Two leading members of Russia’s radical art group Voina (“War”), Oleg Vorotnikov, 32, and Leonid Nikolaev, 27, have been charged with “criminal mischief”, after turning over police cars in St. Petersburg as a protest against police corruption, last September.
Nikolayev and Vorotnikov were arrested at a Moscow apartment on 15 November, and brought to St. Petersburg the next day, where they have since been held in custody at a pretrial detention center.
According to witnesses, the pair were handcuffed and had bags put over their heads when arrested. The police searched the apartment and confiscated computers, hard drives, USB flash drives, cell phones and various papers.
The police said that the damage inflicted on the police cars totaled 98,000 rubles ($3,146).
If convicted, the two artists could face up to five years in prison. The charges have surprised members of Voina, as the arrests come two months after the car-flipping incident and the police targeted only two of the seven individuals involved. The St. Petersburg Times reports:
Nikolayev and Vorotnikov’s lawyers appealed the artists’ pretrial detention Tuesday, according to the web site Free Voina, which is campaigning for the release of the artists.
Both have refused to speak to investigators, referring to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of accused people not to give evidence against themselves, the site reported.
According to the web site, investigators have expressed their intention to re-arrest another Voina artist, Natalya Sokol, who was briefly detained on 15 November but was released because she has a young son.
In emailed comments to The St. Petersburg Times, Voina’s spokesman Alexei Plutser-Sarno described the charges as “illegal.”
“The criminal case was filed for the artistic stunt ‘Palace Revolution,’ when the artists demanded, metaphorically, the reform of the Interior Ministry and an end to police arbitrariness,” he wrote.
“In response to this demand, the Interior Minister is insisting that prosecutors demand [five] years in prison. Effectively, the artists are charged with ideological hatred against the social group ‘corrupt authorities.’
“Previously, the Interior Ministry’s official representative was talking about 500 rubles ($16) of damage — one broken mirror and a flashing light. Now the cost of the used mirror of the police Lada has increased up to $3,000 and continues to grow. Apparently, the mirror was set with diamonds; it’s a pity that the artists didn’t notice that.”
Earlier this week, a campaign demanding the release of the imprisoned artists and raising funds for them was launched.
Voina is a highly controversial conceptual art group, of up to sixty different members, including poets, artists, journalists and students. The group was founded in 2007 by philosophy students at Lomonosov Moscow State University, under the leadership of Petr Verzilov and Oleg Vorotnikov.
Voina has achieved considerable notoriety in their homeland since their first event on 1st May 2007, when a group of activists threw dead cats inside a McDonalds restaurant in Moscow.
In 2008, they made international news with their performance piece Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear, in which five couples (including a heavily pregnant woman) had sex in the State Museum of Biology. The event was staged the day before the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose last name is derived from the word medved, “bear” in Russian.
More recently, Voina staged In Memory of the Decemberists - A Present to Yuri Luzhkov, which presented the hanging of two gay men and three Central Asian guest workers, as a direct attack against Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, whose policies have been denounced as racist and homophobic, and the frequent murders of guest workers in the city.
Also, as Dangerous Minds’ Marc Campbell recently reported:
Russian performance artists and political activists, Voina, demonstrate how to liberate food from the supermarket using a woman’s vagina. Perhaps inspired by Divine in Pink Flamingos, these chicken snatchers have developed a simple but effective way to provide their collective with free nourishment.
A more subdued act took place earlier this year, when the group painted a giant phallus on a drawbridge leading to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Saint Petersburg.
The news of the arrests has shocked certain parts of Russia’s art community, but it is yet to be seen what affect the possible loss of one of the group’s leaders will have.
With thanks to Henri Podin