Olivier, the photographer, and I arrive at Mount Herzl on a hot September afternoon to photograph a performance by protest artist Aleksei Plutser-Sarno. Years ago he had been one of the leaders of Voina, the radical Russian art collective (the name translates to “War”) whose provocative works shook up the country and mocked the symbols of its regime. Today, he is a resident of a West Bank settlement, the name of which he asked not to reveal.
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He appears while Palestinian workers are building a platform in the plaza surrounding Herzl’s grave. A tall, powerful man with a short, white beard and black eyebrows, he wears a black shirt with a skull and two red stars on it. He whispers behind the bushes with two assistants, a young man and a young woman with a camera.
After a short preparation, everything is ready. Plutser-Sarno, 55, is clearly excited. He hides from the potential audience (at that moment it’s just the Palestinian workers), lays an Israeli flag on Herzl’s grave, sets small stones around it and starts his performance with a sentence in English that seemed detached from Mount Herzl, the workers and the Israel of 2017. “A moment of silence,” he states. “Performance art. Happy New Year, dear imperialist authorities!” He pulls out a box cutter and with two quick strokes slits both of his wrists. The blood drips onto the flag. After a few seconds, he curls himself over the tomb and lies on it with his hands fluttering and twitching.
“Time for medical procedures,” he declares and goes back behind the bushes with his assistants, where they pour a generous amount of hydrogen peroxide on his cuts and bandage him. They remember that there is no cloth to wipe the blood from the tomb. Afterward, we all sit on a bench not far from the plaza. Plutser-Sarno drinks water and keeps his hands behind his head to stop the flow of blood. We record his short explanation about the performance. While Olivier goes to take pictures, Plutser-Sarno and I talk about who he could involve in staging protest performances in Israel. When I interviewed him a week earlier, he said there weren’t any such people here because everyone wants to live a quiet life with their families; I raised the possibility he was simply walking in the wrong circles.
We had also spoken about the performance’s significance. “There are mythical, biblical connotations here,” he said. During our long talks he said that it was a kind of response to the performances of Natali Cohen Vaxberg, who was arrested and questioned five times after making a video in which she defecates on different country flags, including Israel’s. Haaretz reported last year that the prosecution had yet to decide what to do with her case.
“I don’t like the content of what she did,” Plutser-Sarno wrote me on Facebook Messenger. “It’s too close to political provocation. But I am of course impressed by her because the holy flag, which they really worship – it’s dark idol worship. An arrest over desecration proves the madness of idol worship. I don’t like it as performance art, but am impressed by it as a political act.”
Ahead of the performance, he had told me his act would be the opposite of – but close in meaning to – “sanctifying a holy place to idol worship.”
Then come the police. Initially they detain all of us. They release Olivier, Plutser-Sarno’s young assistants and me after 10 minutes. But they lead the artist off to a shady bench. A couple of hours later, they send him on his way, free of criminal suspicions.
Until a few years ago Plutser-Sarno was considered the ideologue of Voina and was responsible for the group’s “media art”: producing their performances on the internet and writing witty, absurd texts for them. Now, he disagrees with his Voina colleagues Natalia Sokol, known as Koza (“She-goat”), and her husband Oleg Vorotnikov, aka Vor (“Thief”). The pair is drifting around Europe with their three children after fleeing Russia, yet have become vocal supporters of Vladimir Putin and the annexation of Crimea.
“I was the only artist in this group, which was made up of people into punk with criminal leanings,” he wrote me before our first interview, insisting he brought a sense of modern art to the hooliganesque and vandal-like passion. “Police pressure, surveillance, arrests, beatings of activists by police peaked in 2011, and the group virtually ceased to exist, but now dozens of activists are roaming the world, making strange declarations as Voina representatives and calling for all kinds of ridiculous ‘actions,’” he said. “And that’s okay. It means my ideas are in demand.”
Since moving to Israel, Plutser-Sarno has stopped giving interviews and the public has seen barely any of his performances (he says he is continually producing art, and objects of art still exist even when the public doesn’t see them). He denies that this rare interview with Haaretz was a trigger for the Mount Herzl performance. However, he said: “I got interested. I was happy to show something. If you lose interest, I’ll keep working ‘for the drawer.’” The interview was conducted in several stages: first through email and Messenger, then at my home (he refused to be interviewed at his), and then, after the performance and detention at Mount Herzl, we went back to correspondences.
Plutser-Sarno says with a certain amount of pride that he can present himself in a number of autobiographies and they would not resemble each other. Indeed, his life story looks seems to be made up of layers that don’t overlap. He has a degree in philology from one of the Soviet Union’s most prestigious universities in the field, the University of Tartu, where he studied with the father of Russian semiotics, Yuri Lotman. However, the titles of the dictionary volumes he worked on for some 20 years cannot be mentioned in polite company because the dictionary is dedicated to the use of Russian curse words, and the social and cultural taboos about them are stronger than they are in other languages.
