Nailed testicles, giant phalluses: The shock tactics of Russian protest art

Piotr Pavlensky on Moscow’s Red Square, November 10. Screenshot from a video uploaded to YouTube.
 
Muscovites were treated to a surreal sight on Sunday: a naked man who had nailed his testicles to the cobblestones in Red Square, in protest at what he sees as apathy in contemporary Russian society. 
 
Piotr Pavlensky wanted to condemn the apathy towards what he calls the Russian "police state". “Often, people just look at something that strips them of their freedoms, and they do nothing”, the artist explained in an interview to “Metro”, a Russian newspaper. So he hammered a nail through his scrotum into the wet cobblestones of the Kremlin in broad daylight and stayed there for several minutes, contemplating his testicles, before policemen covered him with a sheet and took him away.
 
Pavlensky is no stranger to extreme performance art. Last May, he draped his naked body with barbed wire in front of the parliament in St Petersburg to protest against the city’s legislative system, which he deemed to be oppressive. And in July 2012, he literally sewed his mouth shut in solidarity with Pussy Riot.
 
Screenshot from a video uploaded to YouTube.
 
Piotr Pavlensky is one of the only artists—if not the only artist—who goes to such extremes. But many other Russian artists have taken up the idea of using provocative art to spread their message, including the Voina collective (“war” in Russian). In 2010, Voina activists drew an enormous phallus on a drawbridge that rose up in front of the FSB headquarters (the former KGB). The Russian Ministry of Culture rewarded the artists with a prize for artistic innovation of 400,000 roubles (10,000 euros). But the Pussy Riot singers were not so lucky. Their February 2012 “punk prayer” on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which called for Vladimir Putin’s departure, resulted in a two-year prison camp sentence for Maria Aliokhina, Nadejda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch. The latter was released on appeal, but the sentences of the first two women were upheld.
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“If Pavlenksy had just written something on his blog, only his friends would have read it”

Artem Koskoutov, 27, is a Russian artist originally from Novossibirsk. He came up with the idea of “Monstrations”, protests where participants dress up in costumes and yell absurd slogans—an original approach that quickly caught the interest of the Russian media.
 
In Russia, political activists have a hard time getting their message across. Posters, petitions, and protests have very little effect. When protests occur in places other than the capital, the Moscow media outlets don’t pay any attention. So artists have been thinking about other types of performances that could get attention, like Pavlensky, or our ‘Monstrations’.
 
Monstration on May 1, 2013, in Novossibirsk. The placard says: “Astérix, where are you?”. Photo by Anton Unitsyn.
 
If Pavlenksy had just written something on his blog, only his friends would have read it, and his message would not have been heard. But now, with this action, he’s managed to be in the news for more than just a day, it’s incredible!
 
“Most artists are afraid that the authorities will react unpredictably”
 
Russian modern art is not politicised. It is mostly an industry, a way of making money. There isn’t any space for political action or speech. I think that most artists are afraid that the authorities will react unpredictably. We don’t know exactly what we’re risking, it’s like a lottery. Pussy Riot did several performances in Red Square without punishment, but then the last time, they were sentenced to prison. Also, this type of action is not in the least lucrative. There is no market for this. It’s very thankless.
 
However, Russia really needs protest art, because there are many contradictions and social problems in this country. And ever since the Russian protest movement received global attention in 2011, there is genuine interest in those artists that produce commentary on social issues. They generate attention and create a dialogue.
 
Pavlensky’s performance has stirred up lots of reaction, especially on social networks where commenters are split between respect and mockery. The artist appeared before a judge on November 11 and was subsequently released.
 
Post written with Polina Myakinchenko, journalist, and FRANCE 24 journalist François-Damien Bourgery (@FDBourgery).
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