The Theatrum Mundi exhibition at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva offers visitors an opportunity to explore the past 10 years of AES+F’s mesmerising and highly original works. 

AES+F are a collective of Russian contemporary artists well-known for their immersive video installations of carefully orchestrated digital photographs. Their style mixes the elegance of Renaissance art and the aesthetic codes of today’s globalised world to create narratives that are both conceptually and visually powerful. Without ever making declarative statements, AES+F’s work loudly portrays the instability, vanity, and cultural clashes that can be found in the contemporary world. Theatrum Mundi centres around two of their most recent works: Allegoria Sacra (2011-2013) and Inverso Mundus (2015).

As a collective, AES+F have been active since 1987. Initially a trio known as AES, Tatiana ArzamasovaLev Evzovich and Evgeny Svyatskywere joined by Vladimir Fridkes in 1956, thus becoming AES+F. Prior to forming a collective, their creative focus spanned the fields of conceptual architecture, animation, graphic design, fashion photography and journalism. By forming a collective, the artists have fused their diverse artistic backgrounds into a single creative channel with a unique identity. Two particular works seem to have provoked AES+F’s international acclaim: The Islamic Project (1996currently on show at the New Tretyakov gallery) followed by their first participation in the 2007 Venice Biennale with The Last Riot.  Their creations have travelled around the globe for decades and been the subject of almost 100 solo exhibitions. Theatrum Mundi, however, is a special milestone for AES+F. According to the artists, the show is their “first major survey exhibition”.

The exhibition begins with a projection of Inverso Mundus, which in typical AES+F style, relies heavily on conceptual contradictions supported by medieval iconographic tradition to depict an ‘alternative’ world. In Inverso Mundus, the universally accepted order of everyday life is challenged, and familiar characters have escaped their usual characteristics. In AES+F’s Mundus, chimeras become pets, poor give alms to the rich, pigs skin butchers, and women torment men, delighting in the role of female inquisitors. The 38 minute long, large-scale video installation transports the viewer through a combination of humorously absurd scenes and sometimes not-so unreasonable alternatives to reality. Both the scale of the installation and the creative technique which have brought this poetic vision to life are impressive. The characters, whose faces are permanently devoid of emotion, move at a uniform pace across the screen with a chilling elegance. To complete the viewer’s immersion in Inverso Mundus, a soundtrack of compositions from the likes of Ravel, Liszt and Bellini, amongst others, play throughout the film. The music accompanies the intellectual roller coaster induced by travelling through this bizarre world.

In a different room, visitors can enter yet another immersive universe through a projection of Allegoria Sacra, a work created in 2011-2013. One of AES+F’s most popular works, the video installation is visiting Switzerland for the fifth time since 2014 and has won multiple awards (Pino Pascali award in 2015, Nordart Festival main award in 2014, The Kandinsky Prize main award in 2012, and the Sergey Kuryokhin award in 2011).

AES+F have revealed that the source of inspiration for their work lies in an enigmatic Renaissance painting: Bellini’s Holy Allegory (c. 1490 to 1500). Bellini’s painting stages unidentified figures of Christian and Ancient mythology in a scene which remains a mystery to art historians, but is interpreted by AES+F as a depiction of a purgatory. AES+F’s creation transposes the mystery of Bellini’s scene in the cold environment of international airports, where people as diverse as his metaphorical heroes cross paths in a meeting point “between the abandoned and the not yet found”. By inviting Bellini’s heroes in our modern world, AES+F has imagined characters which are a cross-breed of human and mystical. Some characters of Allegoria Sacra also hide playful references to emblematic contemporary works which have shaped the creative DNA of the 21st century – one example is three women dressed in pristine white costumes who appear surrounding a newborn half-human half-reptile creature, which may remind one of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Beyond characters, the prolific imagination of AES+F has also given birth to objects belonging to Allegoria Sacra, mixing the ancient with the banality of contemporary mass-produced gadgets. The viewer sees the characters and objects appear and interact across fictional transformations of airport gates into hypnotic natural and mystical landscapes. The harmony with which these symbols are fused in improbable combinations, underlines the beauty of the diversity of those who passively cross paths at airport gates.

Importantly, this exhibition also does justice to the quantity and quality of skill, craft and vision involved in the creation of video installations. In yet another room, visitors can see real-life samples of the surrealistic objects which appear throughout the films, sculptures of the characters, paintings of several scenes on canvas, as well large-scale prints of digital collages whose abundant details and characters sport a beautiful resemblance to Renaissance frescoes.

In multiple interviews, the artists have explained that they see their work as a reflection of modern life. Although this may not be confirmed by every visitor, and it could be argued that some works bear a stronger resemblance to sci-fi rather than reality, my visit put me firmly in the artist’s camp. Curiously, the overwhelming fictional aspect of the works exhibited in Theatrum Mundi – the surrealistic landscapes, characters, and objects – leave behind a touch of familiarity.                                                           

If you do not get a chance to visit Theatrum Mundi in Geneva before it closes on the 7 October, some other AES+F creations are on show in different locations. The Last Riot is on display at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow as part of the “Art of the 2000’s” exhibition until the 22 July 2018. Mare Medterraneum will be on show at Teatro Massimo in Palermo, as an official collateral event of Manifesta 12 until September 19 2018. “Berlin, Reichstag” is included in the exhibition “General Rehearsal” at the MMOMA Moscow until 16 September 2018, and Action half-life will be on show at the Lichtempfindlich 2 exhibition of Photography from the Schaufler collection at the Schauwerk Sindelfingen, Germany until the 6 January 2020.