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