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Andrei Molodkin

Andrei Molodkin On His Threat to Destroy $45 Million of Masterpieces by Picasso, Warhol and Rembrandt to Save Julian Assange

Andrei Molodkin speaks to Dorian Batycka

On February 20th and 21st, 2024, Wikileaks publisher and journalist Julian Assange will face a court hearing on what will likely be his final bid to appeal the United States’ extradition order. That process will set in motion a project by contemporary artist Andrei Molodkin.

In an unprecedented move that advocates for freedom of speech, an artistic hostage situation will take place. The project, named "Dead Man’s Switch," aims to make a bold statement about the fate of the political prisoner and WikiLeaks founder by risking the destruction of priceless artworks in the event of Assange's death in custody. This initiative is being undertaken by Andrei Molodkin in collaboration with contemporary artists who support Assange’s freedom. The artist’s approach to dissidence spans over twenty years and includes various materials such as blood and oil to draw attention to repressive regimes.

This piece decries the incarceration of Assange as a crime against humanity, truth, and journalism, committed by criminals in power. All of the artworks that form part of Dead Man's Switch will be destroyed if the criminal systems in the UK and the USA mistreat Assange. In lieu of his pardon, the art will never see the light of day and will continue to exist with one message: 'FREE JULIAN ASSANGE', says Peter Kennard, one of the participants in the work.

Andrei Molodkin’s Dead Man’s Switch. Installation view.

The artworks are assembled within a colossal 32-ton safe—surpassing the dimensions of Assange's own cell—and holds masterpieces from some of the most revered names in art history. The collection, collating artworks by luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, is rigged to self-destruct through a mechanism known as a "dead man’s switch," a device installed within the safe room. On 16th February 2024, the countdown begins, placing the burden of art history's preservation squarely on the shoulders of the US and UK Governments.

The project's line is straightforward yet profound: if Assange perishes, so will an irreplaceable part of art history. The initiative has issued a stark ultimatum to the US Government, encapsulated in a letter demanding Assange's release. The US has been given ten days to respond privately to the demands and avert the public escalation of negotiations.

"Dead Man’s Switch" is a clarion call for action against the erosion of democratic freedoms.

"Dead Man’s Switch" is a clarion call for action against the erosion of democratic freedoms. Humanity’s collective art treasures are placed on the highest sacrificial altar in the name of freedom of conscience, thought, and culture. The fate of Assange, and by extension the fate of art history, now lies in the balance, challenging us to confront the finality of this pivotal moment in history.

Chloe Schlosberg of the Free Assange campaign told Collecteurs that Assange’s treatment “reflects a deeply concerning trend where those exposing government misconduct face severe consequences.” Adding to this sentiment, Joseph Farrell, a Wikileaks ambassador and board member of the Center for Investigative Journalism, says that “all censorship is an erosion of freedom of speech or freedom of expression. Historically art and culture have been able to circumvent and subvert censorship by employing allegory, symbolism or satire to convey dissenting messages that challenge political norms."

In an exclusive interview with Collecteurs, Molodkin discusses what the project means and how this act of artistic ransom has been manifested into a global call for the release of Assange.

Dorian Batycka: How did the idea for "Dead Man’s Switch" come about?

Andrei Molodkin: Artists utilize various materials and media in their creations. For this portrait of Julian Assange - a symbol of repression, torture, and the prison system, I chose not a traditional canvas but a 32 ton Swiss bank safe, incorporating elements of art history and contributions from artists like Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Jannis Kounellis, Rembrandt, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Santiago Sierra, Andres Serrano, Jon Rafman, Jake Chapman, Peter Kennard, Sarah Lucas, Franko B., and myself. It is a collective piece of Political Minimalism whereby I have created the structure, however the end result of the artwork is out of the artist’s hands and in the fate of the US Government.

Neon industrial tubes filled with white-colored oil in dark space with black floor resembling iron bars.

DB: How do you monitor Assange’s condition?

AM: The dead man’s switch is implemented using two countdown timers, one inside the safe, the other one handled by someone close to Assange, likely a lawyer, but exactly who I cannot say. If there is no life confirmation signal, the countdown reaches 0 and the emergency device inside the safe is activated, and an acid bath that will destroy all the artworks inside.

DB: You've described yourself as a free speech absolutist. Can you discuss the importance of freedom of speech in your work?

AM: Growing up in the Soviet Union and experiencing repression firsthand, I understand the critical importance of free expression. It's fundamental to culture and creativity. Without it, we're relegated to propaganda or underground existence. Today's censorship, especially in the context of global conflicts, threatens to silence dissenting voices and control narratives. I think a healthy society needs an absolute doctrine when it comes to freedom of speech.

DB: Do you believe censorship in the West differs from that in the Soviet Union? Or even in modern Russia?

AM: In my view, Western censorship has become increasingly aggressive, particularly as geopolitical tensions rise. The case of Julian Assange epitomizes this, where revealing uncomfortable truths results in imprisonment and silencing. It's a stark warning to anyone valuing freedom of speech that there are certain red lines that cannot be crossed.

DB: Considering the pervasiveness of the entertainment industry, do you see a parallel with ancient Rome's strategy of 'bread and circus' to pacify the public today?

AM: Absolutely. Entertainment serves as a modern opiate, distracting from significant issues and maintaining compliance. In today's militaristic empires, these tactics are central to controlling public discourse and opinion.

Entertainment serves as a modern opiate, distracting from significant issues and maintaining compliance.

DB: Yet some might argue your work is just another form of 'bread and circus' for the elite. That art, no matter how radical or transgressive, only serves to aestheticize topics whilst maintaining the status quo. How do you respond to such criticisms?

AM: I define this work as Political Minimalism. It is not about sensationalizing, but creating an image of our moment in time and a platform for dialogue about freedom and democracy. The decision to potentially destroy art as a statement against Assange's imprisonment is as high stakes as his current situation.

DB: Will Dead Man’s Switch evolve, will more artworks be included in the safe over time?

AM: The project is open-ended, attracting more participants as its message spreads. It’s not about activism but art's power to function within a separate domain to politics.

Rectangular formation of neon tubes filled with black and white oils, set on a white floor with a central black rectangle and a white frame.

Andrei Molodkin, Transformer, modules, neon and industrial tubes filled with oil, 2013.

DB: Has there been any institutional interest following the widespread publicity of the piece?

AM: The response has been mixed, with both support and criticism. The project challenges the taboo of destroying art, pushing for a broader conversation on the value of freedom and cultural expression. My ultimate hope is for Assange’s freedom, reflecting on the broader implications of his case for free speech worldwide, which will result in the artwork being released. While aesthetically austere, Political Minimalism, seeks to provoke thought, dialogue, and action towards a freer, more expressive world.



The Museum of Private Collections

© 2024 Collecteurs. All rights reserved.


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