The Artist Holding Valuable Art Hostage to Protect Julian Assange

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One unusually warm January afternoon, I arrived in Cauterets, a small spa town in the Pyrenees, in southwest France, to meet the Russian artist Andrei Molodkin. There was a scattering of fromagerie stalls in the streets. Low-slung cable cars ferried skiers to the mountaintop, casting moving shadows over the families wandering through the town. Walking among them, I wondered what they’d think if they knew what Molodkin was doing up the hill.

A few years ago, Molodkin bought a large nineteenth-century sanatorium, a stately, symmetrical, magnolia-yellow building with tiled floors and a gabled roof with a wrought-iron frame. On the day of my visit, Molodkin, who is fifty-seven, was wearing utilitarian black trousers, black work boots, and a black insulated jacket as he ushered me into the sanatorium’s spacious entrance hall. At one end of it was a freestanding, thirty-two-ton Swiss bank safe, about thirteen by nine feet, which Molodkin had imported from Amsterdam. It had been brought into the building piecemeal, via forklift, last fall; the artist, along with several men who worked in a nearby factory, guided panels of the safe inside, then bolted them together with the help of two security advisers from Berlin.

As Molodkin strained to open the heavy metal door of the safe, I counted five different locks. Inside were a handful of custom-built plywood crates, which will eventually hold a group of works donated by artists and collectors. There will be pieces by Picasso, Rembrandt, and Andy Warhol, as well as more contemporary works by artists such as Andres Serrano, Santiago Sierra, and Sarah Lucas, which Molodkin estimates at a collective value of around forty million dollars. “We have sixteen art works so far, but people keep offering to donate more,” he said, a note of satisfaction detectable in his voice. In the middle of the crates was a small pneumatic pump connecting two white barrels, one containing acid powder and the other an accelerator that could cause a chemical reaction strong enough to turn the entire contents of the safe to debris within two hours.

A Swiss safe, part of Molodkin’s project “Dead Man’s Switch,” stands in the entrance hall of a former sanatorium in Cauterets, France.Photograph courtesy the author

The project is called “Dead Man’s Switch,” and the “dead man” in question is the Australian WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who is currently jailed on remand in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison. In 2010, WikiLeaks published a spate of leaks from the Army private Chelsea Manning about U.S. military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. After Sweden issued a European arrest warrant for Assange in connection to sexual-assault allegations (a case that has since been dropped), Assange took refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012, where he remained for seven years. A hacking charge against Assange was unsealed in April, 2019; one month later, the U.S. government added new charges, indicting him for violating the Espionage Act for his part in WikiLeaks’ disclosure of secret military and diplomatic documents. The indictment has raised concerns over its implications for First Amendment rights and journalists who report on national-security issues.

On February 20 and 21, 2024, Assange will face a court hearing on what may be his final bid to appeal the United States’ order to extradite him. On the day the hearing begins, two video cameras in Cauterets, one fitted in a corner of the safe and one outside it, will begin live streaming on YouTube. In the event that Assange should die in prison, a remote-control button will be activated to set off the chemical reaction, and the contents of the safe will disintegrate. Only if Assange is released as a free man, Molodkin said, will the art be returned to its owners. Molodkin believes that Assange’s extradition to the United States and incarceration there would put his life “in great danger.” “Assange is a red line,” he said.

Molodkin met Stella Assange and members of WikiLeaks last March, in London, at an exhibition by a/political, an art organization. The organization was launched, in 2013, by the Kazakhstan-born entrepreneur and art collector Andrei Tretyakov (who helped Molodkin buy the sanatorium), and it supports the work of a number of artists who often engage with provocative political subjects. The members of WikiLeaks “are not involved,” Molodkin said.

“When you have political persecution, you attack a person’s political capital in order to make it easier to silence and imprison them,” Stella Assange told me, over the phone. She noted health and self-harm risks to her husband in prison, and cited a report that C.I.A. officials under Donald Trump requested “options” for killing Assange. (In 2021, an investigation by Yahoo News revealed that senior officials in the C.I.A and Trump’s Administration allegedly had discussions about how to assassinate Assange, following WikiLeaks’ publication, in 2017, of C.I.A hacking tools known as “Vault 7.”) “How do you regain political capital? You do it at every level of society. [Molodkin’s project] is like a protective step,” she observed. She said that her husband knows about and approves of “Dead Man’s Switch”—to the extent that it will draw attention to his plight. “It’s a kind of human shield, but in the form of art. An art shield.”

