Voina in St. Petersburg
It took members of Voina (pronounced va-ee-NA) 23 seconds to draw a very large, erect penis on the Liteiny Bridge in St Petersburg.
They’d been practicing for weeks in a car park and had it down. The job had to be done quickly, because there was usually only half a minute or so between the stopping of the traffic and the raising of the bridge. A few accomplices -- a cyclist, a hysterical woman in a car and an apparent drunkard --distracted the security guards’ attention. Five artists -- including one, Natalya Sokol, aka Koza (Goat), who carried her child Kasper on her back -- scampered over the bridge.
They poured white emulsion diluted with water, 55 litres of liquid in all, out of paint-tins. To depict the balls and the glans, they doubled up the tins for extra thickness: don’t say this wasn’t art! The resulting image had all the insouciance of a toilet-stall scrawl; just a diagram, really. The bridge rose at 1:40 am on June 15, 2010, in front of the local FSB (Federal Security Service) building, known as the Big House. The work was titled A Dick Captured By the FSB.
The biggest “up yours” ever?
What's in a name? The Russian word in the title, khui, is more offensive than “dick” and is used in Russian rather like “fuck” in English, ubiquitous and un-translatable at once. The philologist Aleksei Plutser-Sarno, co-activist of Voina, wrote a book of several hundred pages on the various uses of the word “khui.” Where we would say “fuck knows,” a Russian might say “khui knows;” where we would say “fuck off,” a Russian might say “go to khui,” and so on. It’s a word that is aggressive, anarchistic and nihilistic in its usages; there's scarcely any potential for tenderness in it; it isn't likely to be used between lovers in the way that “fuck” can be. And “Voina” itself simply means “war.” The Voina attitude, then, is pure Fuck You.
The Voina influences don’t really come from graffiti or street art, or from cerebral Russian non-conformism, or from elegant Hans Haacke-style analysis of our discontents. There’s a little bit of Viennese Actionism in Voina, and a little bit of performance artist Alexander Brener, whose speciality used to be defecating at other artists’ shows, till he got driven out of Moscow, Berlin and London. But unlike the Viennese, Voina don’t have hang-ups about sex (Communism enabled Russia to bypass the whole cult of Freud): they use it strictly for publicity purposes. Unlike Brener they have no beef with the art world -- they have a beef with the real world. Their spiritual roots aren’t in art at all but in pre-1917 Russian anarchism and direct action, in the half-crazy idealism (or is that nihilism?) that simmers in the novels of Dostoevsky.
Not that I think there’s anything crazy about Voina. Theirs is a response to abuses of power and the lack of civil rights in Russia. A Dick Captured By the FSB was part of a succession of works all ridiculing the establishment in one way or another. A Fuck for the Teddy Bear Heir was an orgy staged in Moscow’s Biological Museum: “teddy bear heir” referred to Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s successor (“Medvedev” means “bear”). Storm of the White House was a skull-and-crossbones projected onto the White House. How To Snatch A Chicken? The Tale Of How One Cunt Fed The Whole Group involved the theft of a chicken from a shop, which was smuggled out while concealed in a Voina member’s vagina. Decembrists’ Commemoration was a mock-hanging of migrant workers and homosexuals. A recent action by the "militant-feminist" faction of Voina, which includes a Facebook friend of mine, Nadya Tolokno, was a pro-lesbian action called Kiss Rubbish (“rubbish” being a slang term for the police), and involved forcibly kissing policewomen. It sounds fun, but viewing the video is uncomfortable: there’s a degree of violence involved.
In September last year, Voina activists Oleg Vorotnikov, a former Moscow University philosophy student, and the group’s unofficial leader Leonid Nikolaev, aka Crazy Lenya, were arrested for their role in another violent work, Palace Coup, which involved overturning police cars with the officers still inside. That made it clear, after the Dick, that they weren’t interested in making pretty pictures. Banksy heard about the arrests on the radio and, with the help of British film-maker Nick Sturdee, who is currently making a documentary on the group, sent them £80,000 to pay bail and for the necessary lawyers. The activists gave most of the money away to help political prisoners. No one should underestimate the dedication of the group’s members: they face being wiretapped, followed, arrested and assaulted in custody. Nikolaev and Vorotnikov still face prosecution and are confined by bail conditions to St Petersburg; Plutser-Sarno is said to be on the run.
Is the work of Voina art or politics? Crazy Lenya is on record as saying “I don’t give a fuck about art.” Only an artist would say that, of course. The group, which has activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg, wouldn’t distinguish between the two. In a sense there is no art that is not political and the esthetic is implicit in all political presentations. Image-makers seek to control everything, from the graying, or not, of the president’s hair to the release of TV footage of the current war. But to my mind, Voina’s fundamental impulse is political.
The technique of undermining the institutions of power by mockery is a classic radical tool, used, for example, by the Serbian youth group Otpor in their struggle against Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Art is the medium. The esthetic experience is made explicit and overt and the art world and its activists (including, in this case, myself and the text you are reading) are used as the primary channel for dissemination of the message. The art world is a bridgehead into the mass media. Art becomes, to adapt Clausewitz’s phrase, “a continuation of policy by other means.”
On April 7, 2011, at a glitzy ceremony held in the Roman Abramovich- and Dasha Zhukova-funded Garage Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow, Voina received the 400,000 rouble ($14,000) Innovation Art Prize for A Dick Captured By The FSB. The prize is organized by the State Centre for Contemporary Arts, and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, but it seems unlikely that the Ministry had any direct influence over the choice. Earlier, in what seemed to be a response to official pressure, Voina had been excluded from the shortlist on the flimsy grounds that they hadn’t signed a document agreeing to participate, but they were reinstated after critics chastised the prize for its cowardice. But how to understand the jury’s choice? As merely a vote for the best art? That’s probably how the organisers of the prize will spin it as what is sure to become a scandal gains force.
Jury member Ekaterina Degot has written about the deliberations. She describes the winning work as a symbol of developing popular hatred for the ruling party, United Russia, and says that although most of the jury members didn’t like the work very much, none of them wanted to vote against it, thereby placing themselves on the wrong side of history. One member, Vienna-based Peter Weibel, who is slated to curate the upcoming Moscow Biennale, excused himself, perhaps feeling he was in a no-win situation.
So, it would seem, in the face of an imminent revolution in Russia, the jurors were pre-occupied with their own immortal reputations. Whatever the case, the big dick on the bridge is part of the canon now. Is it also the successor to that other great phallic event in St Petersburg, the blasts from the battleship Aurora that heralded the October 1917 uprising? Who -- or khui? -- knows?
MATTHEW BOWN is an English art dealer with a gallery in Berlin and an office in Moscow.