Konstantin Bessmertny is distracted as he sits down for an interview. The Macau-based Russian artist keeps looking at his painting, Seven Stud Poker, as if he has just encountered a long-lost lover. 'I'm sorry,' he says. 'The painting was exhibited in New York and I haven't seen it for a while. I really love this painting.'
Seven Stud Poker depicts a group of men in suits playing poker, accompanied by naked women sculpted like Roman marble statues. Thought bubbles saying: 'Choose baccarat' and 'Venetian is the best', as well as the name of 'Wynn' casino are scribbled on the canvas.
The painting is part of Bessmertny's Casino Republic series. It is among 16 artworks being shown in a solo exhibition, titled Showdown, at Amelia Johnson Contemporary gallery.
From Pushkin to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - all of whom were addicted to gambling - Russia's fascination with betting has inspired the country's great works of literature. And it takes the creative mind of a Russian artist to grasp and reflect on a gambling-obsessed city such as Macau, which has overtaken Las Vegas as the world's top gambling destination.
'Macau and its surroundings definitely influence me,' says Bessmertny, who doesn't like gambling but is fascinated with what he sees around him. 'I love the display of structures, characters, vices and sins in Macau, and I use it as the material for my work.'
He has created a fantasyland called Casino Republic, painting the state's luminaries and official seal, which features an erupting volcano, inspired by the fake volcano at Macau Fisherman's Wharf. 'Casino Republic is a parody of Macau,' he says. 'It is an unreal state inspired by Macau, Monaco and Las Vegas.'
Bessmertny's take on Macau is humorous. Semper Fortunatus, for example, is a painting on a copy of Return of the Bucintoro on Ascension Day, a work by 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto. 'I bought the painting and the gilded frame in Zhuhai, and painted over it.'
Standing in front of St Mark's Square is James Bond with a gun in one hand and a woman in a bikini by his side. There is also a speedboat among the elegant gondolas of Venice. The additions were inspired by the 007 classic, From Russia With Love, which is partly set in Venice.
'I play a joke on the concept of fake,' the 43-year-old says. 'The Venetian [Macao] is the fake of Venice. St Mark's Square is the landmark of Venice, and also the symbol of the Venetian.' Bessmertny's oeuvre is not confined to gambling and casinos. A film buff, he likes to reinterpret movies, creating new scenes on the canvas. With Love: Remake (left) is another parody of the Bond classic, while La Dolce Vita: Remake is inspired by Fellini's masterpiece.
'When I was 16, I joined an underground movie club, watching films of Fellini, Tarkovsky and others,' he says. He was particularly struck with the Russian filmmaker's works. 'You can always freeze a scene, and the screen might look like a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Directors often quote lots of visual artists, so I asked myself, why don't I bring the movies into visual arts?'
Bessmertny was born in 1964 in Blagoveshchensk, in the Russian Far East next to the Chinese border. Having grown up in a town with a big Chinese community, he was exposed to Chinese culture, from seeing Mao's photograph hung on Chinese military barracks to learning Chinese characters from his Chinese-Russian schoolfriend.
Bessmertny attended Russian art schools, which emphasised training on classical European paintings, including the Renaissance. He became a professional artist in 1992. The following year, a Macau gallery gave him an opportunity to work there for one year. After the contract finished, he and his wife decided to stay on. They have now been there for 15 years.
Bessmertny tells stories with his paintings and Macau provides ample material. He began painting gambling scenes as soon as he arrived, visiting casinos to study games, people and their behaviour. 'In Macau, the gambling industry is everywhere. If you want to buy a pen or have yum cha with a friend, you have to go through a casino.'
Yet he rejects the notion that his paintings are about gambling. 'For me, gambling isn't a subject, but background or scene decoration,' says the artist, who represented Macau at last year's Venice Biennale.
'For example, Gorges de La Tour's Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds is not about gambling but a prodigal son. Seven Stud Poker is not about gambling, but about a human obsession, about men
and women, about being masculine and feminine.'
Bessmertny's style is eclectic. At times, his paintings bring to mind Rembrandt, Chagall and Botero; elsewhere the figures look like scribbles and doodles. Written texts in Latin, Chinese, English, French and other languages often accompany visual images, creating comical effects. He paints not only on canvas but on piano, violin and ceramic vase. He also creates installation pieces.
Bessmertny often draws people socialising around the table. 'He has his roots in Renaissance paintings, he was inspired by [Leonardo da Vinci's] The Last Supper,' says Amelia Johnson, whose gallery first showed the artist's works a decade ago. 'He has turned a religious depiction to portray people's interaction with each other, whether they are around the table eating dim sum, or around the table gambling.'
True to Russian artistic tradition, Bessmertny's artworks come with a good dose of satirical humour.
'We Russians have a tragic history,' he says. 'We had one of the bloodiest dictatorships, and my family experienced it personally. We have wonderful geniuses and also terrible tyrants. Russian people can survive such a tragic life because they know how to laugh, it make us feel easier and able to see to end of the tunnel.'
He considers himself lucky, having seen the tremendous changes in Russia (communism, perestroika) and also in Macau. During the Portuguese rule, he was a friend of the governor and often attended the lavish ceremonial functions - 'it felt like living in the 18th century,' he says. Then triad rivalry created 'a war zone'.
'One day, a car was blown up next to the entrance of my studio.'
But Bessmertny doesn't plan to leave his adopted home. 'Macau has gone through many changes, much more than anywhere else in the world. Macau has money now. Instead of going to Las Vegas, Las Vegas has come to us. I cannot leave Macau, I am too anxious to see what will happen next.'
Showdown: the Recent Works of Konstantin Bessmertny, Amelia Johnson Contemporary, G/F 6-10 Shin Hing St, Central, free. Inquiries: 2548 2286. Ends April 5