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Russia isn't known for its high tolerance towards its own political artists, but Actionist qua political artist Petr Pavlensky is living proof as to why even the toughest can succumb to the power of Art.
For his 2014 work, Freedom, Pavlensky vandalized the Malo-Konyushennyi Bridge in central St. Petersburg as tribute to the Maidan protests. In theory, this should have been an open-and-shut trial for any government employee working the case. But things took an unexpected turn when lead investigator Pavel Yasman took a liking to the suspect. The two waxed philosophical with Pavlensky on the abstracts of Art and Politics, and unexpectedly, Pavlensky warmed the official's frigid emotional stature.
"To be perfectly honest, at the time I thought that Pavel carried conversations on those subjects to establish a psychological connection with me," Pavlensky told The Creators Project via email. " But after the third hearing… when I had learned that Pavel Yasman had quit the Investigative Committee I realized that he was being honest… When another group of seven investigators nevertheless brought my case to a sentencing hearing, Yasman wanted to be in court as my lawyer."
For those unfamiliar to Pavlensky's expressive activism, the artist's radical demonstrations explore beyond several presupposed limitations of the human body—challenting even Chris Burden's performance art extremes. Previous works against the government have involved painful-to-watch actions upon his own body: the 2012 sewing of his mouth shut (Stitch), nailing his scrotum to the Red Square cobblestones in 2013 (Fixation), and more recently, cutting off part of his earlobe in 2014 to protest the USSR-esque treatment of artists with politically-charged psychological examinations (Separation). From his testimonies, it seems there's a two-fold rationale for such extremism: to convey the message in-and-of-itself, but also to highlight the severity of his message. In a sense, Pavlensky is speaking out for many of his countrymen scared into their unwillingness to take such an opinionated anti-government stance.
"Today we can safely say that the power structures methodically drive people into individual pens of animal-like obedience," Pavlensky laments. "Meaning that it is necessary for the authorities to envision the entire population as stirring carcasses packed into legislative pens of razor wire. Unfortunately, the majority confirm that position themselves, obeying the animal instinct of fear.
Considering Pavlensky pushes the line beyond the Kremlin-sanctioned confinements of censorship, Russia's highly conservative government isn't all too keen. According to Pavlensky, the government hopes to maintain the status quo as much as possible, especially with respect to such a subject like a government employee switching sides. This resulted in the government blocking Pavel's attempts at serving as the Pavlensky's lawyer during the trial.
"When something occurs that does not subscribe to this ideological program, the experts on cultural policy make the corresponding declarations," Pavlensky explains. "For example after the performance of Fixation, the Minister of Culture began to circulate a comment in which he offered that anyone interested in such art should pay a visit to the museum of psychiatry." Russian television called Fixation a suicide attempt.
Still, even with such a bleak outlook towards the situation from inside his own country, Pavlensky offers a slight hint of optimism towards the predominantly bleak situation for expression in Russia.
"Today we are very lucky to live in the Internet era," Pavlensky explains. "Information spreads rapidly, it is seen by many people, and they are able to understand what I am trying to convey and what is happening to people in Russia… Even if access to information will become completely blocked within the Russian Federation, it will still be available to people in other nations and the message will still reach its addressee."
For artistic expression's sake in Russia, let's just hope that Pavel wasn't the last case.
Click here to learn more about Petr Pavlensky.