In November 2019, I visited Petr Pavlensky on two occasions in Paris, where the Russian artist has lived since 2017. The artist has been active since 2012, when his first action Seam, as a response to Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer, rapidly gained international visibility. Since then, he has performed five more actions in Russia and at least one in France, as he continues the process of the affirmation of borders and forms of political art. After his then latest action, Lightning, in October 2017, he spent roughly eleven months in the Fleury-Mérogis Prison, most of the time in solitary confinement, where he held two hunger strikes. He welcomed me into a house in the 19th arrondissement that he "opened," the third one in this quiet area that reminds me more of a small French town than of the Paris I know.
He "opened" a house for his ex-partner and his two children who, after being home-schooled in Russia, are presently enrolled in the French school system. He has received help with the procedure of "opening" and is also willing to share his temporary housing, currently with two political refugees who are on the waiting list for social housing. He himself rejects any form of state subsidies, stating that "the feeding hand is always the hand of a master." Consistent in his critique of governmental power, he feels that being in upheaval against it, while accepting its "helping hands," could be comparable to the childish uprising of a teenager against his or her parents.
According to Proudhon, "Property is theft," which is, of course, not directly perceivable when thinking about minor property such as an mobile phone or a pair of pants (on a larger scale, these goods and especially the conditions under which they are produced could certainly be considered as depriving someone of his or her time and humane working conditions). However, this principle becomes much more visible on a larger scale, in relation to real estate or works of art. When someone purchases a piece of art, he or she can decide whether to make it publicly accessible or whether to deprive the public of its presence by locking it up in storage. The houses than Pavlensky "opens" are empty and deteriorating, while Paris is populated by thousands of sans-abri (homeless) and asylum seekers who are put on endless waiting lists for social housing, yet do not know where to stay or to sleep until they might get lucky. While most of us would probably name it "occupying" a house, people who live there will most of the time take care of it, preventing its deterioration. "It is important that nobody becomes a victim in this situation" ("opening houses"). This procedure can be seen as an occupation without the right of possession.
Regarding possessions, the artist from St. Petersburg likes to quote Nietzsche: "Possession Possesses. Only up to a certain point does possession make men feel freer and more independent; one step farther, and possession becomes lord, the possessor a slave." An individual's behavior changes and becomes adapted to the goods one possesses—one locks the door, one pays insurance, one becomes afraid.
In one of his interviews, the Moscow actionist Oleg Kulik affirms that Pavlensky is a singular phenomenon, because he is apparently fearless. Pavlensky states that nobody is fearless, perhaps only individuals in psychiatric hospitals and/or being treated with strong psychopharmaceuticals. Anyone is, however, capable of a fearless deed, transgressing borders and subverting what is believed to be true and real. What is imaginable or not imaginable to a person, as well as what is considered fearless, is deeply dependent on individual priorities.
Dissident and subversive artistic practice in Russia traces a long history: from the Tsarist regime, through the avant-garde that was often forced to "voluntary" emigration, the "bulldozer" exhibition, the apartment art movement, Moscow Actionism, and finally the performative, activist, and artistic practices of post-Soviet and Putinist Russia. Censorship, expatriation and the narrative of madness and otherness seem to be the guiding lines, when it comes to the encounter of the "language of art" and the "language of power."
In the year 2012, Pussy Riot was charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," their protest art action was condemned as "impudent," and one can only wonder if this notion was mainly deployed because Pussy Riot has mostly female members. The same year, Petr Pavlensky protested outside of the Kazan cathedral, holding a poster that said: "The action of Pussy Riot was a replay of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12-13)." Totalitarianism and the return to extreme Christianism is dominating today's Russia. The separation between the church and state has progressively been reduced. A return to (self-)censorship, to so-called "traditional" values, after the country has been atheist for almost eighty years, is the reality of the Russian art world and the regulations and restrictions it has to deal with. The question of territoriality becomes unavoidable when, similarly to how the Russian government’s action has systematically led to many intellectuals and avant-garde artists leaving the country in the direction of Europe, Israel, or the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, members of the Voina group and Petr Pavlensky have recently sought asylum in Europe.