The grandson of one of the biggest cinema and theater stars of the Soviet Union, he was born and raised in the heart of Moscow but spent most of his childhood in a workers’ commune on the edge of the capital, where he witnessed non-stop alcoholism and violence. His military service, for which he volunteered despite being exempt for health reasons, was full of brutal violence. He mentions numerous times that he lost all his upper teeth there.
A giant phallus
A video clip from March 2008 shows a bearded Plutser-Sarno, donning a tuxedo and brimmed hat, holding one end of a black bolt of cloth with the phrase “Fuck for the heir puppy bear” – an unsubtle reference to then-presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev, whose family name comes from the Russian word for bear. He is surrounded by fully naked couples having sex, mostly doggy style. A few photographs and video clips of this event, which took place in one of the halls of Moscow’s State Biology Museum, can still be found on the internet. Plutser-Sarno, one of the architects of the political art performance, was one of the few people in the room wearing clothes. He tells me that the contrast between his tuxedo and nakedness of the couples around him was supposed to shock the viewer and distinguish the display from pornography.
It was Voina’s first spectacle, and it won widespread admiration on the internet and in the media. One of the participants in the “museum orgy” was Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (then in the seventh month of her pregnancy), who became the face of radical protest art in Russia in 2012 when she performed “Punk Prayer” (“Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away”) with other members of the band Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. She and others in the group were sentenced to two years in prison. However, while she became a global personality, the fate of other group members was less envious. One prominent activist, Leonid Nikolayev, died under strange circumstances, and Vorotnikov and Sokol, who were two of Voina's official leaders and who fled to Europe, live between arrests and from scandal to scandal.
Considering that he describes the pair as characters with criminal tendencies, I ask Plutser-Sarno whether collaborating with them for the sake of protest art posed any ethical problems for him. Wasn't he engaging in exploitation? “The goal was singular, to create and give an example of radical political protests that would be heard by every piece of shit in the country,” he responded. “The goal was singular, the talents were different, and only together could they succeed.” He explained that “the first display, the orgy at the biological museum, spit at the elections in Russia. It was a metaphor of these elections. For what are elections in Russia but people screwing one another, and the puppy bear – that is, the future president – watches with delight.”
The biological museum stunt signaled the beginning of the group’s golden age, when its members managed to “throw shit into the fan,” as Plutser-Sarno described it – or in more refined words, to provocatively touch a nerve in Russian society. In another notorious act, the artists “executed by hanging” five people – three migrant workers and two homosexuals (one of them a Jew) – at a branch of a well-known Russian supermarket chain. The performance, in which the “victims” were hanged using rappelling rope and were unharmed, was called “In memory of the Decemberists” – noble revolutionaries who rose up against the Russian crown in 1825. Five of them were hanged.
Another impactful act took place in 2010 in Moscow during protests against so-called "VIP cars" whose drivers use flashing blue lights to evade traffic laws. Protesters put blue buckets on top of their cars to demand equality on the road. Voina took the idea one step further. Nikolayev put a blue bucket on his head and ran on top of a car belonging to a member of Russia's Federal Security Bureau on the bustling road outside the Kremlin’s wall. He was later charged with hooliganism.
There were many other actions: throwing live cats at McDonald’s registers (which Plutser-Sarno says was planned without him and which he objected to because of animal abuse); filming a woman stuffing a raw chicken into her vagina and walking out of the store with it still insider her; a staged traffic accident next to the prosecutor’s office, where the curator of the “Forbidden Art – 2006” exhibit, which infuriated religious and nationalist Russians, was being interrogated; overturning a police car next to St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Palace, which the group called “Palace Coup” and for which Vorotnikov and Sokol were arrested in late 2010. They spent three months behind bars, until the British graffiti artist Banksy bailed them out for 300,000 rubles (around $10,000) each.
However, the group’s signature achievement, which ironically won the Russian Ministry of Culture’s prize for art “innovation” in 2011, was a giant phallus painted the previous year on St. Petersburg’s Liteyny drawbridge opposite the FSB headquarters minutes before the bridge was raised for the night. Once the bridge went up, the security service building had a front-row view of the “Giant Galactic Space Penis."
Plutser-Sarno recalls that in 2010 he escaped arrest for “Palace Coup” by fleeing to Crimea (which was at that time part of Ukraine) and hiding in an old mobile home for the winter. “It was impossible to fly from there immediately because there is strict control in the airport and the Russian security services were already doing their will in Crimea,” he said. “I boarded a plane home, to Israel, in March.”
