We interviewed I-20 Gallery owner Paul Judelson last week, a few hours after he stepped off a return flight from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he had been in deep negotiations with his star artist Sergei Bugaev, a.k.a. "Afrika," for a show in November.
"Afrika has obtained an exclusive video from Russian intelligence," Judelson told us, "of a surprise 1996 Al-Qaeda assault, in Chechnya, on a column of Russian soldiers.
"The tape is accompanied by an Arabic soundtrack," Paul continued. "The Russian column walks into an ambush and is completely wiped out."
"Kind of like the dead in the columns of the Twin Towers," we responded.
"Exactly," Judelson answered. "The Russian regular army didn't know what hit them. Subsequently, however, Russian intelligence retaliated against the Al-Qaeda lieutenants leading the Chechen revolt and killed them, wrapping their private parts around their necks."
As Russia's sole successful international contemporary artist, Bugaev was able to obtain this extraordinary three-hour video, ahead of Western intelligence.
"There is no doubt," Judelson continued, "that Chechen forces were under the control of Al-Qaeda in 1996, and that this unique tape of the total destruction of a Russian division by Arab mercenaries was a prelude to 9/11."
Judelson is busy transferring the video to DVD for a November airing, and anticipates inquiries from Western intelligence agencies in the interim.
The tape, difficult to classify solely as "art," includes the unexpurgated Al-Qaeda description of the brutal attack, plus a coda in which Russian intelligence depicts the dead bodies of Osama's ringleaders.
One can only speculate what price an artist even as prominent as Afrika had to pay to acquire such a video.
Paul Judelson viewed the collapse of the Twin Towers from the roof of his Chelsea gallery, and spent many late nights volunteering at the Red Cross center across from his space, on the West Side Highway.
After September 11, we talked to him dozens of times on his cell phone about the horrors of that day. Few people we know were as deeply, emotionally, viscerally affected by the Al-Qaeda attack.
It is a measure of the man, of his deep courage, that Judelson continues to break new ground in his effort to document the origins, and the military coups, of the fascist Al-Qaeda.
Sergei Bugaev's show, should it be allowed to open, will be the major exhibition of the fall season, after the first anniversary of 9/11.
To obtain an Al-Qaeda narrated tape of the obliteration of Russian soldiers, recovered at the scene by Russian intelligence officers bent on revenge, is an art act of the highest order.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).