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The Feast of Trimalchio

The artwork ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ was shown at the opening of the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. It is part of the collective work of russian artists called ‘Unconditional Love’ [1].

‘Gaius Petronius Arbiter was the great wit and melancholic lyric poet of Nero’s
reign. ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ (Cena Trimalchionis) is the best-preserved part
of Petronius’s ‘Satyricon’. Thanks to him, Trimalchio’s name became synony-
mous with wealth and luxury, with gluttony and with unbridled pleasure.

We searched for an analogue in the third millennium and found that the mo-
dern-day Trimalchio, the host of feasts lasting several days, is less a single per-
son than the collective image of a five-star hotel; a temporary paradise which
one has to pay to enter. Developing the metaphor we observed that the life of a
luxury hotel reflects Petronius’s description of endless feasting and enjoyment.
Even to the extent that there are guest-‘masters’ and staff-‘servants’.

The ‘masters’, regardless of background or race, are all from the land of the
Golden Billion. They’re keen to spend their time, in any season, as guests of
the 21st-century Trimalchio who has spared no expense in building his palace.
It’s situated on an island which is the perfect combination of exotic locations.
Trimalchio’s guests, along with their luggage, arrive by plane and cruise li-
ner. The palace-hotel is designed as an absurd combination of ski resort, golf
course, tropical beach and equestrian trail. The ‘masters’ wear white. Their
clothes are reminiscent of the robes of the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden,
or of traditional colonial dress, or a cruise collection by a leading designer.

The ‘masters’ have all characteristics of the human race – they are all ages,
types and social backgrounds. One can distinguish a university professor from
a broker; a society lady from an intellectual. Trimalchio’s ‘servants’ are young,
attractive and multi-racial and work in the huge hotel as housekeeping staff,
waiters, cooks, gardeners, security guards, masseurs. They’re eternally busy
with the endless celebrations. Although similar in appearance to the models in
the Benetton ads, they’re not dressed in fashionable clothing but in brightly co-
loured ‘ethnic’ uniforms. The exotic ‘servant’ is important to Trimalchio’s brand
as a metaphor for contemporary globalism. At the same time they’re a little
like the brightly coloured angels of a Garden of Eden to which the ‘masters’ are
temporarily admitted.

The atmosphere at Trimalchio’s feast can be seen as an absurd combination of
separate realities – from the sumptuous ‘open buffet’ and a la carte restaurants
to the endless range of leisure options (massage and golf, swimming and sur-
fing, etc). This is a strange symbiosis of pleasures whose combination makes
no sense. The ‘servants’ are more than attentive service-providers. They are
participants in the celebration, bringing alive the fantasies of the ‘masters’,
be they erotic or masochistic. Sometimes the ‘masters’ end up wooing the ‘ser-
vants’ and are at their beck and call. ‘Servants’ and ‘masters’ take part in an
orgiastic gala dinner, a feast, where roles change unexpectedly and the absurd
appears so natural that participants and viewers are convinced and behave as
if the situation is normal. This complete impossibility and senselessness is the
banality of Eden.

Outwardly Trimalchio’s feast resembles Watteau’s scenes of gallant celebra-
tions, baroque triumphs or feasts at Cana, where water transformed to wine
surprises no-one.’ [2]

Some related pictures and a video of the work can be found on the website of AES+F’s curator Claire Oliver [3].