[Marxism] An Artist Who Aspires to Be ‘a Bone in Everyone’s Throat’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 29 11:05:13 MST 2020

NY Times, Feb. 29, 2020

An Artist Who Aspires to Be ‘a Bone in Everyone’s Throat’

Talented but eccentric, Pyotr A. Pavlensky once nailed his scrotum to 
the cobblestones in Red Square. Now, he is wearing out his welcome in 

By Andrew Higgins

PARIS — He has infuriated just about everyone.

The Russian authorities threw him in jail for setting fire to the door 
of the secret police headquarters in Moscow. France, which gave him 
asylum three years ago, also jailed him, also over a fire, and is now 
investigating him in connection with two new criminal cases, one 
relating to a New Year’s Eve brawl in a chic Paris apartment, the other 
over his release of a sex tape of a French politician.

He is on such bad terms with his longtime partner, the mother of his two 
daughters, that they have not spoken in months, despite their having 
come to France together to start a new life.

By his own lights, however, Pyotr A. Pavlensky has never achieved quite 
so much. “The job of the artist is to be a bone in everyone’s throat,” 
the Russian performance artist said in an interview on Monday in Paris. 
On that score, he has certainly triumphed.

Hailed by avant-garde art aficionados as an exceptional, if highly 
eccentric, talent, the 35-year-old Russian artist — who now considers 
himself French “because I live in France” — has never been popular with 
the powers that be.

Prosecutors in Russia and France have painted him as menace to society, 
while others have mocked him as a lunatic, especially since he sat naked 
in Red Square in 2013 and nailed his scrotum into the cobblestones. In 
an earlier “artistic action,” he cut off part of his right ear lobe with 
a chef’s knife while sitting naked on the wall of a notorious Russian 
psychiatric institute.

“My aim has always been to be inconvenient and uncomfortable for 
everyone,” he said.

But Mr. Pavlensky has shocked even himself with his latest “action,” or 
at least the reaction to it.

He said never expected the French authorities to come down on him “so 
hard and so fast” when this month he posted online an explicit video 
featuring Benjamin Griveaux, an ally of President Emmanuel Macron who at 
the time was a candidate in the French capital’s mayoral election.

Mr Griveaux’s supporters suggested the affair could be part of a Russian 
destabilization campaign but there is no evidence of this and Mr. 
Pavlensky ridiculed the idea: “Am I a Russian agent? No, obviously.”

The release of the video, which Mr. Pavlensky described as the first act 
of a new artistic series called “Porno-Politika,” forced the married 
politician to drop out of the race and left the Russian artist facing 
preliminary charges for violation of privacy and publishing sexual 
images without consent.

His home and that of his French girlfriend — who earlier had an affair 
with Mr. Griveaux, and from whom the artist says he stole the video — 
were searched by the police and the couple are now barred from 

“They have declared war on our love,” Mr. Pavlensky said, explaining 
that all governments, whether French or Russian, “are instruments of 
repression. The mechanics of power are the same everywhere, only the 
techniques are different.”

This view has made him an unlikely darling of Russia’s state propaganda 
machine, which for years denounced him as a mad vandal, when it deigned 
to mention him at all, but which has now seized on his travails in 
France as proof that Russia is no less free than the West.

On Sunday, state television’s flagship news program, Vesti Nedeli, 
broadcast a long report on Mr. Pavlensky’s current troubles. It showed 
the artist denouncing the “monstrous hypocrisy” of France’s governing 
elite and celebrating his success in “exposing the true face” of Mr. 
Macron’s government.

Speculating that Mr. Pavlensky may have a trove of other sex tapes, 
Dmitri Kiselyov, the bombastic presenter of the show, sneered that “the 
French elite will have to throw such a dangerous man in jail out of 
self-preservation. And then maybe even strip the troublemaker of his 
asylum in France.”

That would certainly delight Moscow, which has long bridled at Western 
criticism of its human rights record and would undoubtedly use the 
expulsion of Mr. Pavlensky from France to show that it is not only 
Russia that limits freedom of speech and expression.

“The French, despite their tolerance and friendliness, have their 
limits, too,” Nataliya Eliseyeva, a political scientist, told the 
evening news last week on Rossiya-24, another state television channel. 
“Pavlensky has crossed the line here.”

