by Dilpreet BhullarApr 07, 2021
In a sensorially explosive experience, artists Arzamasova, Evzovich, Svyatsky and Fridkes intertwine the art of opera and installation. AES+F is a collective of four Russian artists based in Moscow. Their work stems from the tensions created between the traditional and contemporary, from technology to narrative and aesthetic. This holds true for their recent production of Turandot as well. The collective brings together Carlo Gozzi’s classic Turandot, adapted to current socio-political dynamics, with the hyper-detailed, opulent, Euro-Oriental fusion aesthetic that AES+F is known so well for. The result is a magnificent wave of surreal visual and aural stimulus.
In a first ever interview with STIR, the collective talks about their approach to the performance, “Teatro Massimo, which has a programme of inviting contemporary artists to work on operas, invited us to stage Turandot. We really liked the theme of the libretto, which coincides with the subjects that we really like to work with - like contemporary gender relations and social structures. We saw an echo of the contemporary #MeToo movement in the libretto, as well as themes of totalitarianism and cultish behaviour, Orientalism and othering of Eastern culture. A certain kind of monumentality and symbolism that is always present in opera also echoes in our work. So, we reinterpreted Gozzi’s libretto as describing a not-so-distant future of 2070, where Beijing is the capital of a global empire and the world is under a strict totalitarian hyper-feminist cyber-matriarchy of princess Turandot. In terms of our creative language, we are always interested in working with basic myths (Turandot is a fairy tale), and interpreting them through the prism of various complex contemporary social and political processes. For example, in the opera the end was simply Calaf and Turandot falling in love after the death of Liu, but we reinterpreted that finale as allowing for love of all kinds, essentially queerifying the subject by allowing people of all genders and even creatures that are not strictly speaking people to perform love and adoration for one another”.
While they are no stranger to large scale projects involving multiple props both human and inanimate, Turandot was their first opera. The Moscow-based artists discuss how previous works set them up for this massive undertaking, “We create large video projects, so working on an opera gave us a reason to create a big video set on an opera stage. We tried to create a video installation that accompanies an opera performance from beginning to end, while at the same time one that could stand alone as an artwork that speaks about the contemporary world. We have worked with theatre before - creating a video set for Sarah Kane’s Psychosis in Moscow, directed by us together with Alexander Zeldovich. Our video installation accompanied the action on the set, but was a free interpretation of it rather than a direct illustration. In general, our video projects and even work in more traditional media is in some sense a record of a performance, because we always use live people who act out an allegory for us. So, we could say that it is very organic for us to work with live performance, as it creates an additional level of immersion. In the 90s we even did performances ourselves, as part of the Islamic Project”. For the opera, the collective designed the set as well as the video and costume aspects of the production.
While Turandot toured Europe, AES+F also inaugurated a show at Tang Contemporary Art in Beijing. Here they showcased Allegoria Sacra and Inverso Mundus, two large bodies of work that psychoanalyse the state of humanity at the start and in the middle of the current decade respectively. They say, “We feel that the works in that exhibition are precisely about what will and to a large extent already did change in the world. In Allegoria Sacra, which we did in 2011, everything takes place in an airport where planes do not take off and everyone is in a period of indefinite waiting; as people start to wander into each other's dreams, we see a test of globalist fantasies which inevitably lead to war - a prediction of the Arab Spring, as it were. If Allegoria Sacra is about change and transformation of civilisation in relation to globalism, then Inverso Mundus is about relations within Western society. Inverso Mundus details the problems that came to the forefront with the new generation, from economic inequality to new gender relations, to ecological crises - practically all of the things that we see at the forefront of today’s problematics were present in the work. Paradoxically, we feel that very little has actually changed, because capitalism is still here and it is still guiding all the processes that are happening within western society. Perhaps we are seeing its final stages, where all of the grievances of various social groups, caused primarily by capitalism, are taking on a grotesque shape and starting to inform institutional decision making in regard to social behaviour”.
The exhibition Turandot premiered at Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy, in January 2019 and will be part of their repertoire for many years.