The Actionist: Going behind the self-mutilation and vandalism art of Pytor Pavelnsky

His acts of self-mutilation and vandalism have landed him in jail in Russia and France. Fernanda Eberstadt on the dangerous art of Pyotr Pavlensky

Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky poses after setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, in central Moscow early on November 9, 2015. (NIGINA BEROEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky poses after setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, in central Moscow early on November 9, 2015. (NIGINA BEROEVA/AFP/Getty Images)

ON AN autumn day in Paris, in the luminous courthouse built by Renzo Piano near the Porte de Clichy, the Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky sat in the dock, listening to an interpreter’s translation of the proceedings against him. Pavlensky had spent the past 11 months in a French jail, primarily in solitary confinement, for what he considers an artwork and the French government considers a crime.

In the early hours of October 16, 2017, Pavlensky set fire to the ground-floor windows of a branch of the Banque de France on the Place de la Bastille. A video showed him standing in the doorway of the fortresslike building, a black-clad figure framed by wings of flame. The site had been carefully chosen. The Banque de France is the French equivalent of the Federal Reserve, and this particular outpost was erected where the Bastille prison, stormed by revolutionary mobs in 1789, once stood. In the text accompanying the work, titled Lighting, Pavlensky declared the bank a symbol of modern-day tyranny and bankers the new despots.

In an aftermath common to his artworks (which Pavlensky calls “actions”), he was arrested on the spot, hauled off for psychiatric examination and put in jail — this time with his longtime partner, Oksana Shalygina, who was assisting that night. The couple were charged with “property damage involving risk to others”. Shalygina, who is also the mother of their two young children, was released on probation after two months. But in September, almost a year after Lighting, Pavlensky was still in prison awaiting trial.

Seated before the panel of judges hearing the arguments for his pretrial release, Pavlensky, a hollow-cheeked man with enormous yellow-green, tigerish eyes, was dressed in his customary outfit of black scoop-necked T-shirt, black cargo pants and black sandals. The courtroom was packed with his supporters. One, a red-bearded artist named Sébastien Layral, had chopped off his earlobe for the occasion — recalling Pavlensky’s 2014 performance piece Segregation, in which Pavlensky climbed naked onto the wall of Moscow’s most infamous psychiatric institute and cut off his right earlobe to protest the political abuse of psychiatry.

Before his arrest, Pavlensky was widely praised by critics for being, as one British newspaper put it, “the patron saint of Russian dissidence”. He was showcased in a prestigious 2017 survey of Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery in London and granted asylum in France the same year. But once he shifted the object of his critique from Putin’s Russia to the Western democracy that gave him refuge, the French government — and even some of his art-world supporters — grew decidedly less enthusiastic. In a country rattled by terrorist attacks, Pavlensky’s “action” took on a sinister resonance.

In the courtroom, waiting to be questioned by the judge, Shalygina, a tall, lunar-pale woman with a peroxide semimohawk, was pessimistic about her partner’s release. What made the case particularly uncertain was that the artist himself was not asking to be freed. For Pavlensky, the judicial process is an integral part of the artwork. “The government’s aim is to suppress or neutralise art, to reduce me to a vandal, a madman, a provocateur,” he told me earlier, “but the criminal case becomes one of the layers of the artwork, the portal through which you enter and see the mechanisms of power exposed.”

The presiding judge that day was Jean-Marie Denieul. Here was an artist who thought nothing of chopping off body parts “to make a political point”, Denieul remarked. “A skeletal Homo sapiens, but pretty tough!” “This sounds like an homage!” said Pavlensky’s lawyer, Dominique Beyreuther-Minkov.

“It is, in a way,” the judge replied.

The prosecutor was not so well disposed. The defendant faced a prison sentence of 10 years, she pointed out. Since he had no job, no bank account, no legal home, she believed he posed a high flight risk. Moreover, since he refused to recognise the legitimacy of the French judiciary or that his act of arson was a crime, there was nothing to stop him from setting more buildings aflame. “He lives for his political acts,” she declared. If they released him “he will do it again.” Public safety, she concluded, demanded that Pavlensky be kept in prison.

Pyotr Pavlensky protesting against repressive government policies by wrapping himself in barbed wire in his art action called ‘Carcass’.
Pyotr Pavlensky protesting against repressive government policies by wrapping himself in barbed wire in his art action called ‘Carcass’.

