids, dressed in camos, wife beaters and gym shorts, posing mock heroically while they threaten each other with this and that weapon, have always struck me as fashionista piffle, posturing shop window Surrealism. They still strike me that way, but the video puts them into a more interesting context, a narrative of a technological society dialing back to the human default mode of barbarism. These days we all know something about that.

This is work that owes something, I think, to the paintings that the (wonderfully named) Danish artist Odd Nerdrum started showing in the 1980s, medieval watchmen carrying modern weaponry and wearing World War I airman headgear, all set against brooding skies — a Dark Age with explosives capability, which is to say the one we live in. I still prefer Nerdrum. But now I get these guys, too.

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