Russian art group AES+F’s The Feast of Trimalchio is one of the Biennale of Sydney 2010 most talked-about pieces. Michael Hutak gets to grips with its seductive surfaces and grim reflections of the real world…
The role of large-scale art events in the building of the “brand” of the global city is becoming more and more conspicuous. No city fathers can have pretensions to presiding over a truly “world class” city in the 21st century without a respected, credible biennale. A biennale is a luxury item, signifying a metropolis of emerging city-state status which belongs more to the global economic order than a national jurisdiction. Which is why it was interesting to hear Biennale of Sydney, artistic director, David Elliott, counsel the cream of Australia’s arts media at the launch for this year’s event, that they not forget about the fifty percent of the world’s population living on less than USD$2 per day. This sent a zephyr of murmurs around the MCA’s American Express Hall, a collective tut-tutting at such remonstrations. Get back on topic Mr. Elliott: this is contemporary art, not global food insecurity.
Inviting the incursion of real politik into the public relations, Mr. Elliott was met with uncertain silence by the media. He would have done better to ditch the hungry poor. A more pressing developed-world question is do the world’s biennales line up as environmentally friendly events? For instance, if we were to audit the carbon footprint of all artworks in Sydney this year, would the work of Russian art troupe AES+F, for example, emerge as ecologically indefensible? I very much doubt it. However, if the point of all the superfluous cultural production that clogs up biennales is the public apprehension of at least one transcendent work of art, then this year’s stanza finds its apotheosis in work presented by these Moscow-based digital dynamos. For their own edification, the public must trek to the very physical ends of the survey, to the furthest western reaches of Cockatoo Island, to the building containing AES&F’s extraordinary The Feast of Trimalchio, a nine-channel digital collage animating over 75,000 photographs.
Trimalchio is a dazzling venture, using scale to dominate and intimidate the audience; using volume both in space and sound to draw a direct correlation with the power relations it puts on display: a resort hotel plucked from the perfect world of Forms where the Caucasian idle rich get it on with their hot Asian and African bellhops and chamber maids; where designer spa and beauty regimes are played out in neo-classical arcadia, a hollow celebration of commodified exotica, ethnicity and erotica; a fetishisation of decadence itself. Gobsmacking, breathtaking, jaw-dropping, this towering time-based triptych envelopes the audience in the round, as it imagines flesh on the bones of the revelries described by Jean Baudrillard when he asked “what are you doing after the orgy?”.
AES&F constitute two architects, a creative director and a fashion photographer, all four born in the 1950s after the death of Stalin. For this work they were inspired by Petronius’s ‘Satyricon’, which presents “wealth and luxury, with gluttony and with unbridled pleasure in contrast to the brevity of human existence”.
“We searched for an analogue in the third millennium and Trimalchio, the former slave, the nouveau riche host of feasts lasting several days, appeared to us not so much as an individual as a collective image of a luxurious hotel, a temporary paradise which one has to pay to enter.”
The artists bring a visceral disdain to this tableaux of excess capital. Launched at last year’s Venice Biennale, Trimalchio comes to Sydney on its next stop on the Grand Global Tour. It’s my right to draw my own conclusions, and I see sewn into this cloth a self-referential critique of these sprawling international contemporary art surveys which now crowd the calendar. AES&F draw my attention to the globalisation of the contemporary art industry, with its attendant overproduction of indifferent works, its alchemic transformation of radicality into entertainment, and the role of art today in the nullification and commodification of transgression, as artists stage manage the logistics of international freight and rack up air-miles on the new incarnation of the Grand Tour. Trimalchio is at once the embodiment and condemnation of the system of relations it presents. It makes an enthralling, indulgent, unapologetic spectacle of itself. It is not to be denied. I love it.