I first encountered Pavlensky in the summer of 2017. He and his family arrived from Russia six months earlier and were living in a series of Paris squats and collective apartments. Until Lighting, Pavlensky, who is 35, worked only in Russia. Most of his “actions” involved spectacular acts of self-mutilation or endurance. For the 2013 Carcass, he had himself deposited, naked and cocooned in barbed wire, outside the St Petersburg Parliament, in response to a series of new laws restricting personal freedom. Later that year, in Fixation, he attached his scrotum with a Crucifixion-style nail to the paving stones of Red Square to symbolise the passivity of the Russian people.

Unyielding in his public stances, Pavlensky in person is unexpectedly warm, a little shy. Born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1984, he was 16 when Vladimir Putin first became president. Putin closed independent TV stations, made regional governors his direct appointees, and seized banks and industries, imprisoning their oligarch owners or driving them into exile. He embraced the Russian Orthodox Church as a power base, encouraging the traditionalists’ vision of Russia as a “holy nation” whose destiny owed nothing to liberal democracy. Art became a pawn in this cultural struggle.

In the fall of 2011, Putin and Dmitry Medvedev announced they would swap jobs (Putin had been serving as Medvedev’s prime minister since 2008 because Russian law barred him from serving a third consecutive term) and Putin would again assume the presidency. This announcement, followed by what were widely seen as rigged parliamentary elections, sparked a nationwide wave of demonstrations. Many were characterized by an “Occupy”-style exuberance. Shortly before the presidential election, the punk feminist group Pussy Riot, whose members specialised in guerrilla actions, performed a “Punk Prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

Clad like cartoon ninjas in lollipop-colored dresses and balaclavas, they pranced and kickboxed as they shouted a song whose refrain went, “Mother of God, chase Putin out!” Three of the performers were arrested and charged with inciting religious hatred. At the time, Pavlensky was 27, an art student who hadn’t yet found a mobilising subject for his work. “Even among my friends, there were few who understood Pussy Riot’s action,” Pavlensky told me. “I was shocked by the violence of people’s reactions. These women had touched nothing, but people wanted to burn them at the stake; even so-called dissidents condemned them.”

When Pussy Riot went on trial that July, Pavlensky decided to stage his first “action”. He stood outside the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg, his mouth sewn shut, carrying a sign likening Pussy Riot’s performance to Jesus’ expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple. Titled Seam, the work was captured by several photojournalists, including Maxim Zmeyev, who cropped the photo to an iconic headshot. Pavlensky’s emaciated face, lips zigzagged in blood-red twine, radiates an almost Christlike suffering. By choosing this gesture, he also inscribed himself in a powerful lineage of artistic resistance, referencing a seminal 1989 work by David Wojnarowicz, Silence=Death, in which the artist sewed his lips shut to mark the Reagan administration’s refusal to address the Aids epidemic.

In 2012 Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in political protest against the incarceration of members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot
In 2012 Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in political protest against the incarceration of members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot

THE Pussy Riot trial ended with the conviction of three members. Two of them, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, would spend nearly two years in a prison camp; the third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, received a suspended sentence on appeal. Tolokonnikova later expressed her joy that Pussy Riot had found in Pavlensky a worthy successor.

Pavlensky’s work draws on a venerable tradition of performance art in which the body is used to interrogate cultural norms and power dynamics. In the 1960s, the Viennese Actionists staged performances using their own blood, urine and excrement to expose Austria’s willed amnesia about its Nazi past.

As an art student, Pavlensky encountered the work of the Moscow Actionists. One, Alexander Brener, stood in boxing shorts and gloves in Red Square, demanding that President Boris Yeltsin, who had just started the First Chechen War to pre

vent the republic from gaining independence, come out and fight him.

Pavelensky after he cut off his earlobe in ‘Segregation’ (2014).
Pavelensky after he cut off his earlobe in ‘Segregation’ (2014).

IN 2014, Putin began a war in Ukraine, cracking down on Ukrainian activists opposed to the invasion by imprisoning them on trumped-up terrorism charges.

The filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was convicted of supposedly plotting to bomb a series of buildings and monuments and is now serving a 20-year sentence in the Russian Far North. Pavlensky was an active supporter of the protesters gathering in Ukraine’s Maidan, and in what now seems a precursor to his Banque de France action, he set ablaze the doors of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian security service. The “action”, which Pavlensky titled Threat, referenced Sentsov’s supposed plot. Pavlensky was arrested, sent to a psychiatric ward for a few weeks and then imprisoned for seven months, awaiting trial. He was convicted of vandalism and let off with a fine, which he refused to pay.