"Nowadays, nobody needs art." According to Pavlensky, there are two types of instrumentalization that art and artists undergo today: either one becomes a creator of goods and thus a slave of the capitalist market, or one becomes an agent of propaganda. In the latter case, it is no longer important what the artist is doing, but for or against whom he or she is doing it. This becomes clear when looking, for instance, at Pavlensky's "diptych" Threat (2015) (fig. 1) and Lighting (2017) (fig. 2). In this two actions, the artist was deeply interested in creating a symmetry, displacing an action that had been done in Moscow, Russia, namely setting the Lubyanka building (head offices) of the Russian Federal Security Services (former KGB) on fire in 2015, to setting the office of the Banque de France on Place de la Bastille in Paris, France, on fire in 2017. Both actions shared a similar aesthetic, and the artist was arrested immediately after both occurrences. The difference was that when lighting up the hotbed of Putinist power, he was applauded by the same critics and journalists that were to harshly condemn his action in Paris. The main problem is the lack of resistance and the general compliance of artists and those working in the field of art to fit into the fashion of being pro, being contra, being an "activist" or being impartial, as long as it does not get too uncomfortable. In these "dark times" that, in Pavlensky's opinion, came with the end of the Situationist International, the servitude to either the market or the state can be described as a prostitutional behavior. Artists are not assuming the responsibility for whom they give their work. They give it to those who are willing to pay the most. Therefore, it is a question of responsibility of each and every person in this sector of knowledge, to defend it and to not make it an instrument of the market or governmental power. One has to defend it despite one's material comfort.
While the late Tsarist regime saw the birth of the Silver Age of Russian poetry, with currents such as Symbolism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, and the first Russian avant-garde with Malevich, Goncharova, Kandinsky, and Larionov, the visual artist in general was still mainly considered the server of the court. The era of Socialist Realism that followed in Russia started after the Bolsheviks gained hold of power after the October Revolution in 1917. The concept was first suggested by Maxim Gorky, the Russian writer at the First Congress of Writers in 1934. Socialist Realism was understood as a reorganization of the world in accordance with communist ideals. Its main features were: pathos, life-affirming topics, nationality, socialist internationalism, the inseparability of society, and the fate of the individual. Although this new kind of art was considered art at the service of the people, the state was its main commissioner and consumer, and culture was appropriated as an agitative propaganda tool for the new order in Russian society. Additionally, there was a certain state authority that decided upon the presence of the artworks displayed in an exhibition, about the promotion of an artist, or his or her downfall.
The paradox of that time was that this totalitarian approach towards art was trying to declare and decide what was human. However, in the excessive passion for the revolutionary construction of the new world, it left no room for the individual. That's exactly what the "underground" alternative art began to stress: a different kind of humanity which would put individuality back at the center of creativity. Individuality for the Soviet regime meant non-conformism, as the socialists strove to stress the idea of society as an entity. Such artists, unable to display their works in public spaces, localized their lives in private areas: artist studios and apartments. Their art was created and exhibited at the same places. By the time of the 1960s, a network of addresses became known as "places of pilgrimage" for the underground Soviet bohemia that had formed in Moscow. Day after day, people came to these addresses, not only to see a different kind of art, but also to discuss unpublished or not yet translated books (as there were many books that were censored or forbidden), current philosophical trends, and contemporary art concepts. Some "places of force" were widely known for their special atmosphere and hospitality. For example, the apartment of the outstanding pianist Sviatoslav Richter (2/6 Bolshaya Bronnaya Street), a keen connoisseur of painting. In his apartment, he organized exhibitions of Dmitry Krasnopevtsev's paintings, who was a nonconformist painter and author of "metaphysical still-lifes," twice, in 1962 and 1975.
After moving to Moscow in 1966, the later polemic political figure and one of the most known Soviet dissident writers, Edward Limonov, came into contact with the underground literary and artistic movement in Moscow and became an avant-garde poet. Limonov was expatriated from the Soviet Union in 1974 and immigrated to the USA. He would return to Russia only in 1991, when Gorbachev would restore Soviet citizenship to the already world-famous writer. Limonov became known as the dissident among dissidents, harshly criticizing the Soviet regime and capitalism alike. He protested against capitalist power structures and accused the USA of having a similar system to the Soviet Union, merely with the advantage of disposing of more eloquent propaganda mechanisms. Having only found a publisher for his auto-fictional novel It's Me, Eddie (1976) in France in 1979, he moved and lived there during the eighties, where he published, amongst others, his second most famous book Memoir of a Russian Punk (1985). 
Meanwhile, one of the best known events that was censored by the Soviet government was the “bulldozer” exhibition that took place in Belyaevo, back then a suburb of Moscow on September 15, 1974. As the avant-garde painters strove to publicly exhibit their artworks, they encountered the impossibility of doing so in the political situation in place. The open-air event showed works by twenty artists, among them Oskar Rabin, and after half an hour of exhibition time, the event was dispersed by policemen, workers on bulldozers, and agents. The international press and diplomats who were present on site were shocked. There were three bulldozers involved, and the workers driving them were sedated with vodka before their attack on the "enemy," occupying their territory and preventing them from working, according to the claims of the agents responsible for this sabotage.
In 1982, the artist Nikita Alekseev founded an apartment gallery, which he named APTART at 48/4 Vavilov Street, in which the idea of a thoughtful arrangement, a curation of the underground exhibitions was developed. APTART took the shape of many exhibitions in private apartments. The exhibited artists were no longer merely painters. Influenced by the tendencies and artistic developments of the West (performance art, happenings, Fluxus), they collected city rubbish and old posters, created intentionally kitsch assemblages, parodying the roughness of late Soviet life, poor public spaces, pollution and the dullness of shared apartment life. Sarcastic and colorful, these installations paradoxically undermined the distinction between art and life.
The atmosphere of poetry evenings and table discussions, the lack of money and poverty of 1990s, the passion for obscenity and European philosophy led to several artists uniting as the group of the Brotherhood of New Blockheads. The backbone of the group consisted of V. Kozin, I. Nagel, I. Panin, S. Spirikhin, V. Flyagin and photographer
1. Lyashko, who documented their performances. In 1998, they were joined by
2. Khvostov. On different occasions, the group collaborated with K. Alekseeva, I. Mezheritsky, E. Neverdovskaya, I. Orlov, and others. Founded in 1996 in St. Petersburg, the Brotherhood of New Blockheads revived the St. Petersburg tradition of idiocy, "poor knighthood," and foolishness (often seen in Dostoevsky's characters), the scandalous behavior of the Futurists, and the philosophy of the absurd. The incompleteness or the unfinished character of many of the group’s works, as well as the indifference to the production of final products and projects, became their response to the newly appearing neoclassicist and neoliberal mood in post-Soviet Russia. The Brotherhood of New Blockheads appeared at a time when post-Soviet Russia did not have a contemporary art scene, but a mere foretaste of it.
Around the same time, while the country went through chaos and restructuring, Moscow became famous for its Actionism, said to be the predecessor of Voina, Pussy Riot, and Petr Pavlensky's generation of artists, the Red Square, where Pavlensky executed two of his famous actions, already then becoming an important territory of negotiation between art and the state. It was snowing in 1995 when Alexander Brener, one of the most important Moscow Actionists came out only wearing boxing shorts, shoes, and gloves and shouted, Yeltsin, Come Out! Art and the political situation of the country then entered into a close debate that was to be continued by the new generation in the new century (of Putinism). In 1991, the art group E.T.I. (abbreviation for Expropriation of the Territory of Art in Russian) founded by another leading figure of the time, Anatoly Osmolovsky (also founder of the radical journal Radek), performed their action Dick at the Red Square (fig. 3). Thirteen people (anarchists, hippies, punks, and members of the group) arranged their lying bodies into the Russian slang/swear word for dick. In terms of dialectics, Mat (Russian swearing language) dominated the early post-Soviet literature and art, having sprouted in the Soviet underground and dissident literary practices, in Limonov’s writing for instance. Three days before the action, a law was passed that forbade the use of this kind of language in the public space. In 2010, the art group Voina (which means war in Russian), a radical leftist, activist group known for their conceptual protest art, undertook an action in St. Petersburg that can be viewed as reenactment or a new version of E.T.I.'s action. For A Dick Captured by the FSB (fig. 4), the group painted a giant penis on one half of the Liteyny Bridge in St. Petersburg that, when the bridge opened, had an effect of a raised middle finger in the direction of the nearby FSB building. In his work, Pavlensky has deployed both themes as well, nailing his scrotum to Red Square and setting an FSB building on fire in Moscow.
The activist and political artistic practices might have had their origin in Moscow Actionism, however the times and political direction have since changed, going from a state of chaos and possible liberalization of the Russian state to a strict return to traditional values. Since Putin came to power in 2000, the focus of cultural discussions in Russia has gradually been put on restoration, heritage, the resurrection of Marxist positions in art, or religious and nationalist values. One therefore needs to see the actions of the younger post-Soviet generation of artists in a different context, one of political repression. Pussy Riot were not the first ones to challenge the Orthodox Church with their Punk Prayer in 2012; however, their prosecution for blasphemy allegations became an internationally watched trial. In the year 2000, former member of E.T.I. Oleg Mavromati performed Do Not Believe Your Eyes (fig. 5), in which he was crucified (his assistants tying him, nailing his hands to a cross and carving, "I am not the son of God" with a razor on his back). This performance took place in the courtyard of the Institute of Cultural Studies in Moscow, directly facing the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where Pussy Riot were to perform their Punk Prayer over a decade later. Similarly, in 1998, during the Moscow Art Fair, Avdey Ter-Oganyan invited the audience to destroy cheap reproductions or prints of Orthodox icons and when nobody in the audience was willing to do it, he proceeded to destroy them with an axe himself (fig. 6). One has to say that both Mavromati and Ter-Oganyan were accused of "promoting religious hatred," and they eventually emigrated to Czech Republic and Bulgaria, respectively; however, the level of legal prosecution and international attention differed from Pussy Riot's case. Pavlensky and Voina are meanwhile joining a long line of forced emigration that started during the Soviet Union. Still, there are Russian artists and activists that because of these examples feel strongly about staying in Russia, among them Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a founding member of Pussy Riot.
Another line of preoccupation for many contemporary Russian artists is the rejection of copyrights as a way of rejecting the capitalist system among others. Kirill Medvedev, a Soviet and Russian activist, musician and poet gave up the copyrights to all his works in 2004. Similarly, the artist and activist collective Chto Delat, which was founded in 2003 and whose practice includes filmmaking, employ an open-source policy for their films, texts, and image production, thus making them openly accessible through their website, for instance. Chto Delat are merging political theory, art, and activism in the post-Socialist condition and stand as a vivid example of the reconsideration of socialist, communist or anarchist values that is visible in various artistic and literary practices in the realm of the post-Soviet, going hand in hand with the rejection of accelerated capitalism and its exclusive economy. The collective Chto Delat from St. Petersburg, composed of philosophers, activists, artists, choreographers, writers, directors, and critics, operates as an alternative (to the state) institution. Their self-organized practice includes a house of culture and an art school (Rosa's House of Culture, The School of Engaged Art).
Pavlensky has never asserted any copyrights on his works, nor earned money with his art. In 2019, he posted the link to his open archive on Facebook (open for repost), thus granting everyone interested access to high-quality images and videos of his artistic practice. He states that, otherwise, if earned money with his art, his practice would be devalued and turn into "work," a parasitic word in his opinion, as in our vocabulary, even if one has rejected the concept of "working," the word remains imperishable. "Lighting up an FSB building, nailing one's balls to a square, going to jail...what kind of job is that supposed to be? Not a very ‘nice’ one."
Regarding his artistic practice, Pavlensky had a clear and simple idea: doing something and giving it away, to the public, to society that is free to do with it whatever they like. In return, when the artist needs something, (financial) support, he would ask the public. This practice, as it is subverting the capitalist exchange system, has proven to be problematic, as especially people with power and money tend to consume and seldom give back. "Possession and money are sacral in our society and if one tries to negate it, one will encounter unsurpassable barriers."
"Ne travaillez jamais" ("Never Work"), the slogan written on a wall on Rue de Seine in Paris in 1953 by the French writer, theorist, filmmaker, poet, and founder of Situationism, Guy Debord, is a core principle for Pavlensky. Working is exchanging one's time for money, giving one's body and time to the interest of third parties. For Debord, a crucial objective was to live without dead time, thus without killing time with work or counter-revolutionary boredom, as to argue in the capitalist sense, the only capital that one truly possesses is one's time. Any government or governing apparatus will try to take this time from the individual, as without it there would be no economic development. Seeing the body as a production unit is the basis of this mechanism, and as centuries have shown, there are two main approaches to this mechanism, either enslaving individuals outside one's country by colonizing another country, or enslaving individuals within one's own country. Or, as it was formulated on a poster on the one-year anniversary of the "Gilets Jaunes" movement in November 2019: "Travaille, consomme et ferme ta gueule!" ("Work, consume and shut your mouth!").
Pussy Riot formed in 2011 as a punk band, referencing bands like Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement. Some of the members of the newly formed group were previously part of the art group Voina. It was founded by, among others, Peter Verzilov and his wife Nadia, and they became most known for their 2008 performance, Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear , in which several couples had sex in the Federal Biology Museum to protest the presidential candidate Dmitri Medvedev (his surname is derived from bear, medved in Russian). Both Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were previously part of the Voina group. Peter Verzilov was a member of both groups. The Voina group still operates; however, some of the founding members have pursued asylum in Western countries, for instance, Switzerland, Germany, and Czechia. Pussy Riot was officially active as a collective, primarily producing video works, until 2015. Their last internationally known action included an intervention on the football field during the final match of the FIFA World Cup in Moscow on July 15, 2018.
Following the arrest of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22), Maria Alyokhina (24), and Yekaterina Samutsevich (29)—who were suspected of being part of the Pussy Riot group, an art collective consisting of about a dozen young Russian men and women based in Moscow—who held a so-called punk prayer service Mother of God, put Putin away! (fig. 7) in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior near the Kremlin (the center of Russia's political power) on February 21, 2012, the group became a symbol of radical resistance to both the political regime in present-day Russia and the clericalization of public life. At the same time, this action itself continued a long series of their creative endeavors, both in the sphere of contemporary art and in the sphere of political protest. They previously introduced guerrilla-style protests that they had been conducting for two years to counter the violence against journalists in Russia and in the wake of the Arab Spring: “After the Arab Spring, we had come to understand that Russia needed political and sexual emancipation, audacity, the feminist whip and a feminist president.”
One week before Orthodox Christianity’s Great Lent, Pussy Riot's members walked into the cathedral. Four female members took their winter coats off and pulled brightly colored balaclavas over their heads. They were dressed in leggings, short dresses and boots, they started jumping around, punching and kicking the air, singing, shouting, kneeling, and crossing themselves, while being videotaped by other group members. Within less than a minute, the performance was interrupted by the guards, and the group was removed from the cathedral. On the same day, the group released a video showing the action, its termination, and they revealed the full lyrics of the song. The evening after the performance, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin condemned the act on national television and called for the prosecution of the group’s members. On March 3, 2012, the day before Putin's re-election as president, two members of the group who had performed in the Christ the Savior Church were arrested. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were charged with “hooliganism (undermining civil order) motivated by religious hatred.” Samutsevich, a group member who had not actively performed, was arrested on March 15. The three women were not only sentenced for "hooliganism." In addition, their behavior was denounced as “vulgar, impudent and cynical.” On August 17, all three women were convicted and sentenced to two years of imprisonment in a penal colony. In October 2012, the Moscow court confirmed the sentence for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova; Samutsevich was freed with a suspended sentence. On December 29, 2013, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were released under a general amnesty marking the twentieth anniversary of Russia’s post-Soviet constitution. Vladimir Putin proposed the amnesty considering the approaching Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 and the sharp criticism by Western human-rights organizations.
The action of Pussy Riot criticized and showed the dangers of the new alignment between the regime and the Russian Orthodox Church, which results in negative consequences for everyone who is considered to be the "other" or the "enemy" by this new patriarchic coalition: LGBTQIA, women, artistic and political dissidents, and those who oppose the neoliberal turn and corruption in Russia. This performance addressed its audience and state on the private (belief, individual limitations) and the public (societal) levels. The government reacted not only by direct restrictive means of imprisonment, but also by joining forces with the Church and the mass media. They pushed their interpretation of the action forward, which essentially simplified and falsified the action as blasphemy, and appealed to the vast majority of Christian Orthodox population in Russia. Essentially, by positioning the action of Pussy Riot as a sin, the government won over public opinion, and the prosecution could take place without any major protest from within society.
Moreover, the very brief publicly known activity of Pussy Riot (the group became known on November 7, 2011) became a catalyst for processes in the field of civil-artistic activism and political art, among which the action in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg on July 23, 2012 was held by Petr Pavlensky, who sewed his mouth and held a poster "The action of Pussy Riot was a replay of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12-13)." Seam (fig. 8) became the first political art action of the artist, until then an art student in St. Petersburg, who at that time was twenty-eight years old. In his art, Pavlensky speaks about the visualization of chains and mechanisms of power, and it was his first action in itself that occurred as a reaction as well. In this case, the governmental repression of Pussy Riot became a catalyst for Seam and, one can notably argue, his oeuvre to follow. It provoked a chain of important reactions and actions and came full circle in 2018, when the Ukrainian activist group Femen sewed up their mouths in an act of solidarity and stood outside of the building in Paris where the trial of Pavlensky was being held. Not only is the artist thankful for the support of the group, but above all for the dialogue between male and female expression that the group continued. The action of Femen in this context was perceived as an action of great symbolism.
For Pavlensky, criminal prosecution does not mark an end to his action. The prosecution is much more of a consequence, an opportunity for a self-disclosure of the mechanisms of power. In his second and third actions, Carcass (covering his naked body in barbed wire on Red Square) and Fixation (nailing his scrotum to Red Square) in 2013, he, his bare body, and his action were concealed by the policemen deploying a blanket—the blanket thus becoming a symbol of censorship.
