AES+F: The Feast of Trimalchio

Stepping inside ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ by Russian collective AES+F is like checking in to an alternative world where perfect bodies populate a sweeping computer-generated landscape accompanied by the orchestral soundtrack of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It is a spectacular work that dissects the experience of high-end contemporary lifestyle. In observing this opulent world, we feel a sense of indulgent, guilty pleasure.

During July, ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ will be the first exhibition of contemporary international art to be shown at Bathurst Regional Gallery (BRAG), comprising both the video installation and large-scale digital ‘paintings’.

The exhibition title comes from the Roman novel ‘Satyricon’, by Petronius, in which Trimalchio’s character becomes associated with wealth, luxury, gluttony and pleasure. AES+F reproduces these themes in a 21st century context by creating an imagined paradise set on a luxurious island resort. The panoramic landscape of this other world sweeps across a 9-channel video installation, depicting the guests and servants engaged in leisure activities and enveloping the viewer in a fragmented experience of the environment and architecture.

The inhabitants of this paradise are of diverse cultural backgrounds and can be distinguished by their clothing – the hotel guests are dressed in white robes and the servants wear traditional dress. As they move in slow, robot-like choreography, the formations of group dynamics against the generic landscape evokes historical references, such as to neoclassical and baroque styles of art and architecture.

While this otherworldly representation of perfection is captivating, seductive and incredibly easy to watch, AES+F subtly blends in much more complex associations to place, identity and history.

This bizarre and fictional realm is a computer-generated non-place. Although familiar, the landscape is not distinguishable and the people form no identity. They construct a standardised global world, where every experience is paid for, and every person plays out an image of themselves. By doing this, AES+F portrays leisure as an experience that is acted, and envisages that our experiences will become more about the image of pleasure rather than the pleasure itself. This suggests an ‘image economy’, where our lives are made up of a series of theatrical moments that represent an assumed set of activities and emotions, but lack substantial connection. As Dr Uros Cvoro says in his catalogue essay, “People themselves are only a supplement to the lifestyle they are living”.

As the work continues to unfold, the guests and servants begin to reverse roles, bringing into play the dynamics between upper and lower class, shifting cultural distinctions, and the disregard of political constructs. Further complications occur when we notice the resort is surrounded by armed guards and metal detectors, creating sinister undertones which are eventually revealed by catastrophic events that become seamlessly blended into this artificial existence.

Time and speed are also important devices. Spending time at a resort, as well as the element of fashion and superficial identities, suggests the temporality of this lifestyle. The slow-motion speed at which the people move is as if they are constantly aware of how they are being perceived – again referring to the image-driven existence. However this poses new questions. Who are they acting for? Is it for each other, or outside viewers?

AES+F has created a post-contemporary, globalised world in which nothing seems to naturally fit but so smoothly blends together. They present human life as a commercial product, challenging us to determine where the barrier lies between true experience and an acted image of that experience. With twists in every new frame, roles are reversed, disasters blend into paradise, and we are challenged by the value of our lives. This world is so perfect that it becomes strange, and with the high-end visual aesthetics, we can’t look away.

Bathurst Regional Art Gallery
June 22 to August 5, 2012

Allegoria #3 (Triumph of Africa), 2010, digital print on paper, 205 x 180cm.
Collection Dr Clinton Ng.

Arrival of the Golden Boat, 2010, digital print on paper, three parts, 295 x 495cm overall.
Collection Dr Dick Quan.

Images courtesy AES+F