An excerpt of my essay from the recent book on the contemporary art practice of Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song.
A New Genre of Narratival Portraiture: Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song’s Photographic Series Absolutely Augmented Reality
Imagine a painterly yet hallucinatory sequence of places that appear as if constellations from a dream-filled night. In these images, one finds extraordinary fictional creatures suspended in movement and laid out in articulated areas of color and enigmatic symbolism. This is Absolutely Augmented Reality, a series of photographs created by artists Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song: a powerful narrative and dance of storytelling, image-making, and beauty.
Developed over the last two years, Absolutely Augmented Reality responds to contemporary culture, raises questions about the importance of originality and creativity, and offers a critique of consumerism, social design, the proliferation of images related to the construction of identity, and global financial issues. The photographs included in this book emerged from a symbiotic process initiated in 2017. To begin, the artists created sketches for each photographic concept, followed by a highly refined orchestration of the imagined narrative scene, models, costume, and props. In the process of discussing and experimenting with sketches and over 5,000 frames, the artists’ work emerged as a reflection of their own diasporic existence, described by Song as “immanent to our existence as travelers, an expression of a sort of nostalgia for distant worlds.”
The Pictures: A New Genre of Narrative Portraiture
In the Absolutely Augmented Reality series, carefully orchestrated mise-en-scène tableaux merge tropes from painting (including iconic imagery from Surrealism) with mysterious motifs, creating an unsettling, painterly collision of fantastic narrative and portraiture under the shadow of globalism.
In many of the pictures the artists have rearranged bodies, symbols, costumes, and imagery in a new and sometimes shocking manner, creating a new parallel world. There is a deliberate borrowing from popular culture, as well as from canonical modernist artists such as the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (for example, his scene of three men in bowler hats sitting facing the open sky by the seaside). Within this context, the artists play with the subversion of images to create a distinct visual language to construct strange worlds and strange inhabitants. A woman plunges through a red wall of clouds, only her bottom and legs remaining visible. One finds oneself immersed in pictorial puzzles at once disorienting and evocative of desire and wonderment.
And yet a distinguishing feature of Song’s and Vostrikov’s work is pictorial clarity reminiscent of classical portraiture in the way it surrounds the central subject with symbolic objects and environments. While the artists integrate models from Magritte, Surrealism, and Cubism as “part of the preserved past,” they also seek to create new imagery to “reveal something new for the critics and the audience. When we talk about the analog form, we are talking about the past. As if there is not a point anymore in dealing with outdated technologies, pressing records, developing film, buying brushes and canvases.” Vostrikov and Song concentrate on the reexamination of mass media, the unrelenting ecosystem of social media and photography, wherein the pervasive world of images has become increasingly homogenous. In this view, subjectivity, creativity, and authorship are muted in an unrelenting process of erasure and silencing. The two artists extend their subject matter by exploring a set of themes at once interrelated and divergent. They situate their practice with juxtapositions of the familiar and unfamiliar, but it should also be noted that the stories unfolding in this work are unlike any other body of work and present an entirely new and riveting visual sensibility. As well, the oeuvre as a whole seems to oscillate between overtly symbolic critical imagery and enigmatic language—an admixture best described as uncanny.4
Indeed, the power of these images originates in their irreverent and disruptive pairings. A poetic resistance runs through the photographs that juxtapose the prosaic with the imaginary, creating dream worlds that are resplendent in color and feature alluring and enigmatic protagonists.While the photographs open into fantastic scenes or alternative realities, there is an element of crystalline realism, precision, and intricate planning in the making of the images.
It can be said that Absolutely Augmented Reality achieves a lyrical resonance by allowing the uncanny to emerge from veristic composition. There is an unsettling hybridity in such works as the photograph of the woman wearing a crown of extinguished cigarette butts. Other images suggest a world of high-definition dreams, often introducing references to outmoded technology: the mysterious portrait of a woman wrapped in videotape on the seaside, or the woman holding a water-spewing rotary phone. Indeed, these hybrid images are replete with what Sigmund Freud described as heimlich/unheimlich (the familiar and unfamiliar).5 That which feels familiar and at the same time frightening is a reoccurring motif. There are endless examples in the series: a woman defying gravity while riding her red bike, a man painted a stark white with blue electronic wires sprouting from his head, his saintly pose a reimagining of the cyborg. As well, the observer can discern in the artists’ wedding of the animate with the inanimate the classic trope of the uncanny as explored by Freud and Ernst Jentsch, which still evokes a sense of intrigue and repulsion today.
Throughout, a refined aesthetic and experimental approach governs much of the artists’ collaboration. The intricate and sustained planning process involved in creating these photographs reveals a theatrical ordering of a Dadaist sensibility, in which pageantry and elegance coexist with strangeness. Within these painterly pictures the viewer experiences a busy abundance of desire, hybridity, fantasy, eroticism, and symbolism.The artists characterize modern society as a site of erasure for artistic process and authorship, supplanted by an increasingly vapid engagement in technology and social media. As such, the artists take as their subject the intersection of new technology, social media, fine arts, and creative authorship through a series of richly saturated, theatrical, and symbolic images that use costume, character, and allegory to create a sense of exploration and melancholic intrigue. Within these tableaux of imaginary worlds inflected with Dadaist and Surrealist sensibility, there lie the interrelated stories of two artists with entirely different backgrounds.
Absolutely Augmented Reality offers up a dream world of mysterious and alluring portraiture, suffused with a host of archetypal images, hybrid creatures, surreal motifs, and canonical postures, as well as inversions of iconic art historic references.These tableaux reflect an urge to create memory in the face of an ephemeral and constantly changing landscape of technology and form. In making these narratives, Song explains, she observes the fragility and “slipperiness of time and imagines the way in which life arose from nucleotides.”
As a collection of contemporary pictures that blur the lines between media—painting, film, and photography—this book is an invitation for the reader to enter a world of radical illusionism, a reassembling of captured imagination, memory, and history inflected by a profound precisionism. Absolutely Augmented Reality challenges and even inverts the conventions of portraiture, whether in painting or photography. Still, at the same time there is an exaltation of the artistic mind as a wellspring of subjective, enigmatic beauty and ideas. In these evocative yet unsettling images, we discover remainders of memory, of history, of former lives, yet find ourselves mocked for our tethered relationship to technology and popular culture. The eyes of the artists guide us through the creation of an illusory world that oscillates between a sense of alienation and fantastically rich iconography.