The artists who crossed the line

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An art group that stages orgies, throws cats at cashiers and has Banksy as a fan has enraged the Russian authorities

On a chilly Moscow morning last November, 10 plainclothes policemen broke into the Moscow apartment where Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were sleeping. Screaming at everyone to stay on the ground, the officers handcuffed the two men, pulled plastic bags over their heads and threw them into a police van. They drove north for 10 hours while police allegedly kicked and abused the two men, who have been held in a pre-trial detention centre in St Petersburg until this week. But Mr Vorotnikov and Mr Nikolayev are not drug dealers or dangerous murderers on the run – they are artists.

The two men are part of Voina, a radical art collective that has infuriated the Russian authorities with a series of increasingly audacious stunts, and whose jailing has caused concern in Russia about a return to a Soviet-style censorship of the arts. Over the past three years, the group's installations and performances have included organising the mock execution of migrant workers in a Moscow supermarket, an impromptu expletive-filled punk rock performance in a courtroom, throwing live cats at McDonald's cashiers and painting an enormous penis on a bridge in St Petersburg.

The group first came to prominence in February 2008, two days before the carefully choreographed elections that brought President Dmitry Medvedev to power. About 12 activists, one of whom was a pregnant woman, entered the Biology Museum and staged an orgy.

Meanwhile, the group's leader and chief ideologist, the bearded Alexei Plutser-Sarno, donned a top hat and unfurled a banner that said: "Fuck for the Teddy Bear Heir!" The slogan played on Mr Medvedev's surname, which is derived from the Russian word for "bear", and poked fun at what the group said were "farcical and pornographic elections" in which Mr Medvedev was to inherit Vladimir Putin's "throne". The group was charged with "disseminating pornography" and so began a life underground, where the core group of activists eschewed mobile phones and moved apartments frequently to evade the authorities.

Soon, the stunts became bigger and harder to ignore. The most notorious Voina action was last June, when several members of the group painted a penis on the Liteiny Bridge in St Petersburg. Evading and fighting off security, the 65-metre high image was completed just before the bridge opened, as it does each evening to let ships pass through. The penis "erected", directly facing the St Petersburg headquarters of the FSB, the KGB's successor. The group called the artwork Dick Captured by KGB.

Mr Plutser-Sarno, 48, said he left the apartment where the other group members were arrested the day before the raid and has been on the run ever since. He claims that he comes and goes from Russia by slipping across the porous border with Kazakhstan and that he rarely spends consecutive nights in the same place. It is unclear how much of this is true, but he only agreed to speak with The Independent via Skype and refused to disclose his location. "It wasn't easy to find us and our Russian cops are corrupt, they can't be bothered to look for impoverished artists," Mr Plutser-Sarno said. "They prefer to carry out criminal activity and go after businessmen from whom they can steal money."

The most controversial of all was Voina's final stunt before the arrests, which the artists called "Palace Revolution". Members overturned seven police cars, some of them with officers inside, at St Petersburg's Palace Square one night last September. Mr Pluster-Sarno denies that with this last radicalisation, the group's work attained a criminal element.

"If the artists consider their action a piece of art, if the experts along with the audience agree with it, what it is then? Art or crime? We struggle against the authorities who are criminal indeed." Those same authorities have begun to clamp down hard on Voina. Mr Vorotnikov and Mr Nikolayev have been charged with hooliganism, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison, while Mr Plutser-Sarno has been charged with organising a criminal group, which could land him a sentence of up to 20 years.

Last month, a judge in St Petersburg refused bail for Mr Nikolayev and Mr Vorotnikov, despite that the street artist Banksy had offered £80,000 as a surety after reading about the group's plight. This week, the pair was finally released on bail after another hearing accepted that the delay between the arrest and court case was too long. But the charges still stand.

Not everyone in the Russian art community approves of Voina, but there has been a certain solidarity after their arrest, and the Dick Captured by KGB has been nominated for a prestigious contemporary art prize.

"Voina has inherited the tradition of the Russian futurists from the early 20th century. This isn't just art, but revolutionary art," said Olesya Turkina, a curator and research fellow at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. "The Dick Captured by KGB was an absolutely genius artwork that demonstrates the phallic, patriarchal character of our state." She admitted that overturning police cars was more difficult to justify, but said it is "absurd" that the hooliganism charge on which the arrests were made is the same used against skinhead groups who perpetrate racist attacks.

Ms Turkina welcomed the release of the two artists on bail but said it was very worrying they would still have to face trial. "After perestroika we had 10 or 15 years of real artistic freedom, but now there are very worrying signs again," she said.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy