The reaction to Pyotr Pavlensky’s act in Red Square in many ways seems to have been a shorter lived one than expected. It has been rather difficult to find an article of any length in the world press that tries to ‘fix’ Pavlensky’s act in any context- whether political, social or historical. Not many words have even been wasted on the question “Is this art?” Of the single article that tried to contextualise the act historically in terms of shocking performance art, one would be hard put to find much in this but a listing of the first ten performances that came into the columnists head. It was, perhaps, only Masha Gessen’s short blog piece for the New York Times ( Self-Mutilation on Red Square ) which included a couple of comments from Russian art critics and tried to supply, at least a minimum of information relevant to an understanding of the action. In Russia, itself, there were a number of commentators willing to take the action seriously (as well as the occasional interview with Pavlensky himself), although many treated the act as most Western media did – as pure titillation. Echo Moskvy, the mininally liberal and oppositional radio statement decided to give their listeners a vote on whether Pavlensky should be sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Here in this first of two posts is Pavlensky’s own comments on this action taken from an interview with Yulia Gusarova for Snob.
PAVLENSKY’S OWN COMMENTS.
In my previous articles here I have translated an interview in which Pavlensky reflects on his own philosophy of art and actionism as well as his statement regarding the act itself. However, Pavlensky has given a more recent account of his performance and his own reasoning for this performance since the act itself in an interview published in ‘Snob’ magazine.
Discussing how he originally studied as a mural artist for the Stiglitz Academy, he stated how he was radicalized by the Pussy Riot trial. Expected that artists would react in as equally powerful a way as the state had done in imprisoning the punk trio and seeing that the art world only replied with speeches he decided that it was his own duty to do something himself. Creating an artistic character who bordered on the absurd while spouting a mixture of fundamentalist nonsense with occasionally intelligent statements, one of the slogans of this artistic character that he coined then was used for his performance where he sewed his mouth shut. This performance (sewing his mouth shut as metaphor of the demands of the regime to remain silent regarding the Pussy Riot Trial) both textual and visual, led him into thinking about the use of the body as a metaphor of the demands of power. The performance “Fixation” was also in its own way using the body to symbolise the requirements of power. Pavlensky mentioned how he had heard while being detained how as a reaction to increased repression in the jails, prisoners used gestures of fixing their their bodies to some object as their own form of reaction. He wanted also to add his own idea about the act of looking to this performance demonstrating how people simply watching pain and discomfort adds in its own way to the apathy and indifference of contemporary society.
Pavlensky also mentions a curiosity of his about building some kind of construction on the territory of power with which power wouldn’t know how to cope with. He further stated that he reached a condition in which he felt fear of the very idea of not being able to react to what was happening. With this kind of paralysing fear that non-action would lead him to not live his life normally, Pavlensky managed to act in a way which he wouldn’t do in his normal circumstances. In normal everyday life Pavlensky describes himself as a very calm person.
He spoke of his refusal to work for galleries and ‘to order’ because he wouldn’t be acting in the sphere of power which his actions are directed against. He also named a number of artists who have influenced him including Caravaggio, Chris Burden, Santiago Sierra (especially regarding his approach to the use of the body as material) and Avdei Ter Oganian (for his artistic response to the growth of a fascisitizing process in society as well as the growth of Rightist popular moods). Asked about Marina Abramovic he finds hers a rather “Hollywood” type of performance artist doing performance in an institutionalized context- Chris Burden’s ‘Shoot’ performance had already taken place outside this context and was, thus, far more radical. For him the Pussy Riot performance was a victory in the cultural field of art over power and clericalization. Although power, of course, would not react to this defeat in any way.