Petr Pavlensky at a protest
Every year, Russia honors its police force with a day-long commemoration called Police Day. This year, celebrations for the imaginatively named event fell on Sunday, November 10, and the public paid tribute to law enforcement by watching Vladimir Putin cry in public and Petr Pavlensky nail his testicles to the ground in Red Square.
Petr is a political artist who's known for painful performance art—previously, he wrapped himself in barbed wire to protest his country's "repressive legal system" and sewed his mouth shut as a show of support for Pussy Riot. This time, his self-mutilation was in service of decrying "Russia's descent into a police state." I called him up to chat about that.
VICE: You nailed your balls to the ground in Red Square the other day. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Petr Pavlensky: It's not the power that keeps people by the balls, it's the people who keep themselves restricted. Pretty soon everyone's going to be in jail, but it won't matter to anybody anymore because by then, the country will have transformed into a state prison regime.
You're an artist, right? How much does that cross over into your activism?
I am an artist who does political art. Activism is important to me as a life principle—it's the effect of primary and secondary reasoning and theorizing; no argument is without action. However, political art and activism are not the same thing. Activism is the struggle and shakeup of society; political art is aimed at the destruction and exposure of the apparatus of power. Under certain circumstances, it is a catalyst to the political process.
Which of those do you focus on?
I'm focused on political art.
Would you say Pussy Riot were political artists?
Yes. There is currently a huge awakening surrounding the importance of art and politics.
The Russian government didn't like Pussy Riot's political art. How has everyone reacted to your actions?
It varies a lot, from accusations of madness to threats and hints of retribution to letters of gratitude and support.
Petr with his balls nailed to the ground.
Aren’t you worried about the cops?
They’re interested in why I do what I do—if I have mysterious agendas or if I’m doing it for money. Basically, they want to know my motives. In Red Square, they covered me in a cloth, claiming it was to keep me warm, but it was only to hide me from onlookers and cameras—they took it back when the crowd dispersed.
Why is self-mutilation a theme in your work?
I want to show what the establishment is doing with the power they have. Their power is violence and I can only imitate that distinct visual code.
Violence must be confronted with violence?
Not always. But violence directed at something that is equally violent is an effective method of riddance. That is, until someone gets liquidated. There's a philosophy of endless carnage; it’s a willfully self-turning mechanism of violence, and if you can get in the works you can bring it to a screeching halt. Then you have the opportunity to stop it for good.
What do you hope to achieve with your art?
I’ve got two priorities: Firstly, I want to show everyone the possibility and ease of activism. Your resources can be your body or household appliances—you don’t need money to make a statement. You only need motivation and the desire to overcome the phobias imposed by power. Secondly, actions cause people to react and criticize. Call it a social reflex. They question what is happening and realize the power of propaganda imposed by totalitarian ideologies.
What's next? Do you plan on protesting against homosexual oppression?
Members of the LGBTIQ community would answer that better. I’m all for overcoming sexual repression and taboo, but they are the ones who need to understand the specifics of what’s going on—I have no right to comment for them. And my work is organic. It’s assembled from a plurality of events and situations that happen to the people around me. Everything I do is a single act. I don’t work in a series, so I have no further plans.
Follow Tristan on Twitter: @tristanjamesme
More stories about protests: