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Scrotum-nailing Russian artist Pavlensky in DW interview

Bernd Sobolla db
March 16, 2017

Self-mutilating Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky takes an "incalcuable" risk with his art. In this DW interview, he reveals how he was treated in prison and why a new film on him reveals "what is hidden."

Pyotr Pavlensky wrapped in barbed wire
Image: PavlenskyLichtfilm

Pyotr Pavlensky and his provocative performances have annoyed the Kremlin for years. Just two months ago, he requested political asylum in France because he was threatened with imprisonment in a camp in Russia for the  alleged sexual assault of an actress. In 2013, he nailed himself to the Red Square by his scrotum - a performance he called "Fixation," meant to point a finger at Russian society's listlessness and political indifference. Pavlensky has also in the past sewn his lips shut and wrapped himself in barbed wire in artistic performances. Now filmmaker Irene Langemann has dedicated a documentary to the Russian artist and writer, entitled "Man and Might." It opens Thursday in German cinemas.

DW: You're a performance artist, but originally you studied mural art. When did you change your focus?

Pyotr Pavlensky: That was in 2012, a time when Russia's establishment openly tried to instrumentalize art. Of course that happens all the time in Russia, but it was never so apparent. For years, I watched as students in art academies were influenced and brainwashed. I saw them turned into "service artists." The Pussy Riot trial gave it a new twist, and as I see my self as an artist and wanted to continue to live and work as an artist, I had to act. It was about me, my life and my art. I did not want to live with the prospect of serving as a kind of "adjustable screw" for propaganda purposes.

Pavlensky with mouth sewn shut
Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in a 2012 to protest the incarceration of Pussy Riot Image: Reuters

How did people react to your protest to the Pussy Riot trial, when you stood in front of a church, your lips sewn shut?

The passersby were interested in the performance, and wanted to understand what was going on. No one was aggressive; no one wanted to attack me. That shows how open people are to absorbing what they are shown, and what artists are trying to express.

You were imprisoned and kicked and beaten in jail. Others have died in Russian prisons. Is that a risk you take, or do you believe your status as a well-known artists will protect you?

The risks I take are always incalculable. After performing "Segregation" [Eds: The artist sliced off part of his earlobe], I should have been declared insane according the logic of the system - or landed in jail. Neither happened.

It is interesting if you can't foresee what is going to happen, but concerning my high profile, it is difficult to say whether that is a help or a hindrance. At the time of my trial before a Moscow court, I was beaten while being transported to court. These people don't care whether I'm famous or not. The system, and that includes the penal system, is managed in such a way that no one will ever know who beat me. Sometimes the guards even wear masks. And because I'm famous, I was often separated from the other inmates and kept in solitary confinement.

The punk band Pussy Riot taped your performance in the church and ran away. You never run. It seems the authorities don't quite know what to make of you. When you sat on the wall of the asylum, they quibbled, no one wanted the responsibility. Does that make you feel you have a certain power over the system after all?

The situation with me perched on the wall certainly allowed me to push the authorities into a corner. But on the other hand, physical feelings like cold and pain are very uncomfortable. It's difficult to feel satisfaction when your body shivers with cold and your leg is cramping.

Pyotr Pavlensky in court
Behind bars: Pyotr Pavlensky in courtImage: Lichtfilm SWR

Your performances are radical, but in the documentary, your approach to the police and members of the Russian secret service, the FSB, interrogating you is friendly. It's as if you actually like these people, while at the same time attacking the system they serve. In the film, it's projected in silhouette. Does this come close to the truth, or is it an expression of the director's artistic freedom?

She did a really good job, which was difficult because I was arrested only two months after we'd first met, and she had to find a way to express the situation based on the words and sentences we said. So that's the format she chose, and I would like to stress that it is in fact abstract. If she had used real actors, and you had been able to see their faces, I would have always thought, does the guy look anything like me? But it's abstract, and I like that.

The mood comes across as almost friendly. Is that really how it was?

In reality, it was very tense. There were long stretches of silence. It was a very formal atmosphere: talks between people who won't shake hands.

Were there moments when you thought your performance art has an effect that goes beyond being noticed in the art community?

My performances aren't aimed at an elite group or at fellow artists, but at the masses. I want to change how society thinks and create a precedent with my performances that I hope will change people's thinking and behavior.

Is it true that other inmates started taking an interest in art during your time in prison?

My lawyer told me a few inmates started writing back and forth about art. Two of my cellmates were involved; they were very interested in political art. When I was in pre-trial custody, I would speak about art during the transports. On the other hand, I'm not sure they understand the essence of political art.

A few years ago, elections in Russia were heavily rigged. Today, a clear majority supports Putin's policies. Do you find that disheartening?

I haven't believed in elections for a long time. They are a tool of the reality that rules.

How significant is this film for you?

This film is very important for me in particular, because the director managed to reveal what is hidden. She found an artistic way to show what happens in a Russian prison and at court - something the ordinary viewer knows nothing about.