From where she’s sitting in the St Petersburg cafe, the elderly woman can’t see Pyotr Pavlensky’s self-mutilated right ear. But her eyes widen in horror as Russia’s most notorious political artist — gaunt, shaven-headed, dressed entirely in black — describes how he sliced off his earlobe while perched on the roof of a Moscow psychiatric centre. “I’ve no idea what happened to my earlobe after I severed it,” Pavlensky laughs, when I ask. He warms to the absurdity of the question. “The birds probably ate it,” he deadpans, before taking a sip of his strong, black coffee. “I didn’t get the knife back, either. Not that I asked the police for it.” The woman quickly finishes off her meal and hurries out the door.
It’s just over a week since Pavlensky stripped naked and clambered onto the roof of Moscow’s Serbsky psychiatric centre and — to the horror of onlookers in the street below — casually sawed off his earlobe with a massive kitchen knife. As blood trickled down his neck and onto his chest, Pavlensky, apparently indifferent to the pain and the near-freezing temperatures, remained on the edge of the roof for some two hours, before armed police eventually dragged him away.
Pavlensky’s startling act of van Gogh-inspired self-harm was an attempt to draw attention to what Kremlin critics describe as the use of politically-motivated psychiatry by the Russian authorities. It was also the latest in a series of similarly eye-catching stunts by this 30-year-old opponent of “national leader” Vladimir Putin’s long rule. An enthusiastic, if anonymous, participant in the mass anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012, Pavlensky first came to public attention during the high-profile trial of feminist activists Pussy Riot, when he sewed his lips shut in solidarity with the group before staging a one-man rally outside St Petersburg’s landmark Kazan Cathedral. Police officers who arrived at the scene were reportedly so shocked at the sight of Pavlensky’s sutured lips that they refused to detain him, waiting instead for an ambulance to arrive.
Subsequent actions — Pavlensky hesitates to call them protests — have seen him wrap himself in a coil of barbed wire outside St Petersburg’s legislature (the birthplace of Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law), and hammer a long, sharpened nail through his scrotum to pin himself to Red Square’s famous cobblestones. The latter performance, entitled Fixation, took place on Russia’s Police Day in late 2013 and was, Pavlensky declared, a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society”. In February, Pavlensky and a number of supporters staged an audacious recreation of Kyiv’s Maidan protests, burning tires and setting up mock barricades in central St Petersburg. All of this, predictably, has led to accusations by pro-Kremlin media that this enthusiastic practitioner of extreme body art is a masochistic attention-seeker, not to mention quite possibly insane. But as he outlines his artistic vision, it quickly becomes clear that there is a carefully thought-out method to his moments of apparent madness.
“The media attempts to distort things, but these are acts that are hard to distort,” he insists. “Whatever you say or write about these actions, a chopped-off earlobe remains a chopped-off earlobe, a scrotum nailed to a square is always a scrotum nailed to a square and a man wrapped up in barbed wire is still a man wrapped up in barbed wire. These acts define a certain political viewpoint and the message will always get through, one way another, to its intended audience.” His art, he explains, pausing occasionally to select the precise word or term, is a deliberate attempt to recapture the initiative for the downtrodden “little man” in the face of the grinding machinery of Russian state power. His aim, as he repeats on a number of occasions during our conversation, is to “suck the authorities into his art” and deprive them, at least temporarily, of the ability to control events.
“My actions should be minimal. Every movement by the authorities pulls them deeper and deeper in. They become involuntary participants in the production of my art”
“I work with the instruments of state power,” he says. “Of which there are many: the media, state propaganda and psychiatry, among others. I choose the location and draw up the agenda for my actions. But once I have completed what I set out to do, be it cut off my earlobe or nail myself to Red Square, it’s important for me to remain a figure of silence and non-motion. My actions should be minimal. Every movement by the authorities pulls them deeper and deeper in. They become involuntary participants in the production of my art.”
I ask Pavlensky what he feels when he is performing these unorthodox acts of resistance. Exhilaration? Fear? Curiously, despite the artistic and political theorising, the answer appears to be something akin to a transcendental experience. “The most stressful moment is when I am on my way to the location, as it’s still possible that I could be stopped. But when I’m in place and have begun — when, for example, I’m on the square, naked, I’ve nailed myself to it, that’s victory. There is nothing the authorities can do to prevent my actions. At this moment, at this point of no return, I experience a sense of liberation. All these imposed artificial structures and fears — the fear of pain, the fear of authority — dissolve, and I see reality. I am in the here and now. I am alive. And I am no longer an object.”
Pavlensky may have been inspired by Pussy Riot, but the feminist group’s figurehead, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, believes that his brutal brand of art is now more suited to the reality of today’s Russia. As the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent intensifies, the brief burst of hope felt by Russian opposition activists during the 2011 and 2012 protests has given way to a crushing despair. “Pavlensky is an artist for this period of disillusionment. He is grim, disciplined, focussed, and ready for pain,” Tolokonnikova wrote recently. “Pussy Riot, on the other hand, were bright, carnivelesque, carefree, and infantile, born in the exuberance of late 2011.”
In an indication of Pavlensky’s rapidly growing notoriety, this September, Russian media falsely reported that he had “hung himself” outside Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square. Before doing so, the reports said, he had read a speech calling on Russians to rise up against Putin. “I have no idea where those reports came from,” he says. “My performances, it seems, are taking place now even without my participation.” Pavlensky’s confrontational actions — the genuine ones, that is — have made him a target for Russia’s Investigation Committee, an FBI-type law enforcement agency answerable only to the president. Aside from attempting to have this controversial artist committed to a psychiatric institution, so far unsuccessfully, Investigation Committee officials are also seeking to charge Pavlensky with vandalism over his Maidan “tribute”. He faces up to three years behind bars, if found guilty.
“Pavlensky is an artist for this period of disillusionment. He is grim, disciplined, focussed, and ready for pain”
Despite the very real threat of jail, Pavlensky has no intention of joining the growing exodus from Russia of artists, opposition journalists and anti-Putin activists. “If I leave it would be a gift to the authorities,” he tells me. “They want to neutralise their opponents. And they have three ways of doing this: the first is to frighten people into ceasing their acts of resistance. The second is to jail them or place them in psychiatric hospitals. The third, and the most convenient for the authorities, is when a person simply leaves the country. But I’m going nowhere. This is my frontline.”
Born in the southern suburbs of St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1984, Pavlensky’s father was a scientific researcher who he describes with a mixture of contempt and pity as a “servant of the system”. “By observing him, I learned how not to live. He just drank and watched TV and choked to death on a chunk of raw meat before he was 50 years old.” As for his elderly mother, a former psychiatric ward nurse, Pavlensky says she is unable to accept or even “fully comprehend” his lifestyle. “Her views are just formed by TV,” he sighs.
It comes as little surprise to learn that Pavlensky began his battles with authority at an early age. He was expelled from three schools in his teenage years after failing to meet what he calls the “utterly ridiculous” demands made by school teachers. “Either you learn how to obey at an early age, or you don’t,” he says. “I didn’t.” His early attempts at art also got him into trouble when he circulated “pornographic drawings” he had made of classmates. “That,” he jokes, “was my first artistic scandal.” He later studied at art college, but left in 2012 without having completed his course. “I’ve studied at a number of places, from art schools to university, but I always leave before the end of the course. Why? Because I only need the information they have to offer. I have no need of any degree or diploma. What’s a degree? It’s just confirmation that you conformed to their standards entirely. Why would I want to do that?”
Aside from his very public opposition to Putin’s regime, Pavlensky is also the co-founder of the Political Propaganda website, which aims to “cover the issues of modern art in a political context”. While it doesn’t bring in any cash in its own right, Pavlensky earns money by giving occasional lectures on the themes covered by the site. “But I have practically no money, really,” he admits. “That’s fine with me, though. When you start to purchase things, to get fat, you lose touch and start to relax.” Indeed, so meagre are Pavlensky’s resources, that he has at times been forced to shoplift to survive. “Everyone who has rejected the 9 to 5 routine does this,” he shrugs.
“I have no interest in suicide. I want to stay here, to resist. But, you know, people are not as frail as the doctors have led us to believe. The body is made of tough material”
Pavlensky is passing on his staunchly anti-authoritarian stance to his two daughters, aged 3 and 6, whom he is raising with his partner, journalist Oksana Shalygina. “I took my eldest daughter to a protest in St Petersburg over the jailing of Pussy Riot,” he recalls. “We both wore Pussy Riot-style balaclavas and we had to run away from the police together.” How did his daughter react, I wonder, when he returned home from Moscow with his earlobe missing? “She knows what I do,” Pavlensky tells me. “She’s seen videos and photos. 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,” he adds, without a hint of a smile. “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.”
As we wander St Petersburg’s moody backstreets, Pavlensky enthuses, grimly, about the “art” of Anatoly Moskvin, a multilingual historian and author who was arrested in 2012 after police discovered 29 mummified corpses at his apartment in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Moskvin, single and childless but craving the pleasures of family life, had taken to removing the bodies of women and girls from graves and bringing them home. Once there, he clothed them in bright, frilly dresses, placed masks on their faces, and propped them up on furniture in his three-bedroom apartment. “The state always wants to see people as objects totally under their control,” Pavlensky says. “And Anatoly Moskvin created a very serious work of political art. He produced — subconsciously, of course — a model of the patriarchal state in his own home. He made a world for these corpses; he chose their clothes for them, and sat them down in front of the TV. And this is precisely how Putin’s regime attempts to treat people today — as mindless objects.”
Before I leave him, I ask Pavlensky how far he is prepared to go. Does he consider suicide a political act? Should we one day expect to hear that he has self-immolated in Moscow to draw attention to injustice? His answer comes quickly. “I have no interest in suicide,” he insists. “I want to stay here, to resist. But, you know, people are not as frail as the doctors have led us to believe.” He grasps his forearm. “The body is made of tough material.”