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What is Pyotr Pavlensky playing at?

27 February 2020

On Valentine’s Day it emerged that the Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, now a political refugee in France, was behind the publication of a private video on a website called Pornopolitique (‘politicalporn’). The video showed a French politician masturbating. The politician, Benjamin Griveaux, who was the candidate for Emmanuel Macron’s party (La République En Marche !) in the Paris mayoral election, withdrew from the race, denouncing the ‘vile’ attack on his private life. Pavlensky was subsequently detained and questioned for three days, along with his current partner, Alexandra de Taddeo, and charged with invasion of privacy and dissemination of images of a sexual nature without consent. He was released on 18 February under judicial supervision.

In January 2017, Pavlensky, his former partner Oksana Shalygina, and their young daughters, had fled Russia and sought asylum in France. The couple had been accused of sexually assaulting an actress from Moscow’s leading opposition theatre, Teatr.doc; they had both been questioned by the police and left the country before any charges were brought. The artist denied the allegation, saying that Russia’s security services orchestrated the operation to force him out of the country. When I ask the distinguished Russian art historian and curator Ekaterina Degot about this claim, she says, ‘The Russian art scene does not immediately believe accusations of sexual misconduct. This might be due to its sexism, or to its profound distrust of the authorities.’ She says most people believe that the accusations were trumped up by the security services.

Younger Russian curators and artists, particularly women, might see things differently. Artist Marina Vinnik used to be friends with Pavlensky and Shalygina; they later fell out. She even looked after their children when the couple had to go to Moscow for Fixation (2013), the action that saw Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to the Red Square’s cobblestones – in what he described as a ‘metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society’. ‘[Shalygina] cut off a finger to make him forgive her for not having told the truth about other partners. That’s where his activism stops for me. That’s where my feminism takes precedence over my left-wing views,’ Vinnik says.

Things are not mutually exclusive,’ the artist Mari Bastashevski tells me. ‘Pavlensky could have done what he was accused of and [still] have been set up.’ Meanwhile, with the emergence of women artists such as Ekaterina Nenasheva or Daria Serenko, contemporary Russian actionism seems to have become less sensationalist, less heroic – and more focused on the relationship that artists can build with social movements and with an audience.

Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky poses after setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, in central Moscow early on November 9, 2015. Photo by NIGINA BEROEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Pyotr Pavlensky posing after setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, in central Moscow early on 9 November 2015. Photo: Nigina Beroeva/AFP via Getty Images

Pavlensky’s actions (he says they are not performances) include sewing his mouth shut to protest against the jailing of the punk protest group Pussy Riot (Seam, 2012) and setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, to denounce its use of terror (Threat, 2015). The artist is following in the footsteps of Russian actionists of the 1990s, such as the E.T.I. collective (the initials stand for Expropriation of the Territory of Art) or Alexander Brener, who sprayed a green dollar sign on to Malevich’s painting Suprematism 1920–1927. Pavlensky has said that he aims to ‘suck the authorities into his art’. His arrests, the subsequent trials and media coverage are all part of the artworks. In the trial that followed Threat he demanded his vandalism charge be reclassified as terrorism – to highlight that the latter charge, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years, is often abused by the security services.

In Russian opposition circles Pavlensky was once a star. He seemed like ‘this lonely hero who fights the system,’ says Vinnik, ‘when in fact his actions were made possible by the support of his partner and of anarchists’. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot once said: ‘Pavlensky is the mind, conscience and balls of an epoch.’ He has struck false notes though when, for instance, he hired sex workers to attend his trial as defence witnesses.

The artist has repeatedly stressed that when he applied for asylum in France he announced he would keep on making political art. In October 2017, accompanied by Shalygina, he set fire to the doors of a Banque de France building on the Place de la Bastille (Lighting). ‘The Banque de France has taken the place of the Bastille, and bankers have taken the place of monarchs,’ he declared. Pavlensky and Shalygina were both detained and he was given a two-year suspended sentence and one year of jail time (but didn’t have to serve the latter as he’d already spent 11 months in detention). Shalygina has claimed this action anticipated the Gilets Jaunes movement.

