In the frame:
Kuzma Vostrikov
and Ajuan Song

Art critic Anthony Haden-Guest chats to the New York artists behind vivid photos fusing sleek surrealism with cultural commentary

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Every picture here tells a story. But just what, well, that’s quite another story. These images at once seduce and puzzle, dishing out suggestive clues like treats at a party, but then it’s up to you to put together a plot.

This way of delivering meaning long pre-existed the Surrealists. The Symbolist movement in late 19th century art and literature comes to mind but so do reported episodes in actual life.

“Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether,” wrote Byron’s private physician, Dr John Polidori, in 1816 of the occasion when he was with Percy Bysshe Shelley and the poet threw a fit. “He was looking at Mrs S, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples.”

This memory bobbed to the surface of my stream of consciousness as I tangled with Absolutely Augmented Reality (AAR), the latest collaborative project of Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song.

AAR consists of 100 photographs, shot in the old-school fashion, using film. There is no connective narrative, rather what Kuzma describes as “a sequence of small plots, small stories”.

They centre on figures in enigmatic environments – all painstakingly built, no easy photoshopping here – and they feature vividly unlikely juxtapositions or conflicts of figures and objects. But we can ignore the Surrealist model. The word “reality” is embedded in the title of their project. No accident. Their raw material is their experience of the real.

Just what kind of experience though? Both Song and Vostrikov are fairly new New Yorkers, from Russia and China respectively.

“I grew up in Moscow and the south of Russia too,” Vostrikov says. “We took tents and put them on the shore of the Black Sea and made fires and lived in the wild for months. My parents were in artist circles. They painted, they reflected on existence, they did everything. They had fun, they talked against the government, they were free, because nobody cared. In the woods there were no policemen, in the woods no KGB. We could go naked on the beach.”

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Song grew up near Shanghai. “My mum was a teacher but when I was born she couldn’t work,” she says.

Chinese families were then supposed to have one child only and Song had an older sister. “So when I was born they would hide me.”

She grew up to become a student of photography, went to Lagos, Nigeria, for two years, then came to New York in 2014, where she met Vostrikov, himself a fairly recent arrival.

Their shared experiences of childhoods of resilience in an economically bleak landscape have been foundational to the AAR project, but so was another reality.

“We simply want to respond strongly to social situations, technological situations,” says Vostrikov.

Let’s look over a few pictures. Here’s a strong one – a beautiful young woman, unsmiling, with a Medusa hairdo, not of snakes, though, but cigarette ends.

“Everyone was still smoking when I grew up,” says Song. “It was a high fashion thing.”

“Consumerism,” Vostrikov adds. “The cigarette girl, she likes to smoke. We all like to shop.”

Another striking image shows a young woman on a beach. She is encased in a cocoon of recording tape.

“This is a mirage,” Song says. The tape is audio-tape. “This is about memories. You pull the record tape and the record tape tells you your story. You see your illusions, you see your past. This is what you have in your brain. This is how you live today.”

Is AAR, the very title of which is a mordant dig at the world of VR, simply a project reflecting a longing for a pre-digital culture?

“Not pre-digital,” Song says firmly. “We embrace digital. But we want to remind people of the old times, the sentimental times of our childhood, with the memories, the ocean, blue skies. ”

Vostrikov adds: “We want to say, let us bring our human nature to the modern world. Let’s keep being human.”

Absolutely Augmented Reality by Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song is published by Scheidegger-Spiess

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