Pavlensky has never tried to pursue an ideal goal or thought about a "better" Russia with his actions, stating that the ideal world might only wait for us in "heaven," if there is one. He does not see himself as an idealist, nor an activist. As an artist, he is doing political art that functions within the apparatus of power, forcing the power to reveal itself. Instead of "working" himself, he forces the apparatus of power to "work," by setting prosecutors, psychologists, judges, policemen, and other parties in motion. All these pieces of governmental power are thus "working" in the realm of political art.
In most of his actions, Pavlensky is alone, which is a strong artistic choice. "Everything I say is subjective, I say it from my own perspective!" In his art, Pavlensky addresses the "trauma of the small person in the prison of everyday life." For Fixation, the artist had nailed his scrotum to Red Square in November 2013, referencing, already for the second time, practices of prisoners deprived of their human dignity: sewing up his mouth, because nobody is listening and one has to shut up, or nailing his scrotum to the floor as a symbol of the last "thing" that one has power and will upon, when the authorities have taken everything from an individual.
The action Freedom marks an exception to the solitary canon of the artist. On February 23, 2014, the Defender of the Fatherland Day, Pavlensky organized an action in St. Petersburg in support of Ukraine. His action required more participants, as it was conceived as a re-enactment of Maidan, a movement of thousands and millions of people. Of course, the date played an instrumental role, as the discussion about the realm and the territory of fatherland was central to this action.
Although this action was created in solidarity with a political and activist movement, Pavlensky does not consider himself an activist or "artivist." He even states that he was "always an artist, never an actionist." The artist wants to strictly distance himself from the "brand" or "fashion" of activism. He is convinced that this brand is harming the art world, as it creates half-art and half-activism and ultimately "bad" art and "bad" activism, justifying mediocre practices under the moral sheet of "humanism." Ethics then play the role of justifying or covering up poorly executed aesthetics and vice versa. If an artist is creating a formally underwhelming piece, yet can cover it up with great ideas and goals, or an activist group is not reaching any of its goals, yet has created striking visuals along the way, it leads to excuses under the overarching umbrella of "artivism."
According to Pavlensky, art and activism pursue very different goals and have different priorities. An activist wants to solve a concrete problem, to help a more or less concrete critical situation, and should primarily not be concerned with the questions of aesthetics. When activists start to think about images and exhibiting their work, they run the danger of compromising their primary goal. An artist, on the other hand, is concerned with questions of form and aesthetics, as art is about the visible or visualization of notions, ideas, mechanism, or problems; about introducing the visible into a larger discourse. The politics and the logic of good deeds and the politics and logic of art differ strongly from each other. In the end, "useful" art is always bad art.
Pavelnsky's statements are embedded in a larger current debate. His practice is often regarded as activist, and his roots in Viennese and Moscow Actionism, by people who write about him, who invite him, who exhibit his work. Are we as authors and art practitioners too rapid in judging, in tagging artists with our favorite buzz words, in classifying so their art becomes graspable and understandable within our own categories? Aren't we then ultimately instrumentalizing these artistic practices, making them fit into our own comfort zones and discourses? Pavelnsky makes it clear every time he speaks that what he is doing is political art, that he is an artist not an activist, not an actionist. Nevertheless, there are a multiplicity of definitions about what he is and is not, as there are many different definitions of what art, activism, actionism or "artivism" actually are. That is primarily where the difficulty of this debate resides: while some would consider the Situationist support of the 1968 student movement in Paris an excursion into activism, other would strongly argue that the Situationists are by no means activists, but instead the last "real" artists that more than anyone before and after them, succeeded in bringing art and life together. In addition, one could, of course, argue that images and visual language (the color red for socialism and communism, red and black for anarchism, anarchist star, etc.) have always been used (propaganda) and commodified (Che Guevara t-shirts) by activist groups. Maybe it is because images and art in service of a (political) purpose have such a long tradition in Soviet Russia (Socialist Realism) that Pavlensky so harshly rejects this practice as necessarily "bad" art.
On October 19, 2014, Pavlensky sat on the wall of the Serbsky psychiatric center in Moscow and cut off part of his right earlobe with a large kitchen knife in his action. Segregation was clearly a protest against the return to restrictive and inhumane Soviet-era methods in psychiatry in Russia, as well as the general use of psychiatry for political goals. Furthermore, the artist directly referenced Vincent Van Gogh, whose cutting of his ear is to a great extend mystified, as it is not known how much of which ear exactly he has cut off in Arles in 1888. While referencing Michel Foucault and Guy Debord in his talks and his writing, the reference to Vincent Van Gogh remains the only deliberate art historical reference in Pavlensky's actions. The artist's work has been compared or contextualized in relation to many art historical references: supposedly having its roots in Vienna Actionism (related to self-harm) or Moscow Actionism (related to the Red Square, the public space in Russia, the image of the Red Square), to Voina, to David Wojnarowicz (Seam), to Chris Burden (again because of self-harm). The artist claims to not have used specific art historical references so as not to narrow his practice down to one category or one specific context, but to keep it open and ultimately speak about the "small person" and the political conditions in which our societies occur: to not propose a gesture out of an artistic context, but place a general gesture in an artistic context.
