Ad Lib – Recent Work of Konstantin Bessmertny
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 10:02pm on 23rd January 2017
1.Konstantin Bessmertny, Bestiarium, wood & mixed-media
2.Installation view of Konstantin Bessmertny's exhibition and (in foreground) Anything Is As It Is, mixed-media,85x85x160cm, 2014
3.Konstantin Bessmertny, detail of a diorama, 2016
4.Konstantin Bessmertny, The Battle for Macao and G.S.F.S. (Greed, Stupidity, Fear and Sloth), oil on canvas (two panels), 2016
Konstantin Bessmertny’s exhibition of recent work at the Macau Museum of Art (MAM) is a virtuoso display of paintings, sculpture, videos, installation, small dioramas of “dollhouse size” and lots of stinging one-liners, motifs, graffiti, and commentary that equally focuses on life’s missteps and celebrates the jumble of being alive in a messy world. The privileged and corrupt with their greed and excesses bear the brunt of Bessmertny’s big stick, while the art market’s primary interest in money over art runs as a sub-theme through the entire show.
Born in the USSR and living in Macau and Hong Kong since 1993, Bessmertny’s Russian political sensibility and the shadow of his family’s repression during Stalin’s political purges underline the exhibition. Rather than heavy-handed messages, it’s cutting parody and irony that is employed to make his point, beginning with the exhibition title, ‘Ad Lib’. The Latin term Ad Libitum literally means ‘at one’s pleasure’, it equates to freedom and, in music, improvisation. Ironically it is the opposite of much of the exhibition’s oppressive targets. It is also highlights Bessmertny’s freeform approach to art-making that employs formidable graphic and painting skills. He may seriously quote text by such 19th century anarchists as Mikhail Bakunin and Errico Malatesta, but his breezy design sense, skilled technique and retro and varied typefaces ensure a richly layered visual experience.
And there is great humour - a too-little commodity in contemporary art. This is skillfully employed in the excellent exhibition ‘catalogue’ that has been printed as a spoof art magazine. Within its pages the art world’s hot air is metaphorically pricked with Bessmertny’s sharp commentary. This is best expressed by a recurring drawing that can be seen in different abbreviated versions throughout the exhibition. The magazine’s detailed version is captioned as an “Art pyramid in TIMES of CORPORATE CAPITALISM” published by the “Artists Liberation Front” and presented as a 19th century taxonomy of the art world. This drawing is of a heaped stack of pigs, with the ‘artist’ at bottom, followed by, in order: the ‘art gallery’, ‘art curator’, ‘art biennial’, ‘art critic’ (definitely me!), ‘art collector’ (possibly exhibition viewers!), ‘art fair’, ‘art museum’ (the artist’s sponsor!), ‘art foundation’, ‘corporate art collection’, ‘art auction’, and ‘art trend’.
In other paintings, the ‘artist’ may be depicted by everyman or woman, surrounded by avariciousness, vanity and fame. Two large hemispherical (half-moon) paintings are the standout works in the exhibition. The Battle of Macao depicts Macau’s long history and highlights two pivotal events: the defeat of an invading Dutch force in 1622 and the end of the city’s gambling monopoly in 2002. Bessmertny says that “The first (event) made Macao the ‘Venice of the Orient’, and the second made it the capital of ‘opulent kitsch with the silliest cultural throwback of all time’.”
Its companion piece is G.S.F.S. (Greed, Stupidity, Fear and Sloth), inspired by Albert Einstein’s remark that “the three great forces that rule the world are: stupidity, fear and greed.” Bessmertny adds another: sloth, which he says “makes people enslave others, delegate, procrastinate and, paradoxically, invent ways and technologies to avoid work.”
G.S.F.S. is a rambling landscape of characters similar to Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s famous cover for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band. Rather than expressing the artist’s own narrative, the painting prompts speculative stories from viewers. These two paintings are melded together as a complete sphere and powered by a hidden motor, slowly rotating in continuous motion. Life – the good and bad – is circular and goes on and on.
In contrast, Bessmertny’s thoughts are confidently expressed on a large wooden sculpture of a lion, Bestiarium, covered in political graffiti. And to stress the decline of serious culture and, in particular, the waning popularity of classical music, Bessmertny began painting on cellos and double-basses to act as a talisman “for musicians to defend themselves from aggressive representations of popular culture….”
Using the background of Ride, an installation of a tatty Mercedes coupé filled with plaster copies of classical Greek sculpture, a beautiful model poses in a contrived advertising shoot with the mock text exclaiming: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars but a place where the rich use public transportation.” Such hyperbole sits like guilty evidence in a crime scene. In Bessmertny’s hand, the world is a wonderfully rambling crime scene.
Link for further info:
'AD LIB- Recent Works by Konstantin Bessmertny' @ Macau Museum of Art
A version of this review was published in the South China Morning Post, 15 December 2016.