AES+F – “MARE MEDITERRANEUM” – Manifesta 12 Palermo 2018
The new exhibition of the Russian collective of artists AES+F in Palermo, “MARE MEDITERRANEUM“, collateral event of Manifesta 12, is absolutely one of the best of the entire biennial.
The exhibition is held in the “Sala Pompeiana” at Teatro Massimo: the pulsating, geographical and cultural heart of the city of Palermo, and lasts from June 18 to September 19, 2018.
The exhibited artworks are 10: a video-installation, with a flowing sea in eternal movement, as a living and dynamic background element, and 9 porcelain statues, which, as the official exhibition statement says, have been «designed in the kitsch neo-rococo Capodimonte style».
The exhibition and the artworks are certainly great examples of a truly “contemporary way“ of making art. They are strongly post-modern.
At least on 3 points:
- Technical perfection
- Relevance of the theme
- Astute irony
AES+F – “MARE MEDITERRANEUM” – Manifesta 12 Palermo 2018: Technical perfection
Let’s do a mental experiment: let’s imagine we arrive at the exhibition without knowing the artists, the theme, or any cultural analysis about it. We are perfectly ignorant.
It is hard not to be struck by what you see. The perfection of these statuettes, their soft colors, made bright thanks to the enamel, the golden inserts of the waves, inevitably attract the visitors’ attention.
Here the AES+F have already won: the statuettes are beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful by a simple and deep beauty, they are beautiful objects, as a child would recognize them.
A part of today’s snobbish intellectualism gives too little weight to one of the founding elements of human art and life: beauty.
The works created by AES+F are authentic old-style “works of art“: they are beautifully crafted porcelain statuettes.
And their post-modernity, from this point of view, lies in having been able to re-discover and re-propose an ancient, “authentic” beauty.
It is not by chance that their source of inspiration was the eighteenth-century European porcelains, which have embellished the houses of the nobility throughout Europe for over two centuries.
This first impact with the exhibition, with the works, the interest aroused, is what convinces the viewer to go further, to take a serious interest in the works. The question does not remain between the artists and the critics, between the artists and the intellectuals.
The feeling of “beauty” expressed by the statuettes is a way (perhaps “the way“) to involve as many people as possible, and thus get to the real point of the matter: the theme.
Without this exquisite escamotage, the works would probably have remained unheard.
AES+F – “MARE MEDITERRANEUM” – Manifesta 12 Palermo: Relevance of the theme
Now that beauty has conquered us, let’s try to understand what this exhibition and these works are about. The theme in contemporary art, if it is not “everything“, is at least “almost everything“.
What is it about “MARE MEDITERRANEUM“?
It speaks about the sea, obviously, in its meaning of “meeting“ place.
In relation to the main theme of Manifesta 12, “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence“, the exhibition focuses on what happens and has always happened in the Mediterranean Sea: meetings and clashes, cultural and commercial exchanges between the peoples from Africa, Asia and Europe.
Today, the question has assumed a global importance: the Mediterranean Sea is full of fishermen, container ships, oil tankers, luxury yachts, but also rafts of poor people who leave Africa and Asia to reach the dreaming land of Europe and the Western world.
So the Mediterranean Sea is a “meeting place” par excellence, since the dawn of time. And the statues portray these “imaginary encounters“.
They do this by exploiting one of the most powerful weapons of human thought, one that seriously leads to reflection: irony.
AES+F – “MARE MEDITERRANEUM” – Manifesta 12 Palermo: Astute irony
This is the key to everything. The key to contemporaneity, the one that distinguishes “making art today” from doing it “in the past“.
Often ancient works of art were didactic, “informative”. They were used to convey a clear and direct message. The statue of Athena Promachos on the Acropolis of Athens has in common with the Statue of Liberty in New York the fact of proposing a clear message, declared in an “affirmative” way.
The statues by AES+F don’t tell us something “affirmative”, but, if anything, they propose a doubt, they ask questions.
Can the peaceful meeting between the people of the world be truthful?
Maybe. But that’s not what we see on TV.
The young and smiling characters of the figurines show us a possibility, that, because of their distance from the real world (unfortunately), makes us reflect.
A couple of young blond guys on an inflatable mattress collects and welcomes a boy from the Maghreb who has come from the waves.
A blond boy with fins and sunglasses on his head, hugs an Arab boy while their “boats” (an inflatable mattress for the “white guy” and a wooden raft for the “colored boy”) collide.
A beautiful blonde girl in a bikini (a kind of Aphrodite), on the one hand embraces an Arab boy, and on the other hand passes a (pop) coke can to a black boy who climbed on the inflatable boat.
A blond-haired surfer (a kind of Jesus), welcomes two half-naked African girls on his surfboard, dressed only with some brightly colored sheets.
There is an interweaving of benevolence, disinterested love and erotic sensuality, which is reminiscent of the flower children of the 70s.
These images are so unusual that they seem almost ridiculous. They rip a bitter smile because of their “unreality”.
As the artists say: «The Mediterranean Sea is once again the epicenter of ideological contradiction. War has pushed refugees and migrants who, saving themselves, have floated and swum across it to confront Europe with a difficult choice. Their choice has already led to politically charged and ideological confrontations, to the polarization of public opinion and to the rise of xenophobia and ethnic violence».
It is therefore precisely this “irony“, this “black humor“, that gives strength to the works of AES+F. Making them “post-modern“, fully “contemporary“, and giving them the right energy, which leads to reflection.
AES+F – “MARE MEDITERRANEUM” – Manifesta 12 Palermo: The “ironic porcelain”
From the strictly “artistic” point of view, even the choice of using porcelain and the features of eighteenth-century statuettes has its weight, and its merit.
«Making porcelain figurines on this subject could be thought an extreme manifestation of this paradox yet, through its distance, an artistic image may be more radical than reality itself because it can push conceptual limits».
And more: «Porcelain has always been a symbol of contentment and bourgeois comfort. […] Comfort is both fallible and fragile, like the porcelain that is associated with it. Kept safe for generations in high places, porcelain figurines are attentively guarded but their fragility encapsulates the threat of instantaneous loss. They shatter easily».
This set of themes, material choices and above all dramatic irony, is what makes the works and the show truly meaningful.
The artists are aware of this, and openly declare it: «The chosen form and material of these works contrast with the drama of what is unfolding in the Mediterranean today, and, by doing so, point to it. A reflected ray of light illuminates better than a direct one. We think that this holds true concerning this work».
AES+F – “MARE MEDITERRANEUM” – Manifesta 12 Palermo: The Problem
The problem that still remains is: how much art can seriously do to solve everyday problems?
But this, in the strictest sense, is not its job.
Art (the valuable Art) should induce reflection, arouse drama in thought.
This is what “MARE MEDITERRANEUM“ does.
The rest, it is up to the visitors, to the people of the world.
Teatro Massimo | Sala Pompeiana
piazza Verdi, Palermo
June 18 – September 19, 2018
Manifesta 12 Collateral Event
Text by the PhotoPhore