A group led by Ukrainian artists flew paper planes at the Guggenheim Museum in New York to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine (images courtesy Katya Pavlevych)

In the late afternoon of Saturday, March 5, visitors to the Guggenheim Museum in New York unexpectedly witnessed hundreds of paper planes gliding down from the top of the museum’s rotunda. Those paper planes — 350 of them — were not part of the museum’s programming. Rather, they were flyers calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, launched surreptitiously by a group of 15 artists and activists from Ukraine and elsewhere.

The guerilla action took place at 4:30pm, a typically busy time for the museum. Among the organizers of the action are artists Anton Varga, Bea Fremderman, V Pan, Volk Lika, and others. According to the group, museum security officers barred two of their members from entering the building. (A spokesperson for the Guggenheim told Hyperallergic that the two members were carrying bags of flyers and were given the option to enter the museum without the flyers, in accordance with museum policy. The spokesperson said the two members declined and refunds were issued for their tickets.)

A video shows the paper planes flying down from the top of the museum’s rotunda.

“We want to draw attention to the Russian war in Ukraine,” the artists said in a statement to Hyperallergic. “The military brutality of this war waged by Vladimir Putin affects Ukraine, all of Europe, and ultimately every country that is continuously decimated by Putin’s violence.”

They continued: “We believe that the importance of asking NATO to close the sky, establish a No-Fly Zone and humanitarian airspace, to prevent a potential worldwide nuclear catastrophe, is urgent and critical.”

So far, NATO members, led by the United States, have resisted Ukrainian calls for a no-fly zone over the country, fearing the possibility of an all-out war with Russia. A no-fly zone would require NATO forces to shoot down any Russian aircraft flying over Ukraine, which could potentially drag other countries into the conflict.

The text printed on the flyers-turned-paper planes flown at the Guggenheim Museum.

Blanketing the museum’s floor, the flyers-turned-airplanes read: “This jet is made of paper … But what if it were steel … And carried bombs over the heads of the ones you love.”

Last week, the Guggenheim announced that one of its trustees, Putin-allied Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin, has stepped down from his post. The museum did not cite the reason for Potanin’s departure but expressed its opposition to the war.

“Potanin is on Putin’s cabinet of 13 billionaires and he met with him a week before the invasion,” Betty Roytburd, one of the participants in the action, told Hyperallergic. “That’s as direct involvement as somebody could have in a genocidal war.”

The guerilla action was organized by 15 artists from Ukraine and elsewhere.

Roytburd, a New York-based artist born in Ukraine, recently co-founded Spilka, an artist-led initiative to raise donations and humanitarian aid for Ukrainians back home.

According to Roytburd, Guggenheim visitors on Saturday were largely supportive of the action, with some applauding the activists and taking flyers home.

When asked to address concerns that a no-fly zone over Ukraine might trigger a third world war, she said: “A third world war could start if we don’t do anything to stop Putin.”

“This war already affects the entire world,” Roytburd continued. “Russia has taken over two nuclear plants, one of them is the largest in Europe. This concerns the entire planet. Not giving Ukraine a no-fly zone is basically telling Putin that he can keep going.”

Roytburd was supposed to be in Ukraine these days, working on a retrospective for her late father, artist Alexander Roytburd, who passed away in August of 2021. She also had plans to relocate to Ukraine for the long term. With the Russian invasion, all of these plans became null.

“I’ve grieved the death of my father for months before this invasion happened,” the artist said. “I don’t want to grieve for all of Ukraine.”

Editor’s note 3/8/22 12pm EST: This article has been updated to include comment from the Guggenheim Museum. 

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...