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Assange Or Art?

February 21, 2024
Julian Assange

Julian Assange (photo courtesy of Daniel G. Silvers)

Julian Assange has been one of the most controversial figures of the twenty-first century. As the founder of WikiLeaks, he received praise for his journalism concerning American military involvement in the Middle East. However, he later came under fire for his rather conveniently timed leaks, which some say had a drastic impact on the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Since 2019, he has been kept in a London prison awaiting extradition to the United States. However, one of his supporters has recently made a promise to destroy millions of dollars of art should Assange die in custody.

In a project called Dead Man’s Switch, Russian artist Andrei Molodkin now claims that he has around sixteen pieces of art, including work by Rembrandt, Picasso, and Warhol, collectively worth around $45 million locked in a 29-ton safe. He further explained that he also has an “extremely corrosive” substance which, in the event of Assange’s death in custody, will be pumped pneumatically into the safe, destroying the contents. Molodkin is a conceptual and performance artist who frequently focuses on the violence and corruption present in the world. Recently, he created a piece called Fifa World Cup Filled with Qatari Oil (The Dirtiest Cup), consisting of a clear resin replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy, which would fill with crude oil at regular intervals. It is a commentary on the allegations of corruption and human rights abuses Qatar has faced since winning the bid to host the tournament in 2010.

As I type this, hearings are taking place in a British court to consider Assange’s final appeal resisting the US’s extradition request. Should he face charges in American courts, he faces a 175-year sentence. Assange is 52 years old with no known underlying health issues. Therefore, it will take a while for him to die of natural causes. If Molodkin is concerned that Assange will be put to death by the state as a result of his conviction, he might be able to rest easy. The United States is seeking extradition so he can be tried under the Espionage Act of 1917. The last time the government executed anyone under the Espionage Act was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. If the concern is that someone will try to target him in prison, that’s a different matter. Both Molodkin and Assange’s lawyers have said that Assange would be in great danger in prison. The recent death of prominent Russian dissident Alexei Navalny may have some people on edge. But regardless of whether Assange would be in any actual danger in prison, it’s important to focus on Molodkin’s central idea. The statement behind it is that people, particularly people in power, seem to care more about assets and property than they do human life. The same core idea inspires climate activists to stage museum demonstrations, defacing paintings and gluing themselves to the walls.

Molodkin’s safe is currently at his residence in France but will be moved to an unspecified museum. According to the artist, the only way the art comes out is if Assange is released from custody.