Photo: Nigina Beroeva / Reuters
Russian artist and political activist Peter Pavlensky once again performed in Moscow with a provocative action–arson this time. He set fire to the Moscow headquarters of the country’s security service, the FSB. Petr Pavlensky set the door of the Lubyanka building alight and was pictured standing in front of the blaze holding a petrol can.
The performance artist released a video of the stunt, and said in a statement: ‘The FSB acts using a method of uninterrupted terror and maintains power over 146 million people.’
He, along with reporters filming the action, was almost immediately detained on suspicion of hooliganism. According to Russian media, the journalists were released after questioning, but the police decided to file criminal charges for ‘Vandalism’ against the artist. He might be sentenced to three years in prison for his provocative performance.
We asked experts if this was an empty epatage or another act of performed art, and their opinions were divided. Some believe that Pavlensky is simply a vandal and manipulator, and others think the idea that art should be exclusively creative, is hopelessly out of date.
Alexander Zakharov, master of miniature, painter
No doubt, Peter Pavlensky is primarily an artist, not just a civic activist. He definitely is an artist because everything passes through him and comes from the depths of his heart and soul. His actions are not just statements, but a work of art, and mostly according to their force of impact.
A genre, in which he works – actionism, is aimed to bring the viewer into a state of imbalance, to get him to touch another space, to show him a different, non-domestic world. This can be done not only through creation, but also through destruction and negative emotions.
It is important to understand that Pavlensky works for an audience that is tuned to the same wavelength as he is. For some reason we have a constant intent to infiltrate another’s space, it is considered to be that any creative manifestations – from Kirkorov to Schnittke – need to capture a wide audience. Pavlensky is oriented to an audience of his circle, and in this context, his actions are successful.
Vera Trachtenberg, curator, art critic
The activity of Peter Pavlensky consists of a number of fictitious actions in which he makes his statement as an artist, not as an activist. By form, it may be similar to social activism, but by sense, it is a pure actionism, often radical and reminiscent of Vienna actionists.
Pavlensky did not destroy anything, except his body, which becomes an instrument in his chosen form. Art in general owes nothing to the viewer, and the viewer also owes nothing to the art–no one is required to understand the art or admire it. Today, it is generally a very difficult question–how to build a dialogue with the audience.
Pavlensky’s choice – it’s his responsibility. In modern Russia, there are many artists who work outside the political context. It’s their choice as well. Yes, the media writes less about them, but that does not mean that they don’t exist at all.
Ekaterina Kinyakina, act critic and Culture section editor for information portal ‘Moscow 24’
Pavelnsky’s performance caused a huge stream of delight in social media. On one hand, it’s a Meal’n’Real kind of action, provocation, but on the other hand – vandalism. But when it comes to Pavlensky, everybody understands what he wants to say with his performance. The idea that art should be only creative and not destructive is not relevant since XX century. Malevich and suprematists were just not that insolent. By the way, the ‘Black square’ will turn 100 years old in a month.
Now, we are just on the new coil of history. All this is a process of creating senses and contexts, and in our virtual world senses is the main currency and main product of art.
There could be beautiful non-political art in Russia. And even Pavlensky or Pussy Riot could do it. There is always an opportunity to express political aggression or political indifference. All comes to the question of fame. Pavlensky-Herostrat already reached the peak of his fame in that case.
The “Discipline and Punish” by Foucault begins with a 15-page description of the violent execution of a person who has committed an assassination attempt on the king (just before the French Revolution). The crowd of thousands is watching this spectacle, coming into a frenzy. So, what I want to say is that our execution square – Facebook – where 2,000 people support Pavlensky and sympathize with him and all the others are craving punishment.
Elena Komarenko, curator, collector and director of the gallery ’73 Street’
We should not encourage such performances, because it is the cheapest and easiest way to attract public attention and create a dichotomy between an artist and society. Eventually it might turn into extremism, in my opinion. I do not think that such acts, insulting social norms and infringing the legislation, can be considered as something artistic or creative. It is just a symptom of a psychological disorder.
Pavlensky’s ambitions prevail over common sense. It seems that this so-called artist has exceeded the cultural bounds. Unfortunately, nowadays many people are using the simplest way to attract attention−to insult somebody, to strip naked, or to chop an icon. Creating a masterpiece is a much more complicated act. Suchlike performances do not have any relation to art. It is nothing – just the psychological manipulation of human consciousness.
Vladimir Potapov, painter, curator
There is nothing to argue about. Pavlensky’s performance is nothing but classical actionism, which is obviously a type of art. Any action as well as any inaction can become art since it’s declared as an artistic statement, a so-called performative act. The importance of that exact action as an artistic statement is that here the artist tried to resist the whole system just by himself. He expressed his attitude towards it, using the language of art that resonates with society. The same thing could be done with a painting or installation, but we all understand, that in these cases resonance would not have happened. Because this form of art has the best chance to get on the first page of any media source, including foreign ones, there is a certain manipulation of the media, which as it turns out, was used in this case. However, it is secondary in this particular case. The main idea is still the confrontation between an individual and the political system. Certainly, it is a feat.
Any art can be viewed through the political optic. In this case, there is a special importance in regards to the current political background. It is obviously active and that makes an influence on the perusal of any artistic action. In these circumstances, the position of the artist towards the current political regime becomes overarching – whether he is passive or responds directly with artistic practice. I believe that the artist is obliged to fix the epoch, in which he lives, to reveal its essence, no matter if this epoch is radically repressive or democratic. Politics has always interfered, it should be understood that the relationship of the artist and the authorities has been and always will be difficult and stressful – from collaboration to antagonism. This is normal.
‘The Burning Door of Lubyanka’, as you might know, is not the first performance of the 31-year-old artist and not his first arrest. He was previously brought to justice by criminal and administrative laws, and underwent a psychiatric evaluation ultimately classifying him as sane.
In 2012, Pavlensky wrapped his naked body in a ‘cocoon’ of barbed wire outside parliament and remained there until police cut him out.
In 2013 after nailing his scrotum to the cobblestone of Red Square to protest against tight police control, he literally hit the headlines. That was really one of his most impressive performances. Many people still cringe when mentioning a scrotum being nailed to the ground. By the way, if you didn’t know, a hole for the nail in his scrotum was formed by the artist in advance. He didn’t just sit down and punch a hole there… Pavlensky, while performing shocking actions, does so with a sound mind.
The artist was facing three years in prison over a 2014 performance in St. Petersburg, during which activists set fire to tires and waved a Ukrainian flag to simulate the Maidan protests that led to the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow leader, Viktor Yanukovych. However, the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
In another earlier protest, Mr. Pavlensky sewed his lips together and cut off part of his earlobe in protest over the forced psychiatric treatment of dissidents.