Mr. Pavlensky said he could not care less how his troubles in France 
were being reported back home in Russia and had no regrets about making 
statements that have given comfort to state news outlets, which revel in 
exposing Western hypocrisy.

“I spit on what the Russian media, the French media, the American media 
say,” he said, “Media always say what is convenient for them to say. 
They always use any situation to their own advantage.”

Unbending and pugnacious in his artistic actions, Mr. Pavlensky is 
surprisingly gentle in person, though his sunken cheeks and shaved head, 
scarred from the fight on New Year’s Eve, give him an intimidating air. 
He apologized profusely for having to ask for money to pay for a cab 
home. He has no job and is broke. His Paris lawyer, Juan Branco, whose 
other clients include members of the Yellow Vest protest movement, is 
helping him pro bono.

Mr. Pavlensky has also been heartened by the reaction of ordinary French 
people who stop him on the street to express support. “I’m very happy 
about this,” he said.

Born into a conformist and relatively comfortable Soviet family in 
Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, Mr. Pavlensky, an only child, said 
he first realized the danger of vesting faith in state power when his 
father, a loyal servant of the established order, drank himself to death 
at 49, following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. “It was a 
slow-motion suicide,” he said, recalling how his father, a geologist who 
had spent his entire career in a state research institute, never 
recovered from the Soviet collapse.

“He had placed all his trust and hope in the state,” Mr. Pavlensky said. 
His mother, a retired nurse, is still alive and living in St. Petersburg.

His parents, while conformist in their views, encouraged him to pursue 
his interest in art, he said, and supported his decision to enroll in 
the Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, a prestigious art school 
in St. Petersburg. Increasingly interested in politics, he dropped out 
of the academy in his final year after deciding that getting a diploma 
would brand him as a “servant of the system.”

A major influence at this time, he said, was Pussy Riot, a feminist punk 
rock protest group, two of whose members were sent to jail in 2012 for 
“inciting religious hatred” after staging a protest inside Christ the 
Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

That action and the heavy-handed response of the authorities, Mr. 
Pavlensky said, convinced him of the need for “political art” aimed at 
shocking people into questioning the system, its rules and ideology. 
“Art should always raise doubts about power, not serve it,” he said.

So inspired, he joined another artist, Oksana Shalygina, his now 
estranged partner, in establishing Political Propaganda publishing 
house, an online platform dedicated to exploring and promoting the use 
of contemporary art as a tool of political awakening. He staged his 
first public “action” in July 2012, appearing at a cathedral in St. 
Petersburg with his mouth sewn shut in protest at the arrest of Pussy 
Riot members. The police sent him for a psychiatric examination but he 
was declared sane and released.

His first action in Moscow followed the following year, when, in 
November 2013, he appeared naked in Red Square and, in a statement, 
explained that “a naked artist, looking at his testicles nailed to the 
cobblestones, is a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and 
fatalism of Russian society.” He was briefly detained and then released.

His most famous action — and the first to land him in jail — took place 
outside Lubyanka, a forbidding stone building in the center of Moscow 
that served as the headquarters of the K.G.B. in the Soviet era and now 
houses the leadership of its successor agency, the Federal Security 
Service, or F.S.B. He doused the door with gasoline and then set it on fire.

He was quickly arrested, sent to a psychiatric ward and then held for 
seven months before he was tried. Convicted on vandalism charges, he was 
let off with a fine, which he refused to pay. He left Russia for France 
with his partner and daughters in 2017 after a Russian actress accused 
the couple of sexual assault, an accusation they strongly denied.

Mr. Pavlensky repeated his fire act after arriving in Paris, setting 
alight windows at the entrance to the Banque de France, the French 
national bank, which he said had established itself as an enemy of the 
people by providing money to fund the bloody repression of the Paris 
Commune in 1871.

For this, he spent 11 months in a French prison, much of it in solitary 

Now again facing possible jail time, Mr. Pavlensky said he could not 
understand why Mr. Griveaux, the former mayoral candidate — who has 
raged against “vile attacks” on his personal life — was so upset. He 
encouraged the disgraced politician to take heart from the example of 
Cicciolina, a former Hungarian-Italian pornographic film star, “who had 
a very successful political career” after appearing in numerous X-rated 

Asked if he might perhaps be a bit crazy, the artist said: “Absolutely 
not. But we all live on the border between sanity and insanity.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.

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