“Dead Man’s Switch” comes at a time when the spectre of holding valuable works of art hostage as a tool to achieve ideological ends is on the rise. Just Stop Oil, an environmental-activist group based in the United Kingdom, has been in the news for vandalizing celebrated paintings in museums to protest the continued use of fossil fuels. The result so far has been that frames or protective casings have been physically damaged, and security in many museums has been put on high alert, but there’s no evidence that the interventions have achieved their intended aim of reducing fossil-fuel extraction. The British art historian and curator Julian Stallabrass called the actions of Just Stop Oil “a P.R. stunt, more spectacle than anything else.” Molodkin’s work—at least for the time being—is conceptual. Artists like Molodkin, Stallabrass observed, are in a politically powerless position. “And a response to weakness is to find the most valuable thing at your disposal and leverage that thing,” he said.

Molodkin has made a career of interrogating power structures—and the political corruption and violence that often undergird them—through his art. His work, which the critic Margarita Tupitsyn, writing in Artforum, described as “a meeting point of low- and high-tech practices,” is in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern, in London. Two of his favorite materials to work with are crude oil and human blood. In “Fifa World Cup Filled with Qatari Oil (The Dirtiest Cup),” which was shown by a/political in 2022, Molodkin presented a transparent acrylic-resin replica of the World Cup trophy with a tube inserted through its underside that loudly ejected spurts of crude oil at irregular intervals.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine sent an estimated one million Russians abroad, but Molodkin told me that his relocation to France was less an abrupt flight than a gradual parting of ways. Molodkin stands against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an event that he said revealed his own naïveté about Putin and the possibility that, as he put it, “such brutal aggression, killing and bombing, could happen against an independent country for no reason.” Molodkin marked Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 2022, with his first augmented-reality work. Social-media posts showed visitors to Moscow’s Red Square and Russian embassies in London and D.C. superimposing a hollow replica of Vladimir Putin’s portrait—dripping with blood donated by Molodkin’s Ukrainian friends—on their surroundings. He named the work “Putin Filled with Ukrainian Blood.”

Last fall, I paid a visit to Molodkin in Maubourguet, a sleepy commune that is little more than an hour’s drive from Cauterets, and where he has lived for about a decade. He works at the Foundry, a former military-parts factory that he bought and has turned into a hub for a community of like-minded artists who regularly come to produce work. Above the entrance to the main building, I noticed the first neon letter of a large sign flickering on and off, making the candy-red word “LAUGHTER” occasionally read “SLAUGHTER.” Molodkin greeted me under a towering red-and-black metal installation by the conceptual artist Erik Bulatov, born in 1933, which reads, in Russian, “Everything’s not so scary.” As we stood looking at it, Molodkin began to laugh. When I asked him why, he replied, “Because the world is very scary!” For Molodkin, the Foundry’s greatest quality is that “you can do projects you can’t do anywhere else.” He added, “There are no rules.”

In 2015, the seventy-three-year-old American artist and photographer Andres Serrano, who is perhaps best known for “Piss Christ,” a photo depicting a crucifix submerged in a tank of his urine, used the Foundry as the site to develop a project on torture, in which he invited local residents to participate in torture reënactments that he then photographed. The space was “perfect for what I needed,” Serrano said, on the phone from his New York home. He contributed a work to “Dead Man’s Switch” not for ideological reasons, he said, but because he has “a soft spot” for Molodkin. “I think if artwork is being destroyed for a good cause, then let it be,” Serrano told me.

The sixty-four-year-old Italian artist Franko B, who also donated one of his own works to the project, regularly visits the Foundry, and used it to conduct a fifteen-day workshop for performance artists, which was aimed, he said, “at getting people out of their comfort zone.” The workshop kicked off with five days of fasting and silence, and included exercises like making a walk across a yard last six hours. “It’s an open gate here,” he said.

An old Maubourguet military-parts factory, now known as the Foundry, where Molodkin works.Photograph by Markel Redondo / REA / Redux

Molodkin is part of a generation of Russian political artists whose work employs shock tactics to rebel against the constraints of their era, among them Avdey Ter-Oganyan, whose 1998 “action” desecrating Russian Orthodox icons drove him into exile in Prague, and Oleg Kulik, whose most well-known work is a naked performance, from 1994, in which he impersonates a rabid dog. In one split-level area of the Foundry, I saw the work of the Russian artist Petr Davydtchenko, who gained notoriety in 2021, after eating a live bat in front of the European Parliament, in Brussels, to protest what he called the unfair distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The day I visited, he was developing a project using dead rats.

The South of France has long drawn artists wishing to forge creative coteries away from urban centers. Molodkin was inspired by the Russian avant-garde, in particular the painter Kazimir Malevich, who, in 1919, left Moscow alongside an artistic cohort for the town of Vitebsk, where he founded a new theory of modern art. “To leave mainstream culture, to not be influenced by the consumer world and other aspects of the city, is necessary to create your own language,” Molodkin said. “Such a thing is only possible out of the city.”

Molodkin seemed to take pleasure in remembering exhibition malfunctions. He told me about a spillage during an exhibition at a New York gallery, in 2007, in which oil from his work seeped into the gallery downstairs. “They weren’t very happy,” he recalled with a grin. Molodkin’s jovial, sometimes goofy demeanor can sometimes seem at odds with his oil- and blood-spattered work. “To work against power you have to have humor, even if it’s dark or tragic,” he said. “It gives you a different way of thinking.”

Molodkin considers himself to be a free-speech absolutist. “I know from the Soviet Union that allowing people to control information will corrupt them,” he said. “There has to be absolute free information and speech at all times.” In 2020, a video representation of a work of his titled “The White House Filled with the Blood of US Citizens” was scheduled to be projected on the façade of the nonprofit arts organization CulturalDC, in Washington, D.C. The event was suspended, however, after four people were stabbed in the aftermath of a march denouncing Joe Biden’s election victory. The decision, according to Kristi Maiselman, the organization’s executive director and curator, was made “out of respect and concern for safety,” but Molodkin was outraged. “It showed me that you can’t show what you want, that freedom of expression is gone,” he said. (A few weeks later, the work was projected onto the Trump hotel in D.C.)

Molodkin and his eight-year-old son live in a two-story villa with peeling red shutters on the Foundry’s premises. In the home’s entrance hall, a floor-to-ceiling canvas splashed with crude oil features an artist’s statement on exhibition accidents titled “ ‘Fuck You’ As Incident.” A few feet away, a life-size stuffed white bear, designed by Franko B, towers over anyone seeking to enter the dining room.

Molodkin grew up in Buy, a town northeast of Moscow. Sitting at his heavy wooden dining table, Molodkin recalled when he was a child and his father took him to the local public baths, where he was struck by the strange tattoos he saw on bathers there, many of whom were former convicts. “There were some incredible tattoos with religious images, which was forbidden at the time,” he said.

He was the eldest of three children, and he says he was the only one in the family who became interested in art. He would place metal objects on train tracks and wait for the results. “Any piece of metal I found, I wondered what it would look like flattened,” he said. After one of the objects nearly derailed a train, his parents, both of whom were teachers, spent two years taking Molodkin to monthly check-ins at the local police station, a measure for children who were considered dangerous. At fifteen, Molodkin won a place in a program at a metalwork school in a nearby town.

Molodkin attended art academies in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow, after spending two years as an Army conscript, an experience he described as “life-changing.” It was the only subject we discussed that never drew a joke. In his early twenties, he was convoying military equipment by train across the Soviet Union. One morning, as he was walking to the canteen for breakfast, he saw the body of a fellow-conscript who had shot himself in the chest after being tormented by his superiors. Soldiers were dragging the corpse on a tent cloth next to Molodkin, leaving a trail of blood. “It shocked me so much,” Molodkin said. “It must have been a hundred-metre line of hot blood on the asphalt.” In memory of that conscript, he has titled one of his exhibitions “Bloodline.”

In 2009, Molodkin was chosen as one of seven artists representing the Russian pavilion, titled “Victory Over the Future,” at the fifty-third Venice Biennale. “I just told the curator”—Olga Sviblova—“that my project would be about blood and oil,” Molodkin said. The work, “Le Rouge et le Noir,” featured hollow replicas of the ancient Greek statue Nike of Samothrace. According to the wall text that Molodkin had written, the statues had been pumped full of blood drawn from Russian veterans and crude oil imported from Chechnya, whose capital Putin had razed to the ground during the Second Chechen War. He was dismayed when the text explaining where the blood and oil had been sourced was removed.

The installation attracted international media attention, but, Molodkin said, aside from Sviblova telling him that she could destroy his career, there were no official repercussions. (Sviblova declined to comment.) It’s a stark reminder of how much has changed since then; now Russian citizens can be jailed for calling the invasion of Ukraine a “war” on social media. The incident nonetheless sparked Molodkin’s obsession with free expression. He was quick to draw a connection with what happened to Assange, “a man who’s an example for everyone of what happens to a person who wants to publish something those in power don’t like.”

