St. Petersburg-based performance artist, 29 year-old Pyotr Pavlensky, put Russian performance art in the headlines again this week. Stripped naked outside Lenin’s Mausoleum he nailed his testicles to a Red Square cobblestone — a metaphor for “life in a police state” ruled by President Vladimir Putin.
The art protest was meant to mark the Police Day holiday celebrated in Russia on November 10. In a statement he issued to accompany the act, he says, “A naked artist, looking at his balls nailed to the Kremlin pavement, is a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society… When the authorities turn the country into one big prison, openly robbing the populace and channelling funds to increase and enrich the police and other security agencies, society accepts arbitrariness and, having forgotten its advantage in numbers, brings the triumph of the police state closer through its inaction.”
This is not the first controversial protest performance from the young performance artist. In July 2012 he sewed his lips together in support of Pussy Riot. Earlier this year Pavlensky was arrested after wrapping his naked body in barbed wire outside a Legislative Assembly building in St. Petersburg. He said his act symbolised “human existence in repressive legal system where any movement causes a severe reaction of the law, which sinks its teeth into the body of an individual.”
According to renowned Moscow-based performance artist, Fyodor Pavlov Andreevich, “Police officers showed up quite soon – totally lost and embarrassed as they didn’t know how to unlock him without damaging his scrotum.” Pavlensky was nailed to the ground for an hour and a half before being taken to a hospital and treated for injuries. He was released soon after being taken into custody, although he could face up to 15 days in jail for hooliganism. It’s quite a contrast to Pussy Riot. Two members of the punk band are still in prison for hooliganism following their sentencing last year, with one member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, currently ‘missing’ in the Russian penal system.
Unsurprisingly, most coverage was fixated on Pavlensky’s scrotum and fuelled heated debate over what some in Russia saw as the act of a crackpot. However, for a number of Moscow’s artists, including Andreevich, Pavlensky’s performance was symbolic of the hopelessness and helplessness felt by many Russians in an increasingly repressive regime. “I agree so much with his perspective”, says Andreevich. “Here we all are stuck watching our testicles while we wait for the powers that be to fulfil their mission…In such moments you get this visceral gut feeling – the history of art is happening here and now.”