Photo: “Petr Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in protest of the incarceration of a Russian punk band” (Gleb Husky, via Politico)

Published on 28/11/2017

CNN just published an article by Marat Guelman, son of Russian playwriter Alexander Guelman, and art curator living in Montenegro, who recently opened an exhibition in London titled “Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism is dedicated to Russian protest art over the past 25 years.” In the CNN article on “Why Russia produces (and quashes) so much radical art”, Guelman addresses the above topic and states that “Artists have always held a special place in Russian society.”

He describes how developments during Glasnost in the mid-1980s and the return of writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn after exile in 1994, as well as rock music taking over the roles previously occupied by theater and literature, were signs of change, opening and a call for a new, open world. Recently, “contemporary art and provocative performances have proven the most effective medium for influencing public opinion. Artists have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the rapid changes taking place in Russian society”, according to Guelman. The probably most well-known performance has been that of Pussy Riot in Moscow’s largest cathedral in 2012, when they made a statement for Putin to leave his position or rather, to not be reelected. Pussy Riot’s trial and two members going to prison then captured global attention for Russia’s seemingly biased judiciary and Russia’s increasingly authoritarian path. Noah Sneider who published an article in the 1843 Magazine from The Economist Group last year, quoted Guelman saying that “From that moment, [the regime] began to seriously address the arts, to bring all their repressive methods to bear.”

Another prominent example in Russia, is Pyotr Pavlensky. His drastic actions, sometimes labeled as ‘crazy’ or ‘grotesque’, including among others, the sewing of his lips, a naked performance inside barbed wire or the cutting off of his own earlobe (like Van Gogh) confronting and criticizing the Russian state in various ways, have gained widespread attention. Sneider wrote that “Pavlensky practises actionism, an art form with a rich history in Russia. He calls his particular brand of actionism “political art” (not to be confused with art about politics).” Guelman further described that, while Pussy Riot was loud about their convictions, Pavlensky “demonstrated the strength of the weak. There was nothing the government could take away from him, because he didn’t have anything to lose.”

Pavlensky has had to spend time in a psychiatric ward as well as in prison, and has by now fled to France, were he received political asylum in May. What led to his decision to leave Russia with his family, were accusations of sexual harassment which he denied. Only last month, he staged another ‘performance’ in Paris, setting fire to a French Bank at the Place de la Bastille, referring symbolically to the historic role of the Bastille in the French Revolution.

Whether one agrees with Pavlensky’s views or the radical methods chosen, analyzing his actions baring in mind fundamental lessons about strategic planning of nonviolent campaigns, can certainly reveal some aspects about his performances. First, what did work well for Pavlensky was triggering reactions by the authorities which could be somehow described as ‘dilemma actions’. The latter “put an opponent in a situation where it must either a) grant a nonviolent movement’s demand, or b) act in a way that sacrifices some of its own support and damages its public image. […] Dilemma actions place an opponent in a situation where any action that it takes will result in a negative outcome for it. “ (CANVAS Core Curriculum, p. 144)

This is seemingly shown in what Sneider described: “Pavlensky specialises in creating situations that draw the authorities into his actions, turning them into the puppets in his theatre of the absurd.” Sneider went on to state that “the authorities respond in ways that highlight his message: after ‘Threat’, they covered the scorched doors with sheets of corrugated metal – a veritable iron curtain. During ‘Fixation’, the officers circling Pavlensky seemed disgusted by the sight of him and unsure what to do with the nail poking through his scrotum; eventually they draped him with a white sheet, turning him into a fleeting reflection of Gandhi.” Bennett adds the example of police officers refusing to carry out their orders to detain Pavlensky after his sewn-lips protest after the Pussy Riot arrest, instead waiting for doctors to arrive. Even his arrest and trial did Pavlensky see as an opportunity: “My task is to force the instruments of state power to create political propaganda. To suck them into my art. Criminal cases open a door for me to get inside the mechanics of the system — the investigators, the court system, psychiatrists — and allow me to work there”, wrote Marc Bennett about Pavlensky in an article on Politico.

The latter could also reflect one of the basic considerations for planning nonviolent campaigns, which is recognizing the current underlying power structures and trying to change it, mostly by winning over certain parts of society (for more explanations about the nature of power and power structures within society, see Chapter 1 of CANVAS’ Core Curriculum). But while Pavlevsky does seem somehow aware of such structures and has possibly managed to convince some ‘opponents’ to change their minds, like a former investigator in his case, the artists’ provocative and radical methods certainly repel others or make him seem ‘crazy’. And when planning a nonviolent campaign’s tactics, anticipating possible sympathizers’ reactions and the light the tactics will shed on your movement, is essential. Furthermore, even though Sneider states that Pavlenksy “sees no sense in art for art’s sake, believing instead in art as change, as progress, as awakening”, some aspects are frequently is not so clear: What are his intentions in each action, does he seek to mobilize others to help push for his vision of a free Russia and especially, which concrete steps would he want the country to take in order to do so? Despite these questions, his performances have certainly caused widespread attention, as have other actionists’ in Russia.

Learn more about Russian political art, actionism and Pavlensky here, here and here.