Review: ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ by AES+F at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 7th October – 23rd October 2010


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #1' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #1



Searching for identity like mould spore taking root

In one sense these large panoramic, digitally constructed mis en scene photographs by Russian collective AES+F at Anna Schwartz Gallery, (taken from the “celebrated” video of the same name which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2009) are mere echoes of the lyrical, dance and fugue-like structures of the moving work.

In another sense they work well as still photographs. The balance inherent within the picture frame is exemplary, the use of colour and the feeling of rhythm and flow of the figures in pictorial space, wonderful. This rhythm can be called the physiognomy of the work, its style.1 In these photographs style is hard to miss and the photographs fulfil what Susan Sontag saw as one of the main prerequisites for good art: that of emotional distance from lived reality, that allows us to the look at the work dispassionately before bringing those observations back into the real world:

“All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented. This “distance” is, by definition, inhuman or impersonal to a certain degree; for in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of “closeness.” It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work … But the notion of distance (and of dehumanisation, as well) is misleading, unless one adds that the movement is not just away from but toward the world.”2

In these photographs we have a pastiche of cultural attitudes and mores that allows us to reflect on the foibles, paradoxes, consumerism and stereotypes of identity formation of the contemporary world, mixed with a healthy serving of voyeurism. As Javier Panera notes, “AES+F’s work is nurtured from moral and cultural paradoxes: seduction and threat; hyperrealism and artificiality; classicism and contemporaneity; spirituality and sensuality; historicism and the end of history,”3 and they construct a new oligarchy within a dystopic, Arcadian world. Variously, we have masters and servants, oriental and neoclassical architecture, haute couture, lesbianism, adoration, a youth dressed in white falling out of a priests robes (or is a kimono?) onto an altar-like table, savages and beasts, homoerotic encounters and many more besides – all constructed in an imagined world of a temporary hotel performing rituals of leisure and pleasure, an orgiastic but chaste imagining in this world, looking back at lived reality.

And for me there is the problem. While the photographs offer this vision of temptation and delight in the end they just reinforce the basis of belief in the status quo, the power of cultural hegemony. Subversion as an act, a decorative performance imbued with titillation. As Marco Fusinato observed, using a quotation from an anarchist website in a work in his latest exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery (and the irony does not escape me, far from it!):

“The artist is also the mainstay of a whole social milieu – called a “scene” – which allows him to exist and which he keeps alive. A very special ecosystem: agents, press attachés, art directors, marketing agents, critics, collectors, patrons, art gallery managers, cultural mediators, consumers… birds of prey sponge off artists in the joyous horror of showbiz. A scene with its codes, norms, outcasts, favourites, ministry, exploiters and exploited, profiteers and admirers. A scene which has the monopoly on good taste, exerting aesthetic terrorism upon all that which is not profitable, or upon all that which doesn’t come from a very specific mentality within which subversion must only be superficial, of course at the risk of subverting.”4

The subversion of these images is superficial, a surface appearance of insurrection.

Despite protestations to the contrary (an appeal on the AES+F website to the idea of the Roman saturnalia, see text below) – where the masters serve the slaves at a dinner once a year, this reversal was only ever superficial at best: “the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; the banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters’ dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it.”5

It was a license within careful boundaries.
It reversed the social order without subverting

The same can be said of these wonderful, colourful, rhythmic, chaste, trite, in vogue, pale imitations of subversion. The images come from a very specific mentality within which subversion must only be superficial because they are, after all, images that are searching for an identity in order to access and survive in the Western art world.

ex nihilo nihil fit (Nothing comes of nothing) and please, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


  1. Sontag, Susan. “On Style,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Delta Book, 1966, pp. 30-31
  2. Ibid.,
  3. Panera, Panera. “AES+F’s The  Feast of Trimalchio,” on FlashArtonline.com [Online] Cited 17/10/2010. No longer available online
  4. Anon. “Escapism has its price The artist has his income,” on Non Fides website Wednesday 17 September 2008 [Online] Cited 28/12/2019. http://www.non-fides.fr/?Escapism-has-its-priceThe-artist
  5. Anon. “Saturnalia,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 28/12/2019

Many thankx to The Melbourne International Arts Festival and Anna Schwartz Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Viewers: please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image as it is essential to see the freeze frame action, what is actually going on within the images. All images courtesy the artists and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne & Sydney.



AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #2' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #2


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #3' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #3


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #4' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #4


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #5' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #5



In the Satyricon, the work of the great wit and melancholic lyric poet of Nero’s reign, Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the best preserved part is The Feast of Trimalchio (Cena Trimalchionis). Thanks to Petronius’s fantasy, Trimalchio’s name became synonymous with wealth and luxury, with gluttony and with unbridled pleasure in contrast to the brevity of human existence.

We searched for an analogue in the third millennium and Trimalchio, the former slave, the nouveau riche host of feasts lasting several days, appeared to us not so much as an individual as a collective image of a luxurious hotel, a temporary paradise which one has to pay to enter.

The hotel guests, the ‘masters’, are from the land of the Golden Billion. They’re keen to spend their time, regardless of the season, as guests of the present-day Trimalchio, who has created the most exotic and luxurious hotel possible. The hotel miraculously combines a tropical coastline with a ski resort. The ‘masters’ wear white which calls to mind the uniform of the righteous in the Garden of Eden, or traditional colonial dress, or a summer fashion collection. The ‘masters’ possess all of the characteristics of the human race – they are all ages and types and from all social backgrounds. Here is the university professor, the broker, the society beauty, the intellectual. Trimalchio’s ‘servants’ are young, attractive representatives of all continents who work in the vast hospitality industry as housekeeping staff, waiters, chefs, gardeners, security guards and masseurs. They are dressed in traditional uniforms with an ethnic twist. The ‘servants’ resemble the brightly-coloured angels of a Garden of Eden to which the ‘masters’ are only temporarily admitted.

On one hand the atmosphere of The Feast of Trimalchio can be seen as bringing together the hotel rituals of leisure and pleasure (massage and golf, the pool and surfing). On the other hand the ‘servants’ are more than attentive service-providers. They are participants in an orgy, bringing to life any fantasy of the ‘masters’, from gastronomic to erotic. At times the ‘masters’ unexpectedly end up in the role of ‘servants’. Both become participants in an orgiastic gala reception, a dinner in the style of Roman saturnalia when slaves, dressed as patricians, reclined at table and their masters, dressed in slaves’ tunics, served them.

Every so often the delights of The Feast of Trimalchio are spoiled by catastrophes which encroach on the Global Paradise…

AES+F, 2009
Translated by Ruth Addison

Text from the AES+F website [Online] Cited 28/12/2019


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #6' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #6


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #7' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #7



Russian collective AES+F work with photography, video, sculpture and mixed media. Since 1987, they have interwoven imagery relating to modern technology, Hollywood cinema, fashion photography, advertising, death, religion, the British Royal Family, mass media, popular culture and youth obsession throughout their work.

The Feast of Trimalchio is an interpretation of the witty but melancholy fiction Satyricon by the Roman poet Petronius. In the ancient version Trimalchio’s feast was portrayed as the ideal celebration that Trimalchio imagined for his own funeral. In the AES+F 21st Century version, an orgy of consumerism reflects on the contemporary state of Russia and indeed the world. Created from over 75,000 photographs, the complete work is a nine-channel panoramic media that made its celebrated debut at the 2009 Venice Biennale. For the Festival, Anna Schwartz Gallery features a set of three expansive photographic tableaux. These captivating images of a temporary hotel paradise portray opulence and excess overshadowed by a dark uneasiness.

Text from the Melbourne International Arts Festival website


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #8' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #8


AES+F. 'The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #9' 2009


The Feast of Trimalchio Panorama #9



Anna Schwartz Gallery
185 Flinders Lane
Melbourne, Victoria 3000

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 12 – 5 pm
Saturday 1 – 5 pm

Anna Schwartz Gallery website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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