Leiden Rusland Blog

Performance as Protest: the Work of Pyotr Pavlensky

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Performance as Protest: the Work of Pyotr Pavlensky

Despite the tightening of political freedom that has occurred since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, some artist-activists, such as St. Petersburg’s Pyotr Pavlensky, are using public performance art as a platform for political protest.

On October 2, 2015, court proceedings against performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky are set to resume. The artist is charged with vandalism and he faces a maximum sentence of three years in a penal colony if convicted. For his part, Pavlensky has taken a vow of silence, refusing to participate in court proceedings after his application for Pavel Yasman, his former interrogator, to represent him in court was denied.

The story is certainly a bizarre one, beginning in early 2014 with a performance by Pavlensky entitled “Freedom.” In this performance, the artist and a few assistants used car tires to create a mock barricade on St. Petersburg’s historic Malo-Konyushennyi Bridge. Once the structure was complete, Pavlensky promptly set it on fire. Although Pavlensky describes this art-action as a gesture of solidarity with the Maidan protests in Ukraine, Russian authorities considered it an act of destructive vandalism, and Pavlensky was arrested in the middle of his art-action. 

Pavlensky’s case was sent to the Investigative Committee, and it was there that he first met Yasam, his state-designated interrogator. In the three interrogation sessions that took place between March and June of 2014, Yasman and Pavlensky discussed Pavlensky’s performance. Their conversations covered certain legal details specific to his charges (such as whether or not the bridge had actually sustained physical damage), but they also included long debates on the limits of what is permissible in art. Surprisingly, the interrogator slowly became convinced by Pavlensky’s arguments, and after these sessions ended the artist published a transcript of their discussions on the website of the Russian journal Snob. Yasman, meanwhile, resigned from his post at the Investigative Committee and applied for a lawyer’s license with the goal of defending Pavlensky in court.

Pavlensky and his work have a long history of eliciting strong reactions from both the Russian public and authority figures. Born in St. Petersburg in 1984, Pavlensky rebelled against society at an early age, and was expelled from three different schools before finally entering an art college. In the summer of 2012, Pavlensky created his first performance piece called “Stitch.” For this action, Pavlensky sewed his own mouth shut in support of the group Pussy Riot, who were then imprisoned and being tried for their infamous concert in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Instead of being arrested for his actions, Pavlensky was sent to a hospital for medical treatment and a psychiatric evaluation.

Since this initial performance, Pavlensky has lain naked inside a barbed wire tube outside the entrance of the Legislative Assembly building in St. Petersburg (“Carcass,” 2013), set car tires on fire on Malo-Konyushennyi Bridge (“Freedom,” 2014), cut off his own earlobe with a kitchen knife while sitting naked on top of the Serbsky Psychiatry Center in Moscow (“Separation,” 2014), and most famously, nailed his scrotum to Red Square (“Fixation,” 2013).

Pavlensky’s performance acts criticize the current political climate in Russia, and are aimed at every part of the system. Where “Carcass” protested the passing of repressive legislation (including, among others, Russia’s infamous gay propaganda law), “Separation” attacked the selective use of state psychiatry to suppress political dissidents. “Fixation” was aimed at the Russian public, whose political apathy is seen by Pavlensky as tacit approval of the ever-increasing actions by authorities to transform the nation into a police state.

Although it may be tempting to pick out self-harm as a common theme in most of his work, Pavlensky himself states that his use of “instruments of state power” represents the true common denominator in his performances. Pavlensky argues that by keeping his actions minimal, he is able to draw state authorities into his work, making them unwilling participants by forcing them to figure out what to do with him—whether he is lying in a barbed wire cocoon, or sitting on top of the Serbsky Psychiatry Center. The simplicity of his work also makes it difficult for media spin-doctors to distort his actions, and Pavlensky argues that for this reason his message always finds a way to its intended audience.

Clarity and conviction in one’s beliefs can be incredibly powerful, and Pavlensky’s work has shown its ability to influence others, with former interrogator Yasman serving as a prime example. Regarding his change of heart, Yasman was quoted by the Moscow Times as saying: “Pavlensky is a very strong person. I think it’s great to believe so fervently in what you are doing...I think his work has made many people become more critical and change their worldview.” 

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