Psychiatry, as normativity and as an instrument of power is a recurring theme for Pavlensky, since he was examined both in Russia and France, with futile attempts to diagnose him. In the latest case in which he is involved, the website pornopolitique, where he revealed personal tapes of a sexual nature of the Paris mayoral candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, who has since resigned, which were sent to Pavlensky's partner Alexandra de Taddeo, psychiatry as an instrument again plays a substantial role, as the order was made to psychiatrically evaluate de Taddeo after her testimony. Being pre-occupied with this subject of how the discourse and language of psychiatry has been used in the past and is used in our present, for a long time, Pavlensky refers to, for instance, times of slavery in the early US, when trying to escape from captivity was considered a disease, and the therapy proposed was the amputation of the slaves’ toes. In a more recent case, Ulrike Meinhof's brain became an entity of great scientific interest and symbolic relevance. The brain of the core member of the R.A.F. (Rote Armee Fraktion), a leftist terrorist group in Germany and formerly a known, successful journalist, has been inspected multiple times for anomalies that could have led to her radicalization. Symbolically speaking, depriving the corpse of this woman of its brain and thus not burying the brain speaks of assertive state measures and control over the individual outlasting his or her death. As it is always easier to find a pathological diagnosis as an explanation for subversive behavior, science reveals itself as an apparatus of control as well. Science, like all spheres of human life and knowledge (art, philosophy), is in danger of being instrumentalized by the government as entities of control.
With Threat (2015) and Lightning (2017), the artist has succeeded at creating a diptych that would bridge his practice between the East and the West. Formally, the artist was interested in the idea of borderless symmetry, as he regards meaning and form as inseparable. The two works set the mechanisms of power (police, legal entities) in motion; there was, however, a big difference in the public reaction to the two actions. While critics applauded the setting of the FSB (formerly KGB) building on fire in Moscow as formally precise and beautiful, since President Putin was formerly a KGB agent and it represented the heart of Putinist power, the same critics regarded the setting of the Banque de France at Place de la Bastille on fire in Paris as vulgar and prosaic. The action Threat was additionally conceived as a protest against the incarceration of the Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov from Crimea. Because Sentsov was at that time accused of terrorism by the FSB and sentenced to twenty years in prison, the artist stated that he wanted his action to be reclassified from vandalism to terrorism. In 2016, after spending seven months in prison, the artist was sentenced to pay 500,000 Rubles, which he did not pay, while he states that others (activists, for instance) are sentenced to around ten years for attacks on administrative buildings. "There are no real standards in law. The system is deciding what is profitable and what is not." As the international arena was following the artist's case, his case was treated differently.
While Pavlensky is not interested in urbanism per se (in contrast to the Situationists), he understands his practice in the realm of the negotiation of territoriality in the public sphere, raising the question of to whom (society, state, corporations) the space in question belongs. The Banque de France building at Place de la Bastille is meanwhile a striking example of architecture as an historical demonstration of power. Place de la Bastille is symbolic for the resistance of the people against the tyranny of the royal regime, where the storming of the Bastille prison, where among others Marquis de Sade was imprisoned, and its destruction took place between July 1789 and July 1790 and marked the beginning of the French Revolution. In the 1920s, the Banque de France that was, according to the artist, officially supporting the upheaval of Paris with seven million Francs, while secretly sponsoring Versailles with 315 million Francs, decided to open a branch at the very Place de la Bastille, thus marking its territory, silently and without further ado. With his action, Pavlensky wanted to show this paradox and ultimately expose power's mockery of society. One year after his action in Paris, art entered into the realm of life, as members of the "Gilets Jaunes" movement lit up the Banque de France in Rouen on December 30, 2019. The deployment of the hegemonic apparatus of power happens everywhere; thus, one cannot see Pavlensky's practice as merely Russian. The artist also participated in the protest of the "Gilets Jaunes" after he was released from prison.
"Gratitude has entered like a poison into the heart of the crowned idiot!" (Lautréamont). A common critique towards Pavlensky's actions in France, one that was also expressed by the judge in his latest trial, is that he does not show any appreciation for having been granted political refuge. The feeling of gratitude is once again an instrument of power, of subordination. When the artist was questioned about his intentions in France, he remained honest, stating that he would continue to do political art and explore its forms, possibilities, and borders. If the condition would have been to stop doing political art, to stop being an artist, he would have rejected the refuge.