Plutser-Sarno returned to Russia several times after fleeing, taking the necessary precautions, he says, to avoid arrest and not to cause harm to any of his acquaintances. He said that he helped his Voina colleagues flee in 2012. “When the police in Russia completely closed in on us, I wrote a good friend, Boris Berezovsky,” he says. “I thank him endlessly. He solved the whole problem with two phone calls. He organized a personal meeting for me with Mikheil Saakashvili [then-president of Georgia]. A few days later, I was sitting in a restaurant in Tbilisi with the country’s leadership. I drank wonderful wine and ate grilled lamb. Between the 7th and 77th cups of wine I wrote an asylum request in the name of the group.”
'The stupid government'
How can a protest artist who opposed the oppression of the Putin regime and talks about identifying with anarchistic and libertarian values chose to live in a settlement – one of the symbols of oppression of one people by another? This question bothered me from the moment I heard where Plutser-Sarno lives. I tried to extract answers during our brief acquaintance. “The government here makes life insufferable to the same measure for Arabs as for Jews,” he responded. “Simple workers on both sides of the checkpoint are suffocated to death by unending, barbaric taxes, fines, municipal taxes and insane prices,” he said. “Not only do they take 100 percent of salaries, but they also put them into debt with the banks. They screw us all, and our only right is to quietly suck up to this dirty government in the next elections.”
He later added no less radical messages. “Every state has become a forced labor camp,” he said. “The Arab forced labor camp is another ghetto within a big camp. The leaders of the left and their donors sit in Tel Aviv and think they are free. They are also in the hole, like everyone. They are also occupiers. The government and the police thrive on the taxes of the rich leftists in Tel Aviv. And the government lies. It is happy that all these people are fleeing because that’s the protesting, young and talented part of its constituents, who are a danger to these old and stupid pretentious people. If they would bring back everyone who fled, it would be the end of this stupid and unprofessional government. So, your question, where I personally live, is worthless from a global revolution standpoint. What I think and do don’t matter.”
When a stormy argument on the matter develops again during a meeting at my home, he first explains that he chose a settlement for economic reasons, and says most people who live near him “were phased there” for similar reasons. Later, he angrily berated me: “I am up to my hips in shit and you are up to your ankle, and you proudly show me your clean knee. What are you talking about? We are all tainted. We are all immersed in the shit that happens here in the same measure. Let’s all boycott the elections. Are you against the occupation? Then do something. You are living in a fairy tale.”
When I ask him how he is protesting the regime, Plutser-Sarno answers: “I’m not protesting against the government. I think about how to pick myself up and quietly screw on from here.”
“Wherever, from this forced labor camp.”
You don't breathe more freely here than in Russia?
“It was impossible in general to breathe in Russia. Here, you can. There is an African oligarchy in Russia. It’s another method, it’s impossible to talk about at all. And in Israel it’s like southern Europe – corrupt Italy, corrupt Greece. The government is disgusting. They do things that are scary to think about. This is Israel, a run-of-the-mill European country with all that accompanies it, and Russia is a jail rather a labor camp. It’s incomparable.”
You just said Israel’s a forced labor camp. Now you say it about Russia.
“Russia is a totally different system, nothing to do with Israel. They have real criminals who keep the camp on a short leash over there. Here you can talk about corruption, about the merging of capital and government. It’s a real camp in Russia, and here the camp is a metaphor.”
Fine, so there are corrupt politicians and the police take care of them, including prime ministers. All this doesn't convince me that we, the Jews, lack rights here, and there is a forced labor camp here and not a state. And it certainly doesn’t convince me that there is no difference whatsoever between the status of Jews and that of Arabs, and that it doesn’t matter where you live – in a settlement or in Tel Aviv.
“You say ‘Arabs’ are such and such – and poof, you labeled them. No one is arguing with that, but it’s one little, insignificant label. The Arabs suffer. True, they suffer. I repeat: They suffer, suffer, suffer.”
Plutser-Sarno adds that he cannot work with his Palestinian friends in Hebron, Bethlehem or Beit Sahour because he is not permitted to do so, and even hints that the authorities have discussed the matter with him. Military law indeed forbids Israelis from entering Areas A and B of the West Bank (under Palestinian and joint Israeli-Palestinian control, respectively), but Israelis are almost never punished for such an offense.
But you live in a settlement, which among other things prevents the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“The government, which I hate, is preventing its establishment, creating this whole situation.”
But isn’t there also personal responsibility?
“Personal responsibility of a person sitting in jail, for the situation in which he is caught?”
On his Facebook page, accompanying the video and photos of his performance piece on Mount Herzl, Plutser-Sarno initially wrote that the “minute of silence” or “sacrificial offering” event was dedicated to “all those killed in the pogroms, extermination camps and terror attacks.” The artist also blessed the imperial authorities on the occasion of the upcoming holidays and wished them continued success “with their xenophobic and feudalistic policy leading to poverty for millions of workers lacking elementary rights and freedoms.” Later, he erased this text and in its place left a sarcastic description of the day’s events, probably to expand the range of interpretation of the performance.