Russia's Art Revolution Voina Challenges Putin with Imagination

Members of the Russian art collective Voina are supposed to serve as associate curators for the 2012 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which begins this spring in Germany. Voina's work is drawing attention around the world,  but international arrest warrants have been issued for two of the its leaders.

By in St. Petersburg

The message arrives at the last minute via email, and the tone is commanding. Meeting place: McDonald's. The conditions: No mobile phones or recording devices. The meeting time: now.

It's night in St. Petersburg as we approach the Nevsky Prospect and cross the bridge to the northern bank of the Neva River to a McDonald's near the Vasileostrovskaya metro station. Inside the crowded restaurant, young people sit hunched over their hamburgers and french fries. The wanted man, a well-built figure with a goatee, is sitting in the middle of the room.

At first glance Oleg Vorotnikov, born on Aug. 17, 1978, doesn't look like a man on the run, but rather like someone who refuses to believe that the police are actually searching for him -- and not only in Russia. In July, the St. Petersburg Dzerzhinsky District Court issued an international arrest warrant against Vorotnikov on charges of "hooliganism."

Vorotnikov ridicules this decision by the Russian authorities as "one of the highest forms of recognition" of his work and his political cause. He calls it a suitable form of recognition, given that he is not just any tramp or crazy anarchist. "I am one of Russia's most famous artists," says Vorotnikov.

The diners at McDonald's aren't aware of any of this -- or they just don't care. At any rate, they pay more attention to their meals than to Vorotnikov. With not a hint of false modesty, he says that he has brought Russian art into the headlines, quite possibly more than anyone "since Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn."

A Symbol of the Russian Avant Garde

Together with his wife Natalia Sokol, Vorotnikov founded the performance art group Voina, or "War," in 2005. They have attracted attention several times in Moscow and St. Petersburg since then with their carefully planned performance pieces. Their iconography includes upended police cars, a sex orgy in a museum, mangy cats in a fast-food restaurant and three guys dressed as gay men and strung up in a supermarket.

Voina has been a symbol of the Russian avant-garde for some time, and for creative resistance against the system of the country's long-term ruler, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The street protests that followed the parliamentary election on Dec. 4 were merely a visible expression of what is happening in the underground, says Vorotnikov. "Hatred of the ruling class is stronger in Russia today than it was in the Communist era."

At the same time, the Putin system isn't that easy to unsettle. Only a day after the election, an international arrest warrant was issued against Vorotnikov's wife, who was accused of insulting and using violence against government employees. She had allegedly sprayed urine at police officers. Sokol who, according to her attorney, is eight months pregnant, has also officially disappeared.

Nevertheless, what she and other St. Petersburg underground artists are doing has not remained unnoticed. They have formed ties with an international art scene that helps to organize uprisings worldwide, from the Occupy movement to solidarity campaigns for Chinese regime critic Ai Weiwei. During the International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, there were joint appeals to "Free Ai Weiwei!" and "Free Voina!" The Russians, as rebellious as they are PR-savvy, have even been invited to serve as co-curators at next year's Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.

"Of course, we are now in fashion and, of course, people in the West have no idea what is happening here," says Vorotnikov. But that doesn't bother him, he says. Anyway, he won't be able to attend the Berlin Bienniale, which starts on April 27, because he could get arrested there, his attorney says. "Besides, I won't leave Russia until Putin is gone," adds Vorotnikov.

Help From British Street Artist Banksy

He sat in a Russian prison until this February, after having been charged with "hooliganism." He was released on bail, paid for in part by an £80,000 (€95,600) donation from the renowned British street artist Banksy. "Tell Banksy that he is helping to finance the next Russian revolution," says Vorotnikov.

Such deliberately boastful remarks attract attention, but they are not what has sparked the enthusiasm of the art world. "What Voina is creating in some campaigns is revolutionary art, for which there has been a tradition in this city since (the Russian poet Vladimir) Mayakovsky, (the painter Kazimir) Malevich and (the painter Mikhail) Larionov," says Olesia Turkina, curator of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. "Defining one's own standpoint vis-à-vis the state is an important art form. It can be highly political."

Once, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, members of Voina used laser beams to project a skull onto the White House in Moscow, the official seat of the Russian government. On another occasion Vorotnikov, wearing an Orthodox priest's robe and a police cap on his head, pushed a full shopping cart out of a supermarket without paying -- in protest, as he says, against the fact that priests and police officers in Russia seem to be above the law.

Voina activists have hijacked Metro cars for a wake, and they once staged a group-sex event at the State Biology Museum in Moscow as, among other things, a parody of President Dmitry Medvedev's plans to increase the birth rate. All of their appearances are documented on videos, photos and text files, and are constantly available on the worldwide web -- a diary of civil disobedience in Putin's Russia.

'I Have Built Myself a Monument'

Voina pulled off its biggest stunt to date in the early morning hours of June 14, 2010. Vorotnikov and his fellow activists had prepared for the event for months. Canisters containing 55 liters (14.5 gallons) of white emulsion paint were hidden on the banks of the Neva River. The group knew that they would have only 30 seconds to accomplish their task. This is the amount of time between the last car being allowed to cross the drawbridge on Liteiny Prospekt, shortly before 1:30 a.m., and the nightly opening for ship traffic.

According to the Voina plan, four team members would distract the security forces while five others would do their work with the paint. When the bridge opened at precisely 1:30 a.m., a stylized drawing of a penis would tower over everything in sight, including the building across the street used by the domestic intelligence agency, where Putin once worked as a KGB officer.

The plan worked, and the image circled the globe: a provocation in the form of a phallus, 65 meters (213 feet) tall and 27 meters wide. "The whole thing took us only 23 seconds," says Vorotnikov, "and none of us was arrested."

Now, on this wintry night, the Voina leader who is being sought by police decides to take a ride through St. Petersburg on his bicycle. He says that he didn't feel comfortable at McDonald's, after all. Too many people know what he looks like now, ever since the fuss over the giant penis stunt. "Ya pamyatnik sebye vozdvig," Vorotnikov says with a smile. "In the words of (the Russian poet Alexander) Pushkin: I have built myself a monument."

What Vorotnikov didn't expect was applause from the wrong side. In April 2011, the Russian Ministry of Culture awarded Voina its prize for contemporary art in the "innovation" category -- for the drawing on the Liteiny Bridge, the greatest possible humiliation, both esthetically and politically, that a regime could have experienced. The jury, ignoring objections from government circles, insisted on preserving its independence and awarded the €10,000 prize to Voina.

Was it a hint of a thaw, perhaps even a sign from the very top? Only days earlier, President Dmitry Medvedev had announced: "I make no secret of the fact that I love contemporary art." Or was it merely a clumsy attempt to lure the troublemakers with cash? It was all the same to him, says Vorotnikov, noting that his group turned down the award -- of course. The prize money went to a human rights organization.

Money or, more precisely, doing without it is part of Voina's creed. Vorotnikov and his wife say that not only do they manage to get by without a permanent home and without identification papers, but that they have also survived without money for 13 years. Their prescription for every condition of life, they say, is what they call the "un-whored path." They have no intention to change their way of life, not even after their two-year-old son Kasper, Russia's "youngest political prisoner," as they call him, was separated overnight from his mother when she was in custody. The couple is expecting a second child this winter.

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