Where does one draw the line between art and self-harm? The actions of Pavlensky might seem extreme but they do make noise, writes Manan Kapoor
Petr Pavlensky is a Russian political performance artist. The cameras were on him for the first time in 2012 because he sewed his mouth shut. No, not figuratively, Pavlensky literally sewed his mouth with red thread in protest against the incarceration of the Russian Punk group, Pussy Riot. The feminist punk band was put in jail for their lyrics which mocked Vladimir Putin. While the members of Pussy Riot were in prison, Pavlensky appeared at Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg with his lips sewn and a banner that said, “Action of Pussy Riot was a replica of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12–13)”. While Pavlensky isn’t the first one who has chosen this path, he is definitely the most audacious. In the past, there have been others like Bob Flanagan and Franco B, who have taken up extreme performance art in order to convey their messages and ideas.
Following the incident, the Russian Police were so shocked at the sight of Pavlensky’s sutured lips that they refused to detain him, waiting instead for an ambulance to arrive to send him for a psychiatric examination.
He was declared sane.
Born in Leningrad in 1984, Pavlensky studied monumental art at the Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy. During his fourth year in the Academy, he took additional training at St. Petersburg Pro Arte Foundation for Culture and Arts, and in 2012, he founded an independent online newspaper Political Propaganda in 2012. While he wasn’t always an extreme performance artist, he had been involved in activities that concerned power and its implications.
“When I went onto the street with the banner, I realised that the representatives of power would have questions, and I wondered how would they ask questions if a person couldn’t open their mouths,” he said in an interview. It was an dauntless move considering the extent to which the Russian government can bear something like dissent. But for him, it didn’t end there. Eight months later, Pavlensky wrapped himself in a cocoon of barbed wire outside the Legislative Assembly to critique Russia’s legal system. Unlike its predecessor, this performance protest had a name. Pavlensky titled it, The Carcass. Throughout the act, he kept lying bent inside the barbed wire while the ‘representatives of authority’ stood baffled until they finally released him using garden clippers. While the images might seem disturbing and graphic, it is relevant when it comes to the affairs in Russia. There is a dire need for dissent in that part of the world, where journalists have been subjected to various allegations simply for speaking against the government. Pavlensky takes inspiration from a long line of Russian protests, particularly the “Moscow activism” school of the 1990s, and most recently the protest group Voina, who were noted for their outrageous activist art. Voina’s performances included staging a mass orgy inside Moscow’s biological museum the day before the election of Dmitry Medvedev as president in 2008, under a banner that read: “Fuck for the teddy bear heir.”
“When I did the Carcass piece with the barbed wire, I was not just saying how wonderful our legal system is – people are inside this wire, which torments them, stops them from moving, and they feel pain from every movement. I was also saying people themselves are this barbed wire and create the wire for themselves.” For this performance, he was awarded the Alternative Prize for Russian Activist Art in the category Actions Implemented in Urban Space in 2013 and was detained by the Russian police.
After the act, a fellow prisoner told him stories of the Gulag, where prisoners had sometimes nailed their scrotums to trees in an act of protest at the inhumane conditions and miserable existence. On 10th November, on Russia’s ‘Police Day’, Pavlensky hammered a large nail through his scrotum affixing it to the stone pavement on the Red Square in Moscow. He said that it was “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society”. Pavlensky had a blanket thrown over him by the confused police officers and was eventually detached from the stones and taken to the hospital. He was discharged that evening and released by the police without charge.
While his acts might seem disturbing to some, and others might even deem him insane, there is a logic behind everything that he does, no matter how graphic it might be. Pavlensky has his ways to put forth his thoughts and opinions, and he does it in a way where even the police forces fail to detain him for a long time. His acts are resonant of the essence of protest where the person does not bend, no matter what. Pavlensky has done one act after another, proving that he is relentless. The anarchist nature of his acts have time and again proven that he is an artist who will continue the dialogue with the authorities, and resist them as much as he can, no matter what limits he has to cross.
When asked about Putin, he directed the people towards what he calls, ‘a wonderful photograph of him.’ It is a black and white picture from the ‘80s. A protest near the Kazan Cathedral is being broken up in the picture and the protestors are detained or beaten and Putin is presiding over the situation. He says that Putin comes from an organisation, The KGB, and that the values of that structure persist in the current Russian government.
In the two other acts, Segregation and Lubyanka’s burning door, Pavlensky cut off his earlobe with a chef’s knife while sitting naked on the roof of the infamous Serbsky Center to protest political abuse of psychiatry in Russia, and for the latter, he burned the door of the Russian Federal Security Service with gasoline. The Russian government fine him with 500,000 rubles for the act of Vandalism.
After allegations of sexual assault, Pavlensky is now seeking an asylum in France. According to him, the accusations are state backed, “I wouldn’t say I was a threat, more a big inconvenience, because lots of money and resources are spent on propaganda,” he told Reuters. “Then I carry out some action and it’s a strike on the propaganda machine.”
Although his colleagues in the art world such as performance artist Anton Litvin have commented saying, “In my view, there is no political persecution of any kind here. What could it have been for? He is a loner and works only for himself. He does not unite (people), he divides them.”
It cannot be denied that his acts have baffled people all around the world. Some think that he is funny, sincere and not afraid at all, other deem him as a mentally ill troublemaker.
While his methods aren’t conventional, his acts carry messages that have made the Russians question power and its implications. “The state always wants to see people as objects totally under their control,” Pavlensky said in an interview. He added that his daughter knows he does. He took his eldest daughter to a protest in St Petersburg over the jailing of Pussy Riot “She’s seen videos and photos,” he said, “She understands it, but on a purely visual level. She asks ‘Did it hurt?’ ‘What did the police say?’ and so on. We don’t discuss the mechanisms of state control. But I’ll teach her. I have to. After all, these are things that are just as dangerous for her as a sharp object, or fire. It’s my duty to warn her.”
The Voices of Dissent series is aimed at throwing light on people who have been speaking against abuse of power. If you have an interesting story and wish a person featured, please send us an e-mail at, email@example.com