Based in Macau since 1992, this Russian-born artist has become a fixture in the local art scene. In 2007, he even represented the SAR at the Venice Biennale, where he exhibited copies of works by the 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto—commissioned from the art reproduction market in nearby Zhuhai, a city just north of the Macau-China border. Bessmertny, who was born in Russia’s Amur Oblast province, across the river from China’s northeastern province of Heilongjiang, claims an affinity with his adopted home, with its architectural and social diversity. Despite his quips about Macau’s tightfisted government, which he says hoards its gambling revenue rather than investing in cultural development, Bessmertny asserts without hesitation: “Macau is my favorite city in Asia.”
Bessmertny’s studio, a gutted, two-story building, painted red from floor to ceiling, faces a bare, brick-paved courtyard. Inside, a long work table is lined with preparatory sketches and art books. Steeped in symbolism and cryptic Latin phrases, the largest of Bessmertny’s canvases are stacked upright, against the far wall. In them, his sardonic observations of the contemporary local culture treat gamblers and prostitutes on par with bank CEOs and political leaders. Bessmertny’s figural works depict both parties side-by-side with obscenely flabby, pestilence-colored bodies. In panoramic paintings such as China Trade! Vista da Praia Grande (2009), hovering portraits of scantily clad women next to those of elegantly dressed men and businesswomen highlight them as the iconic figures of Macau.
At the front of this stack are two paintings-in-progress: one entitled Monument of Universal Decisions, a Tower of Babel-esque cabinet of vices, and the other an uncharacteristically refined, small, narrative work, depicting the little-known 19th-century artist’s model Annie Miller, naked, surrounded by various artist admirers in a room reminiscent of Dutch Renaissance interiors. To the right, an unfinished wooden sculpture of a female figure stands rejected, tucked behind sludge-covered tables littered with paint tubes and bottles of turpentine. Beside her stands a seven-foot-tall casino scene—an older painting from the artist’s vampire series—showing slack-faced gamblers in muddled green, purple and blues, who glare out into the studio.
The artist’s parodies of contemporary life, which make irreverent references to pre-17th-century masterpieces—such as Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (1563) in Bessmertny’s Monument of Universal Decisions—derive from his appreciation for famous figures of art history. Based on a keen knowledge of the European canon and classical painting techniques, gained at Vladivostok’s Institute of Fine Arts, he scoffs, “20th-century art was a mistake,” adding that today’s cultural institutions no longer seem to regard being an artist as a serious profession. If nothing else, he admits—art today is not boring.
Thanks to the success of Macau’s gaming industry, property overdevelopment has made it especially difficult for local artists to secure affordable studios. Even the well-established Bessmertny cannot escape the effects of Macau’s economic boom: in the months since ArtAsiaPacific’s visit, he has had to leave his studio of five years, as the landlord intends to redevelop the building. Undaunted, Bessmertny has opted for a larger studio space on a quieter part of the island, with fewer weekend tourists and more space for his ambitious installation projects. Later this year, the Hong Kong gallery Amelia Johnson Contemporary will host “Bestiarium,” an exhibition of new site-specific works.