The incident that would drive him into exile occurred just a few months after his release. A Moscow actress named Anastasia Slonina filed charges against Pavlensky and Shalygina, claiming the couple assaulted her with a knife when she resisted their sexual advances. Pavlensky and Shalygina, who had an open relationship, denied the charges. “There was no violence, no knife,” Pavlensky says. (Anastasia Slonina did not respond to requests for comment.) Pavlensky and Shalygina’s supporters insisted the couple had been framed.

The writer Masha Gessen, who says she has no opinion on the case, told me that “Russia loves to put dissidents in jail on sexual charges, because who’s going to stand up for a sexual predator?” After Threat, “it was inevitable they were going to get Pavlensky one way or another. I think they wanted to get him out of the country.” Pavlensky and Shalygina say they were warned that if convicted, they could each be sentenced to 10 years in prison, their two small children placed in a state orphanage. They decided to seek refuge in France, which Pavlensky chose because it was the “alma mater of revolution”. “I’m not scared of prison,” he said, “but I won’t go like a sheep to the slaughter for something I didn’t do.”

Two months before Lighting, I visited Pavlensky and Shalygina at their latest home, the eighth in seven months: a Paris squat. They said the French state had offered them housing, but, as Shalygina explained to me with a laugh, they didn’t want to be “fed by the monster”. Pavlensky’s and Shalygina’s politics are loosely anarchist. They describe themselves as living by an alternative economy of foraging, donations from well-wishers and the occasional lecture fee. None of Pavlensky’s art is for sale, and issues of Political Propaganda, an art magazine Shalygina began in Russia, are distributed free.

Pavlensky talked about his own upbringing in a high-rise complex on the western edge of St Petersburg. His parents were “conformists shaped by the Soviet system, people who above all wanted a comfortable life”.

His father was a geologist who spent his entire career at a government institute. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the elder Pavlensky fell into acute alcoholism.

“My father died alone at 49, choking on a piece of raw meat. His example taught me how not to live. I saw how his reliance on the state for comfort, his disappointment at the state’s abandonment, led to this horrible death.”

Pavlensky’s mother, a retired nurse, is still alive. When he was first sent to a psychiatric hospital after one of his “actions”. Pavlensky had a flash of recognition. The nurses’ way of bullying patients into compliance was exactly how his mother had always treated him: Unless you were catatonic, you were considered dangerous.

At art school, Pavlensky came to regard culture as just another state institution, with its own levers of power. “When I dropped out, my true education continued,” he said. “I can honestly say my life was changed by art — by the example of artists like Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Malevich. I saw that art helps liberate — that real artists’ work was in constant collision with power.”

A year later, Pavlensky sat impassive in the prisoners’ box in the Porte de Clichy courtroom, as the panel of judges returned from their deliberations. From his bench, Judge Denieul pronounced their decision. The trial date was set for January. In the meantime, the terms of Shalygina’s probation were to be eased — from now on, she would report to the police only once a week, and the sole area of Paris from which she was banned was the 11th arrondissement, where the Place de la Bastille is located. As for Pavlensky — Denieul paused — “the same”.

In slow motion, Pavlensky’s lawyer wheeled on her heels to face the audience. Pumping her fists high, she let loose an ecstatic, “Yes!” In January, Pavlensky returned to court and was given a three-year prison sentence. The 11 months he spent in pretrial detention were credited as time served; the remaining two years were suspended. The couple were fined roughly €25,000, for material and “moral” damage. Pavlensky says he has no plans to pay it.

After his release, he told me in an email, Shalygina ended their 12-year relationship. (She and their two daughters are fine, she reports in a Facebook message.) His work, however, is thriving. He recently took part in half a dozen of the “gilets jaunes” protests, in which shops, newspaper kiosks and even a Rouen branch of the Banque de France were set ablaze — an act he regards as a tribute to Lighting. For Pavlensky, the French state’s response to his artwork confirmed his central thesis: Institutions of power are oppressive, yet they are also oddly vulnerable to someone who denies their legitimacy.

He is now at work documenting the government’s contribution to Lighting — the CCTV images, court transcripts, letters from the prison authorities. All his work, Pavlensky says, reveals that society at large may be a prison, but it is still possible to exert a kind of negative liberty.

“Everything in my art is done to make people think. It’s not enough just to have your own individual freedom; you need to help others free themselves.”

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

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