Molodkin’s “Le Rouge et le Noir,” on display at the fifty-third Venice Art Biennale, in 2009.Photograph by Joerg Glaescher / laif / Redux

Pierre Olivier Rollin, the director of the BPS22 museum, in Charleroi, Belgium, who curated a joint exhibition of Molodkin and Bulatov there, sees “Dead Man’s Switch” as an artist’s attempt to “associate” with the idea of Assange. “Destroying works of art might seem barbaric,” he told me. “But is it any more barbaric than what is happening to Assange? Does the most formidable of masterpieces justify sacrificing our freedom?”

It is rare that artists destroy their own work, rarer still that they destroy the work of others, and perhaps rarest of all that collectors, the guardians of art, offer up work for possible destruction. But some collectors who had donated works to “Dead Man’s Switch” told me they had their reasons. Tretyakov, of a/political, has donated a work by the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis. Culture has become “another part of entertainment,” Tretyakov said. “The last resort is how much people are willing to sacrifice for what they believe in. As collectors or cultural participants, it’s a question for us: What are we willing to do?”

Giampaolo Abbondio, an Italian fund manager and art collector who donated a work by Picasso to the project, at first refused Molodkin’s request. He changed his mind, he said, “because it’s less to do with Picasso than the idea.” While he hopes that the painting will be returned to him eventually, he thinks that the “only weak part” of the project is that if Assange dies, “we don’t have good news to counterbalance it. We have more bad news, which is the destruction of the art works.”

It’s hard to verify that the art works Molodkin says will be in the safe actually will be there, or that they will be destroyed if Assange dies. He told me that he plans to put one of his own pieces in the safe, and showed the magazine documents that attest to the authenticity of the art works he says are in “Dead Man’s Switch,” but, for the most part, he did not disclose their titles. This omission could make it harder for any artists’ estates to launch proceedings that might put a stop to the project. (Such estates can still track particular art works and check on collectors, he pointed out, but “that will take them a lot of time.”) In France, the droit moral gives artists the legal right to object to—and even to prevent—the destruction of their art works. When I asked Molodkin what he made of this law, he seemed surprised, saying he wasn’t aware that such a right existed. In any case, he insisted, legal processes “are not in my focus or interest. If you start worrying about that kind of thing, you’ll never make contemporary art.”

Not everyone is convinced of the project’s merits as a work of art. Pierre d’Alancaisez is a London-based curator and critic who sits on the advisory board of Freedom in the Arts, a campaign that highlights issues of artistic freedom and censorship in institutions. “Molodkin, as far as I’m aware, is not necessarily the most subtle of actors, and this seems to be completely in line with the kind of interest that he has as an artist,” he said. “As a stunt, [“Dead Man’s Switch”] sits a little bit on the level of the kind of work that someone like Ai Weiwei makes, which is essentially this kind of meta-commentary. . . . Whether that is an artistic act in itself, I think, is questionable.” He brought up earlier work by artists such as Michael Landy and Gustav Metzger “that had, at its aim, the destruction of art.” He sees Molodkin as a kind of “speculator,” trading on the “third-party value” of blue-chip art. “Maybe this is only a good work if it doesn’t achieve its campaign end,” d’Alancaisez told me.

In Cauterets, as he finished showing off the safe, Molodkin seemed excited by the prospect of the project’s launch. But it was less clear how the work’s tension might be sustained in the event that Assange is neither released from prison nor dies but stays incarcerated, alive, for many more years. In that event, “the art will stay in the safe,” he said. “We’ll add more art to it.” This sounded like an afterthought.

Molodkin said that he hired what he called “professional hostage negotiators” to help him write a letter to “the President” and the “Secretary of State,” informing them that Assange’s death in prison would precipitate the destruction of invaluable art works. “I do not want this and you possess the power to prevent it,” the letter reads. The U.S. State Department and the White House haven’t replied.

In the meantime, the presence of these art works in this mountain town has been considered a great boon, at least by Jean-Pierre Florence, who is a seventy-three-year-old hiking enthusiast and the mayor of Cauterets. “It’s wonderful that we’ll have so many amazing artists’ work in Cauterets,” he enthused, smiling brightly as he peered into the safe to see where the art and acid would be placed. “I’d be proud to have a Picasso here.” The comic absurdity of taking delight in an art work that won’t be seen and that may even be incinerated was not lost on the artist. When I looked at Molodkin, he was laughing. ♦


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