Le Roi des Aulnes,
15 photographs, single-channel video, 9'04"
More than Paradise,
3 photographs, single-channel video, 12'20"
KFNY (King of the Forest: New York),
12 photographs, single-channel video, 10'35"
The King of the Forest Cycle is a trilogy of large-scale photographic and Betacam video works, seeking to deconstruct the influence of culture and mass media’s exploitation of children as commodities available to a consumerist gaze, using childhood as a medium to examine cross-cultural fallacies. Set in three architecturally notable locations and featuring white-clad children aged 3 to 11, the works in this cycle address the status of childhood within a global, media-saturated environment, typified by the use of nubile, underage youth in fashion campaigns and propaganda. To the same degree that contemporary media find these children captivating, they are also captives of respective forms of power, ideology, or exploitation, and are often victims of an overtly pedophilic visuality. Taking its title from the Erlkönig legend, a medieval Germanic myth recounted by J. W. von Goethe concerning an ogre who kidnaps and imprisons young children in his castle, the trilogy is set in three culturally significant locations — St. Petersburg, Cairo, and New York — portraying the dominant ideological settings of each locality and their effect on the treatment of and regard for children. Each national context reveals its own media-driven “ogre”: for Le Roi des Aulnes in Russia, it is tradition; for More than Paradise in Egypt, it is religion; and for KFNY in the United States, it is consumerism and militarization. The trilogy aesthetically juxtaposes the innocence and fragility of the children against the dominating architecture of the respective locations: the Palace of Catherine the Great, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, and Times Square.
The first body of work in the trilogy, Le Roi des Aulnes, borrows its title from the eponymous Michel Tournier novel that reinterprets the Erlkönig myth in terms of a figure who recruits children to Nazism. It is set in the huge ballroom of Catherine’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. In a series of 15 photographs and one video, children from the nearby ballet and sports schools are depicted detained within this gilded, mirrored hall, whose structure evokes an overwhelming opulence, order, and grandeur. More than Paradise, the second body of work in the trilogy, is composed of a video and three photographs with over 500 children in the interior courtyard of the Muhammad Ali Mosque, seeks to deconstruct preconceived notions of Islam as an archaic culture that immures youth in religious dogma and violent fundamentalism. Finally, KFNY, the last body of work in this series, features 100 young models from the famed Ford Modeling Agency and is set at the center of New York’s Times Square, the symbolic epicenter of American mass media, with ads for underwear, toys, and the US military concentrated in a single place. In the video and 12 photographs that comprise the project, the children are at the same time willing accomplices and prisoners to the “ogre” of media, consumerism, and militarization exemplified by the billboards and digital screens of Manhattan’s midtown.
The King of the Forest Cycle premiered in Moscow in 2001 with Le Roi des Aulnes at the Manufacture exhibition and was subsequently shown in various configurations at museums and festivals, such as the Festival Internazionale di Contaminazioni at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, and the Fifth Photobiennial in Moscow, both in 2004, then as part of the Baroque and Neo-Baroque. The Hell of the Beautiful exhibition at the Centro Internacional de Arte in Salamanca, Spain in 2005, followed by Mixed-up Childhood exhibitions in New Zealand at the Auckland Art Gallery and the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006. The work was also featured at the artists’ mid-career retrospective at the State Russian Museum in 2007, as well as the large survey exhibition Le vert paradis at the Passage de Retz in Paris in 2007, which traveled to MACRO Future in Rome in 2008. Most recently the work was shown in 2020 as part of Reflections of Our Time: Acquisitions of the Museum of Contemporary Art 1993–2019, Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, Serbia.