After nailing himself to the ground by his scrotum near the Kremlin on Sunday as “a metaphor for apathy, political indifference and the fatalism of modern Russian society,” Russian artist Petr Pavlensky was detained by the Moscow police. He was released from the station without any charges filed, but following international press attention — and opportunities to demonstrate that he wasn’t some crazy guy but a well-spoken, level-headed intellectual with a precise (if extreme) message in his most recent public work — Pavlensky is now being charged with “hooliganism.” Called it?
“Hooliganism” is the same vague, catch-all charge that resulted in Russia’s arrest of feminist art punk band Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
Earlier today, Pavlensky wrote on his Facebook that he was officially called into the police station. He told N+ that he first learned about the charges by reading an article about it on one of the major news sites:
I just found out this morning when I saw it in Interfax. Yesterday, I got a call from the Kitay Gorod police headquarters in order to confirm whether or not I was in Moscow. I am not. However, according to the article, I am on recognizance not to leave. I never signed anything like that. Either the police falsified this document, or Interfax mistakenly printed this information.
In a Russian-language interview with Svoboda, Pavlensky says that the investigating officer was most intent on convincing him that his action was in vain because there is no corruption to protest. His main argument was that Pavlensky was wrapped in a sheet to “warm” him up — not to hide him from the public. “But I was there and heard what the police officers were saying,” Pavlensky says. Because this happened directly next to a courthouse, the authorities “wanted to show how just and caring they are, that I am simply mistaken in doing this action. But that very evening, at a place where I’m registered in St Petersburg, some very anxious people attempted to break into the apartment… I’m guessing that they will attempt to get rid of ‘the problem’ quietly through psychological pressure and hints at future problems.”
He vows to keep the public informed if this happens. Meanwhile, the Russian art world has responded, but generally, in a rather disappointing way.
Notorious curator Marat Guelman who himself has repeatedly faced threats, charges and censorship by the authorities — including his recent “extremism” charge for a exhibiting a series of parodical posters criticizing the Olympics — spoke to Calvert Journal about Pavlensky:
Pyotr Pavlensky’s action is the final argument that can be made in an ongoing dispute with the government — a manifestation of the desperation and total impotence of the artist in this country. As a rule, actionists try to achieve the diametrically opposite effect – they burst into the territory of fear, they break down prejudices, they laugh in the face of power. In this case, however, we don’t see any of that energy, because this is not an act of protest, but rather a signal of defeat.
Red Square is turning into the world’s biggest art space… In order to walk out naked onto Red Square and nail yourself to the paving stones you don’t just need to be brave, you have to have no hope left. It’s the artistic equivalent of setting yourself on fire.
While Guelman’s support and enthusiasm for the artist and the bold recognition of the thorough fucked-up-ness of the contemporary Russian condition is appreciated, he misses the point of the actual artwork. His interpretation is totally backwards. Pavlensky has not given up hope! The artist has clearly said and clearly demonstrated that his action Fixation protests hopelessness. It responds to and against the people’s “passivity,” to and against their “fixation of failure,” to and against, as quoted above, “the apathy, political indifference and the fatalism of modern Russian society.”
Pavlensky’s performance struck me like a lightning bolt. I thought that after Pussy Riot no one could produce a more accurate and wide-ranging portrait of our time… Pavlensky didn’t strike at his own balls, so much as this mass unconscious terror of life, of the state, of power, of violence. It was a sculptural action, it looks very convincing.
This modest artist has such a sane, sensible and ironic approach to life. Call him whatever you like, just don’t call him insane…
If anyone in this country really genuinely does love Christ it is Brener, [Nadezhda] Tolokonnikova and [Maria] Alyokhina and Pavlensky — like him, they bear witness; not so much with their words and with their faith, but rather by becoming martyrs and, on behalf of everyone, pinning themselves to the feet of millions not knowing where they go.
Again, it’s fantastic that with only three noted public performances (the artist previously sewed his mouth shut and wrapped himself in barbed wire) Pavlensky is being inducted into the cannon by notable art figures. But this forced linage is incredibly regressive!
I’m as excited as everyone about the reemergence of extreme performance protest art in Russia and a fan of Kulik, but when he directly ties Pavlensky to Jesus or the Nineties actionism, or when anyone brings up Viennese Actionism or any famous artist that has ever done something to his dick or balls as an alleged influence… IT’S VERY FRUSTRATING AND REGRESSIVE, STOP IT.
Yes, when Pavlensky sewed his mouth closed in front of a courthouse and held up the sign “The action by Pussy Riot was an homage to a famous performance by Jesus Christ,” it wasn’t a religious statement, it wasn’t an Imitation of Christ — it was a forceful re-contextualization of Russia’s twisted Orthodox ideology, back to its truer manifestations — like human sympathy for martyrdom — before the dogma that the government had co-opted to pit the Orthodox population against the feminist group.
“I never imagine my work in the context of Christian mythology,” Pavlensky himself told Svodoba recently. “I am interested in the figure of Jesus Christ as a historical personage only from the point of view that he is an irreverent revolutionary archetype, a 100% ‘extremist’ — a person contradicting fundamental dogma, warring with authority and its mindless spawn.”
The best reaction so far that I’ve seen was from artist and lecturer Oleg Mavromatti, notorious for crucifying himself for a scene in a film steps away from where Pussy Riot would years later perform their action (and being hounded by Kremlin authorities into exile), as well as hooking himself up to an electric chair and allowing the internet to vote to electrocute or not electrocute him. In two Russian-language YouTube podcasts, he first quite viciously calls out the currently disenchanting Voina group for their “foolish” comparison of Pavlensky to Viennese Actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler, some of whose work was themed around castration/his balls. Mavromatti and Boryana Rossa point out that the castration didn’t even take place — he merely visually hinted at it. Then he calls out any comparisons to “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan, who also did very painful things to his balls.
“It’s all about context,” Mavromatti says. Flanagan’s context as a terminally ill person pushing himself to physical limits of pain is a very different message than Pavlensky’s embodiment of and against the complicity of Russian people under an oppressive government. CONTEXT! Mavromatti screams:
We live in an epoch of post-modernism. When an artist is consciously or unconsciously cites something that was before him, he is not an epigone, not a re-enactor, not a thief! He is a human being who derives from the cultural stratum something that works.
While I can only claim expertise in the viral run-off of current protest performance art, I will say this is one of the most effective works of political art since Voina’s dick-graffiti-bombing of a bridge which exhibited a level of clarity, efficiency and fuck-you-Putin-ism they have yet to reach again.
Yes, it’s also dick-related.
As a person that writes about art on the internet, I think that Pavlensky’s Fixation was a perfect execution of viral-ready and extreme superficial appearance of insanity followed by a swift, smart and crystal clarification of motive. It had fantastic international press penetration. Even better, the expected legal fall out will generate additional coverage of Russia’s extreme, systematic, thorough corruption and its resistance, as we await the artist’s sentence and more art world responses that DO NOT COMPARE PAVLENSKY TO YET ANOTHER ACTIONIST OR ACTION-IST WHO DID SOMETHING TO HIS DICK OR BALLS!