Over the past year, the Moscow performance-art group Voina has risen from obscurity to international fame. Now Voina (War) has become a symbol and a test case for the relationship between art and the Russian state. In April the group received the Innovation Prize, one of the country’s two major art honors. The victory is overshadowed, however, by criminal proceedings that threaten to put Voina’s leaders behind bars for years to come.
Formed in 2007 by philosophy graduate students at Moscow State University, Voina is led by Oleg Vorotnikov and his wife, Natalia Sokol, who go by the names Vor (thief) and Koza (she-goat); they were later joined by Leonid Nikolaev, whose highly impolite “art activist” name is untranslatable. The group’s repertoire includes public copulation, pelting McDonald’s servers with live cats, and welding shut the doors of an exclusive Moscow restaurant catering to the Kremlin elite.
Depending on one’s point of view, Voina’s recent actions have grown either more streamlined or more obvious. This is especially true of the work that vaulted them into the limelight, dubbed “A Dick Jailed by the FSB” by the group’s self-declared ideological voice, the journalist and art critic Aleksei Plutser-Sarno. Last June, a well-organized Voina team needed only 23 seconds to paint a 213-foot phallus on a drawbridge over the Neva River in Saint Petersburg, which then slowly rose to face the city headquarters of the FSB, formerly the KGB.
Voina’s penchant for shock tactics is prompted by its opposition to everything in contemporary Russian life—not just the “police state,” as Voina calls it, but also the values of the liberal intelligentsia. Rejecting consumerist society, group members steal what they need to live and the materials they use in their actions.
Clashes with the law were inevitable. For “A Dick Jailed by the FSB,” Nikolaev was charged with vandalism, which carries a maximum sentence of three years; he was eventually fined for “minor hooliganism.” Last September, Voina carried out “A Palace Coup.” The title is a pun: the Russian word for “coup” means “revolution” or “overturning,” and the activists literally overturned police cars, at least one of which was occupied by a sleeping policeman.
Voina’s growing legend had much to do with their ability to evade capture, however provocative or taboo their actions. That ended, however, with “A Palace Coup.” Although the damage inflicted was minimal, Vorotnikov and Nikolaev were arrested, charged with “hooliganism based on political, ideological, racial, or national hostility,” and held for more than three months. They were released after the British street artist Banksy paid their bail (about $10,000 each).
Illegality is an inescapable element of Voina’s art. The reason human-rights groups have paid little attention to their legal plight until recently is probably that what Voina does is generally subject to criminal sanctions, whether you consider it art or not. Professor Amy Adler of NYU Law School sums it up: “Even in the United States, if an artistic act constitutes a crime, artistry is no defense unless the law is held to be a pretext to suppress protected speech. If illegality is an important part of an artistic act, the punishment could be seen as its natural extension.”
Opponents dispute the novelty and significance of “A Dick,” describing it as a trivial and sophomoric gesture. They recall such precedents as a large drawing of a phallus attached to Saint Petersburg’s Palace Bridge in the 1970s. Supporters reply that Voina’s declared artistic intention is key and that “A Dick” is a self-evident expression of contemporary art history: “There exists a movement called actionism,” Aleksandr Borovsky, head of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, told NEWSru.com, “and now, late as always, it has rolled into Russia.”
Vorotnikov and Nikolaev were still in prison when they were nominated for the Innovation Prize competition, which is run by the State Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA), an organ of the Ministry of Culture. Given Voina’s anti-authoritarian stance, it was a surprising nominee, and people were even more astonished when, in February, Voina made the short list. Nobody doubted the independence of the Innovation jury, but concern arising from SCCA’s connection to the Ministry of Culture all too soon appeared justified when, on February 26, SCCA summarily removed Voina from the list. The reason given was that Voina had violated the requirement that nominees consent in writing to participate in the competition—this despite the fact that other nominees claimed to have given only oral consent and that Voina’s leaders were in jail.
The removal was widely viewed as an SCCA capitulation to pressure from above. Most news sources agreed, however, that Voina appeared to have rejected the nomination. In particular, Plutser-Sarno had derided the competition as seeking “to test us all for loyalty to the corrupt executioners of contemporary art” and to “morally disorient the less stable part of the art community with petty monetary handouts.” He called on the artistic community to renounce participation in such competitions. But when SCCA actually removed Voina from the short list, Plutser-Sarno went on the offensive: Voina had refused only the money (400,000 rubles, about $15,000), he said, not the honor itself. Ekaterina Degot and Andrei Erofeev, two of Russia’s most prominent art experts, threatened in a letter on Openspace.ru to quit the Innovation jury if Voina’s nomination were not reinstated.
The jury announced that it would proceed as if Voina were still on the short list. Degot told ARTnews in late March that, whatever her views on the artistic merits of “A Dick,” the politics justified voting in its favor. As to the outcome, she had little doubt: “I’ll just say that it is extremely likely that Voina will win the competition. . . . It seems that we have a situation in Russia where these people are willing to support virtually any gesture of protest.”
Artist Anatoly Belkin told Saint Petersburg’s Channel 5 TV that, in the Russian context, it was a matter of artistic ethics and etiquette: “One doesn’t condemn an artist who is taking on the authorities. Whether you like the work or not is another matter entirely.”
In the end, SCCA backed down, and Voina’s candidacy was reinstated. And on April 7, in a glitzy if sometimes clumsy ceremony, it fell to Erofeev to announce Voina’s victory. In his speech, Erofeev obviously took delight in both the group’s popularity and the off-color name of their winning action. The group declined to appear.
A year of scandal has made Voina the toast of the Moscow art community. Vasily Tsereteli, head of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, said in an interview with ARTnews that “in the sphere of public art, such as graffiti art, they’re in first place, because no artist in the world has created this kind of work on such a large scale.” Degot says simply: “Everyone is for Voina. It’s an unprecedented consensus in the contemporary-art community.”
But Voina’s mounting fame is paralleled by its accumulating legal difficulties. It is entirely possible that the group’s triumph will be followed by a lengthy prison sentence for its leaders. Vorotnikov and Nikolaev could serve seven years each for minor property damage in the course of an explicitly artistic act. So far they have largely avoided criminal punishment for actions that most countries would not tolerate; but they were confined for months in deplorable conditions and allegedly beaten by police upon release.
Nikolaev would not be surprised by a prison sentence: “In our police state,” he says, “our real prize is the case they’ve brought against us. You might say that the Interior Ministry figured things out even faster than the Ministry of Culture.”
John William Narins is a writer and independent scholar.