A giant penis spray-painted on a bridge has won an art prize.
Published: April 13, 2011 (Issue # 1651)
By Sergey Chernov / The St. Petersburg Times
From left to right, the contentious art group’s members are Nikolayev, Sokol and Vorotnikov.
The controversial “Dick Taken Prisoner by the FSB” — a 65-meter penis painted on Liteiny bridge to face the FSB (former KGB) headquarters in St. Petersburg when the bridge was raised — won the Culture Ministry-backed Innovation prize at a glitzy ceremony in Moscow on Thursday.
The night of the ceremony, the key members of the radical art collective Voina, which was responsible for the art stunt, wrote a petition in defense of a recently imprisoned anarchist, ate some stolen food and were bitten by bedbugs at a secret anarchist hideout in St. Petersburg.
The 400,000-ruble ($14,288) award was given to them after weeks of a tug-of-war between culture bureaucrats, who at one point canceled Voina’s nomination, and art experts on the jury, who threatened to walk out if the art group were excluded from the competition.
“The award is our carte blanche,” said Oleg Vorotnikov, whom the group describes as its ideologist.
“Now we’ll take the mission entrusted to us by the state with full responsibility and continue to bash cops with the Liteiny Dick in a big way. As laureates of a state award, we’re allowed to do just anything!”
On Tuesday, national state bodies reacted to the award. The Public Chamber issued a statement describing giving the award to Voina as a “slap in the face of common sense and those citizens who consider the image on the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg to be banal hooliganism” and accusing the Culture Ministry of “inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.”
The Culture Ministry responded that it was against nominating Voina’s artwork from the very start and that it viewed it as “hooliganish, provocative and unworthy, from both an artistic and moral point of view,” but chose not to interfere with the work of the jury, Interfax reported.
Vorotnikov, his artist wife Natalya Sokol, their toddler son Kasper and Leonid Nikolayev, the group’s “president,” do not use cell phones or even Skype in order not to be traced by counter-extremism Center E operatives. Its agents, they say, followed the artists and attacked them after a press conference they held upon the release on bail of Vorotnikov and Nikolayev, who spent three months in jail on charges of criminal mischief for another art stunt.
That offense — overturning police cars as part of a stunt titled “Palace Coup” — is complicated by accusations that their goal was to incite hatred of the police “as a social group,” and could be punished by up to seven years in prison.
Voina (War) was formed by Vorotnikov and Sokol, who were then philosophy students at Moscow State University and installation and photo artists, in 2007.
“We came to Moscow from the provinces, graduated from university and looked around: What’s happening? What’s about to happen?” Vorotnikov said.
“But it looked like nothing was happening or about to happen. Pus and vomit. We don’t want to live our lives like this.”
Vorotnikov compared Voina to Renaissance men.
“What’s the phenomenon of the Renaissance? The monks left their classrooms and cells and went out into the real world. Throughout the Middle Ages, they accumulated knowledge within monasteries and became scholars, far more educated than the aristocracy. Then they stopped hiding, went outside and impressed the world with their intellectual brilliance and many talents.
“As for us, we have gone out from art into the public sphere, into the environment of social troubles and political struggle.”
Voina’s daring and uncompromising activities have been compared to the impact once produced by punk rock.
“Punk has influenced me a lot, even if I was an A-grader in humanitarian disciplines in school (but didn’t care about math or sciences),” Vorotnikov said.
“I mean I wasn’t a punk, but I got very excited about punk, so the parallel is relevant. The only difference is that punk was about self-destruction to show that there was no future. With us it’s just the opposite, we believe that there is a future, that the future is with us and we’re creating this future for you right now.”
Both the “Palace Coup” stunt, referring to the murder of Tsar Paul I in the Mikhailovsky Castle, and the “Dick Taken Prisoner by the FSB” that was drawn near the notorious Bolshoi Dom (Big House) that was built in the 1930s to house the FSB headquarters and was a symbol of fear during the Stalin era of repressions and through to the current day, were inextricably linked to St. Petersburg.
Voina originally moved to the city after Nikolayev started to experience problems with the state security services following a political stunt in Moscow, up to the point where his mother witnessed him being seized near the entrance to his home. According to Vorotnikov, Nikolayev had a bag pulled over his head, and was pushed into a car and told he was being taken “to a forest to be liquidated.”
Vorotnikov said the art group came to St. Petersburg to participate in the banned May 31 Strategy 31 rally last year in defense of the right of assembly, and ended up staying in the city for months, having decided to make a “new career in a new town.”
Voina won the award for a phallus the group drew on Liteiny bridge.
“Every Voina stunt is concrete,” Vorotnikov said.
“They are born from the surrounding reality. St. Petersburg is the best city for activism that I’ve been to, and I was happy to be put in prison in the city, which is the cradle of three revolutions. The prison gave me a permanent residence here — now I’m a Petersburger.”
Vorotnikov sees Voina’s lifestyle, which includes refusing to work and living on food stolen from supermarkets, as part of the group’s art.
“Our principal position is that art doesn’t finish anywhere, because a work of art is an expansive act in its nature; it includes things, it doesn’t exclude them,” he said.
“You can’t separate works of art and hooliganism. There’s no border between them. Works of art easily include hooliganism.
“I can’t say what drives culture forward more effectively — drunk hooligans or uptight housewives. My view is an avant-garde one: We’ll build culture together.”
The decision of the jury — comprised of leading contemporary art experts — to award the prize to Voina caused backlash from a local culture official.
Speaking at the City Hall-sponsored Sergei Kuryokhin Awards ceremony in the city on Friday, the St. Petersburg culture committee chairman Anton Gubankov used the opportunity to denounce Voina.
“This is real art, while Voina is a crappy publicity stunt,” Gubankov was quoted by Fontanka.ru as saying during the ceremony.
“It’s not what Gubankov should be thinking about — his attitude to Voina, I mean,” said Vorotnikov.
“He should be thinking about where he will run away to from the people when his bosses betray him, because the people have been wishing death to officials for centuries, and now the situation has become ripe once again.”
Nikolayev and Vorotnikov were released on bail in late February after paying 300,000 rubles ($10,715) each out of the 4.5 million rubles ($160,735) donated to them by British street artist Banksy, who heard about their imprisonment on the BBC and whom they now describe as an honorary member of Voina.
Now that they are free, they say they intend to spend the Innovation prize and the rest of the money donated by Banksy on helping political prisoners.
“That’s a very important issue to us; we’ll add the Innovation money to Banksy’s millions and put it at the disposal of Russian political prisoners,” Vorotnikov said.
“Now we’re campaigning in support of Taisia Osipova, on whom Center E planted drugs and who has been in prison for five months now with a severe form of diabetes, which contravenes the law. But even that is not seemingly enough for the Center E men; now they’re taking Taisia’s five-year-old daughter Karina away from her. The mechanism of depriving her of parental rights has been put in motion.
“There are quite a few situations like this in Russia. The state makes activists rot in prisons for their political position. An end should be put to such practices!”
The Voina artists have no doubt that the current political regime in Russia will fall, but admit that the problem is bigger than that.
“We’ll get rid of the regime, it’s a little, specific problem of Russia as a whole,” Vorotnikov said.
“But what should be done with philistines who have fallen slavishly in love with the police? We don’t believe that police officers can change for the better — and inside every philistine, there’s an entire police precinct!
“We promote a heroic lifestyle, freedom in everything, a totally uncompromising stance, and the lofty ideals of the first Russian revolutionaries — the Decembrists. There are more than 200 activists in our group. The best part of society is with us forever.”