Petr Pavlensky is one of Russia’s best-known and most controversial conceptual artists and political activists. When describing his various exhibitions, it’s often necessary to add the word “literally,” to emphasize that this man literally and intentionally injures himself for his art. Until two days ago, his most famous acts included sewing his mouth shut with string in July 2012 (in protest against the criminal prosecution of Pussy Riot), and wrapping himself in barbed wire, in the nude, in May 2013, outside Saint Petersburg’s city assembly (in protest against a series of conservative legislative initiatives). On November 10, 2013, Pavlensky added a third feat to his résumé: sitting naked on the pavement in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square, and hammering a nail through his scrotum, thereby attaching himself to the cobblestone.
In a statement [ru], Pavlensky explained his action as a symbolic representation of “contemporary Russian society’s apathy, political indifference, and fatalism.” Russian bloggers have reacted with a mix of respect and mockery.
The politics of art
Aleksandr Morozov, a journalist who often writes about religious issues in Russia, argued [ru] on Facebook that Pavlensky’s act is something out of the Soviet 1970s, when the state’s “total persecution” left citizens “without any chance of being heard.” Morozov believes the Red Square demonstration is an example of “conservative art.” He contrasts this with “leftist art,” which he says has grown too “reflexive,” under the influence of Michel Foucault, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Žižek:
Их мессидж направлен к выявлению “репрессивного в самих себе”, поэтому их искусство пытается светить фонариком в специализированные “зоны насилия” (феминизм, экология, защита наркоманов, мигрантов и проч…). А жест Павленского – это простой, как бы “классический” политический жест: “вы хотите нас всех держать за яйца? да вот, пожалуйста, мы сами приколотимся мошной к символам вашей безграничной власти”.
Their [leftist] message is directed at exposing “our own self-repression,” therefore their art tries to shine a light on narrow “zones of violence” (feminism, ecology, protecting drug addicts, migrants, and so on). Whereas Pavlensky’s act was a simple, even “classic,” political act: “you want to grab us all by the balls? Well, be our guest, we ourselves will clamp our scrotums to the symbol of your infinite power.”
Echoing Morozov’s comments, the Twitter account of the activist group “Voina” compared Pavlensky’s actions to political art in the 1960s:
Художник Павленский – это венский акционизм начала 60-х с кровью и болью – но в социальном разрезе России 10-х.
— группа война (@gruppa_voina) November 10, 2013
Pavlensky the Artist[‘s demonstration] is the Viennese actionism of the early 1960s, with blood and pain, but in the social aspect of Russia in the 2010s.
Not everyone agreed that Pavlensky’s act represents the return of conservative anti-totalitarian struggle. Vsevolod Chernozub, a former member of the Russian opposition movement Solidarnost, wrote [ru] on Facebook that Pavlensky’s stunt was neither “rightwing, leftist, derivative, nor original.” Instead, Chernozub claims, the nail through his scrotum represents a retreat from real politics:
Образ Павленского очень прост: это интеллигент-художник-одиночка, прибивший яйца к брусчатке и отказавшийся от политической борьбы. Жалостливо укрытый ментом. Радикальный политактивист брусчатку выковыривает и пробивает ею дорогу своим идеям.
Pavlensky's persona is simple: it's a lone-intelligentsia-artist, who nailed his balls to a cobblestone, giving up on political struggle. [A man] covered up by a sympathetic cop. A radical political activist digs up the cobblestone and uses it to clear himself a path for his ideas.
Others writing online were quick to connect the Red Square demonstration to other political phenomena. Russian music producer Alexander Cheparukhin noted that Pavlensky has brought to life one of the most recognizable “tough guy” tropes in the rhetoric of Russian “siloviki” hardliners: an obsession with hanging, trapping, and nailing enemies “by the balls.”
Maria Gaidar compared [ru] Pavlensky’s act to the Russian Police Choir’s cover of Daft Punk’s summer hit, “Get Lucky,” observing that the former may have nailed his scrotum to the ground in Red Square, but millions of Russians have glued themselves to the television to watch inane entertainment like the “Get Lucky” cover.
Humor and suspicion
Given that Pavlensky committed violence against the male sexual organs, it should come as no surprise that many in the Russian blogosphere responded with crude humor. Sergey Mezentsev, for example, attracted over 200 retweets with the following castration joke:
4 года назад я тоже прибил свою мошонку, но сделал это в ЗАГСе города Кирова.
— Серёжа Мезенцев (@sergeymeza) November 11, 2013
Four years ago, I also put a nail through my scrotum. But I did it at the marriage registry in the city of Kirov.
Anonymous bloggers have also released a popular GIF file, where Pavlensky is depicted crawling across the pavement in Red Square, dragging his scrotum behind him, until he’s slingshotted backwards, once his skin can stretch no further. On Facebook, opposition figure Maria Baronova gently mocked [ru] Pavlensky’s demonstration, applying to his act the slogan of Russia’s political prisoner awareness campaign (“One day—one name”), writing, “One day—one name: ballsack.”
According to reports by writer Dmitri Olshansky [ru] and journalist Ivan Davydov [ru], Baronova has also revealed that Pavlensky did not actually impale his scrotum while sitting on the stones outside Lenin’s tomb. Indeed, others have pointed out that there was no blood visible on Pavlensky’s skin, following the entry of the nail, and he showed no signs of pain, after being detached from the pavement and led away by police. According to Baronova, Pavlensky pierced his scrotum several months ago, and merely threaded a nail through his already-punctured flesh, once he sat down in Red Square on November 10.
It’s not yet clear whether Pavlensky’s scrotal preparations will dilute public support for his political shock art. In the meantime, a Moscow court threw out [ru] the police’s hooliganism charges, citing procedural mistakes by the arresting officers.