On January 10, 2019, Pavlensky has dedicated his trial to Marquis de Sade, the writer who inspired the spleen of the Symbolists, the "conclusive" beauty of the Surrealists, the notion of sadism in sexual psychology, Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye, the search for freedom and transgression that preceded the existentialists by 150 years and challenged them (Simone de Beauvoir, Must We Burn Sade?). According to the artist, de Sade is the greatest Frenchman in history, who revealed the real nature of power and the real nature of human beings, and thus opposed the conception of humanists who were convinced that the real nature of human kind is good and is only perverted by experiences and circumstances. Marquis de Sade showed that the real nature of humankind is both good and evil, tendentially more evil, and that morals are an artificial and often hypocritical construct. On that day, the public trial of Pavlensky should have been the first one in the morning; however, his interpreter refused to translate his dedication to de Sade, and his trial was postponed until a new interpreter could arrive. That's when the Marquis de Sade indirectly but quite ironically became responsible for revealing a case of an old gynecologist. The case that in turn was presented as the first one on that date was the case of a young woman who accused her gynecologist of sexual assault. The case was not resolved, as it was a “he said, she said” situation; however, due to presence of journalists, this case became public, and more women joined the case at a later stage, ultimately leading to the sentencing of the gynecologist.
Adorno argued that Marquis de Sade's writings were a logical consequence of Enlightenment and not its negation. Recent occurrences have repeatedly confirmed the human nature as rather "evil": the case of Jeffrey Epstein (the underground corridors that were poured with concrete, the doors of the buildings that would only open from the inside in buildings on his Little St. James island); Anneke Lucas' story (who was raped and abused for five years between the age of six and eleven by a secret Belgo-European pedophile circle); the cases of pedophilia in Catholic convents.
These are exactly the preoccupations that lead to the construction of Pavlensky's banned website pornopolitique, launched in early 2020, with articles on the abovementioned topics, as well as an article on Benjamin Griveaux, who the artist accused of hypocrisy, as the married man was sending videos of sexual content to the artist's partner Alexandra de Taddeo. The site was shut down, and Pavlensky is currently facing allegations regarding a different occurrence—a knife stabbing on December 31, 2019 in which the artist was apparently involved. Griveaux wants the artist to face allegations for violation of privacy and the dissemination of private video material without consent. Pavlensky’s lawyer for these cases is Juan Branco, a young activist lawyer who has written an extensive book on Julian Assange. This political action has set in motion the mechanisms of power, surpassing the realm of art and approaching life as close as ever before in his oeuvre, adhering to the ideals of his Situationist examples.
Before one could decide whether to consider this action political art or not, one would have to ask Pavlensky himself. Any other decision would once again mean art theoretical assumptions and involuntary categorization. One has to let the action speak and give it time to reveal what it has set out to do. As cultural practitioners, I would like to see our role as one of collaborators, allies, and supporters in solidarity with the artists we care about and write about, not judges and classifiers. What one can observe is that this political action clearly resembles his previous actions in terms of meticulous orchestration, tying in other agents (Alexandra de Taddeo, Juan Branco, the authors of the articles for pornopolitique) and it setting the mechanisms of power to work towards self-revelation and self-sabotage (as Griveaux has resigned). Meanwhile, formally speaking, one can observe a strong shift between the current and the previous eight actions by Pavlensky. One will have to wait and see how his actions, his oeuvre will progress in the future to be able to fully understand what occurred in February 2020. Having followed Pavlensky's practice, one can expect the unexpected and him being a step ahead. We will be hearing from him soon.
Anastasia Chaguidouline is a curator, currently responsible for events and public programs at the Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain. Her work combines writing, exhibition making, dialogue, and mediation. She previ-ously worked as an assistant curator at the Museum Tinguely Basel. In addition, her experience as an art mediator includes various institutions: Museum Tinguely, Vitra Design Museum, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Art Karlsruhe, and Art Basel. Next to her practice in the field of arts, she has been working as an interpreter and translator for over ten years. She works at the intersection between curatorial practices and language, with a focus on performances and conversations, to create interrelations between art, performance, and multi-lingual practices. She strives to represent unique (female) viewpoints and has a strong international outlook. Her writing has been published since 2014, including in The Contemporary Condition series (Sternberg Press) in 2018 and the OnCurating journal. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, an MA in Arts from Institut Kunst, and an MAS in Curating at the ZHdK in Zurich.
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