On Sunday performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to the paving stones in Moscow's Red Square. The action is the third in a series of self-mutilating performances by the artist, having previously wrapped himself naked in barbed wire in protest at the repressive legal system and having sewn up his lips in solidarity with imprisoned anti-government artists Pussy Riot. In a statement accompanying his action, which took place on the official Day of the Police, Pavlensky explained his motivations: “The performance can be seen as a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society. As the government turns the country into one big prison, stealing from the people and using the money to grow and enrich the police apparatus and other repressive structures, society is allowing this, and forgetting its numerical advantage, is bringing the triumph of the police state closer by its inaction.”
We asked a selection of art-world figures to give their response to Pavlensky's eye-catching gesture and to discuss its artistic heritage and potential impact.
Uncensored video of Pavlensky's action, courtesy of grani.ru. Warning: contains graphic images
In my opinion 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.
Pavlensky plays with the traditions that have developed in Russian prisons, where the inmates nail their scrotums to stools when they have lost all hope of being listened to by the prison authorities. The point of this action is to show society and the opposition that we have lost, that the battle is over: they’ve imprisoned us all and nailed us to the ground.
“It's the artistic equivalent of setting yourself on fire”
I’ve always been interested in Pavlensky as an artist. This is his third performance – after sewing up his mouth and wrapping himself in barbed wire. All these performances were not gestures, but actions. 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.
Red Square is turning into the world’s biggest art space. But if Pussy Riot, with their punk manifesto, used the square as jousting arena, a ring for a decisive attack against the authorities, then for Pavlensky it is a scaffold, a symbol of defeat.
His action was not aimed at those in power, who, paradoxically, saved him – it was them who took him off the nail. It was a message to society; we all more or less share his position. People have been forced into a corner – the choice is between leaving, going to prison, or joining up with those in power.
It’s interesting that the artistic community has almost unanimously supported Pavlensky’s action. People have learned to look the truth in the eye.
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. Not many people realise the meaning of Red Square and those paving stones. It is a space of innocent victims. A place of punishment, violence, demonstrations, parades and everything monstrous that there about the state. And 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. A vivid gesture. It’s a continuation of Pussy Riot. An intellectual who spits on any sense of propriety, any sense of aesthetics, any self-righteousness. Who goes beyond the limits of culture and strikes at Red Square in the centre of Russia. It’s very important to read and listen to the author himself. This modest artist has such a sane, sensible and ironic approach to life. Call him whatever you like, just don’t call him insane. The people who call him that the insane ones. You might even say he is the only sane person in Russia because there is no other way of reacting to the current situation, after 25 years of “liberation” from red terror.
In Moscow the response to this action was contradictory. For the most part, people thought he was crazy, insane, a masochist. Much less often do you see sympathy and understanding. And only exceptionally is there any understanding that what we have here is real art. Art that continues the traditions of [Kazimir] Malevich, of [Vladimir] Tatlin’s mechanical theatre, of the work of Collective Action and of practically the whole Nineties actionism.
“If anyone in this country really genuinely does love Christ it is performance artists like Pavlensky”
I remember one of the best performances in the 1990s by Alexander Brener when he stood in the middle of a huge exhibition in the Central House of the Artist and punched staples into his backside with a stapler while eating a raw onion. This profane, anti-aesthetic act completely destroyed the exhibition with its refusal of glamour. Everyone who was there with Alexander remembers the Bourdellesque image of the body punctured with staples and still trembles from disgust and from this sense of helplessness and despair, reinforced by a sickening stench; even from this sense of a physical chill surrounding the solitary naked body of a man in a tub with a white onion. Pyotr Pavlensky’s action is a powerful continuation of this line in art — of strong, simple gestures, hitting the nerve of our time with sniperlike accuracy. It’s so amazing, it takes your breath away. The form of these works is the whole world, the whole human universe around them, and the content is real human pain, the decision to act in an absolutely hopeless situation, and there is always conflict, always scandal. 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.
On Sunday Pyotr Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones in Red Square in protest against Russia’s descent into a “police state”. His extreme action combined the two worlds of art and political protest and quickly spread around the world. He used the poetic language of performance to a highly effective political end.
There is a long history of mutilation in performance art. Apart from asking an assistant to shoot him in the arm and having himself nailed to the bonnet of a VW, Chris Burden had a star-shaped stud hammered into his sternum by a friend. Marina Abramovic cut a star shape on to her stomach in front of audience at Documenta IX. Gina Pane enacted carefully planned and deliberately controlled self-wounding. Franco B walked the length of Tate Modern with blood flowing from his arms. They and many others have all used endurance, ritualised pain, intense physical exertion and elements of real danger in order to demonstrate the extreme fragility of the body and the reality of suffering usually to small audiences in the rarefied environment if the art space.
11 June this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation. His action was not art - he calmly sat down in the middle of a street in South Vietnam in front of the Cambodian Embassy, while a fellow monk poured petrol over his head. A moment later, he set himself on fire. He was protesting against the systemic religious discrimination against Buddhists by the regime of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. In comparison to this the actions of performance artists seem to mean very little.
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Frankly, I'm not much of an art critic to judge Pavlensky's performances. In my humble and highly unprofessional opinion, this type of violent and self-mutilating body art had been extensively explored in various forms by members of the Wiener Aktionismus movement back in the 1960s, and very little can be added 50 years later to both the forms and the messages of their artistic “actions”, as they called it. On the other hand, since Pavlensky is an artist, I fully respect his right to self-expression. But I wouldn't expect Russian authorities to share my feelings. Probably, they'll now try to either lock him up in a court-ordered madhouse, or jail him for obstruction of public order. Either course of action is quite stupid, but then who said that our authorities were smart in their treatment of protesters and non-conformist artists?