Former government spokesperson and La République en Marche (LREM) candidate for the upcoming Paris 2020 mayoral election Benjamin Griveaux is pictured as he announces his withdrawal from the mayoral campaign at AFP headquarters in Paris on February 14, 2020. Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

Former government spokesperson and La République en Marche ! (LREM) candidate for the upcoming Paris 2020 mayoral election Benjamin Griveaux is pictured as he announces his withdrawal from the mayoral campaign at AFP headquarters in Paris on 14 February 2020. Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

But the artist’s actions in France have somehow fallen flat. Lighting felt like a repeat of the action against the FSB, with the Banque de France as a much less convincing target. To explain his most recent stunt Pavlensky told the newspaper Libération: ‘[Griveaux] is someone who is always mentioning family values. He says he wants to be the mayor for Paris families and always cites the example of his wife and children. But he does absolutely the opposite.’

‘Using a sexual act against a politician nobody cares about – he was going to lose anyway – is pointless,’ Aude de Bourbon Parme, a French curator, tells me. Journalists for the investigative website Mediapart, to whom Pavlensky had offered what he presented as a ‘scoop’, explained they had seen no public interest in the leak, no abuse of power on the part of Griveaux, who is believed to have sent videos and texts to De Taddeo two years ago, as part of a consensual exchange; there was no discrepancy between his political platform and his private actions. Pavlensky says he found the videos on the computer he shares with De Taddeo and used them without her consent.

I ask Degot whether Pavlensky’s trajectory is typical of the struggle that some Russian actionists who migrate to the West have faced. (I was thinking of how Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol, two of the founders of Voina, had wandered across Europe, managing to antagonise most of the people who had previously praised them and culminating in Vorotnikov’s declaration that he now supports Putin.) ‘Indeed,’ Degot says, ‘drastic actionist gestures are meaningful in oppressive, or just-out-of-oppression contexts like post-war Vienna or post-Cold War Moscow of the 1990s, and are difficult to adapt to the seemingly normal situation, where oppression is hidden deeper. What is common for the art scene in bourgeois democracies is activism (rather than actionism), based on unambiguous and direct (and sometimes flat) political gestures, often “for” something rather than “against” something. I do not think Pavlensky or Voina have, or want to have, this political clarity.’

French reactions to Pavlensky’s latest action haven’t been uninteresting. Writer, film-maker, and former porn actress Ovidie declared that Griveaux shouldn’t have stepped down, as this sends the wrong message to victims of online abuse. ‘I would have preferred for him to say: “Indeed, this is my dick. I think I’m looking pretty good in this video. Any other questions?” And for him to sue at the same time,’ she tweeted. Other commentators pointed out that showing Griveaux’s penis had succeeded where months of strikes and protests had failed. What would it take to make the entire government fall?

Politicians also rushed to denounce anonymity on the Internet, even if anonymity didn’t have anything to do with the case. The Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner threatened to strip Pavlensky of his refugee status (this would be illegal). Many politicians and journalists hinted at a conspiracy against Macron’s close ally prompted by Putin.

‘I don’t really see the point of what Pavlensky did artistically, but what’s amazing is that he attacked French politicians, who think they’re above it all. It’s difficult to realise that they are mediocre, just like everyone else. I’m thankful that he rid us of this politician close to our government, and I’d like him to continue,’ De Bourbon Parme says.

One thing that Pavlensky has certainly done is avoid playing the role of the good political refugee, who is thankful to the country that granted him asylum and would never criticise it. ‘And for this he and Voina deserve some respect, not that it means I want to be anywhere near them,’ Vinnik says. And an entertaining confusion has ensued. ‘People used to call me crazy, now I am an FSB agent,’ Pavlensky told Radio Free Europe recently. In moving to France, the artist was given a clean slate. Most sympathetic French art-lovers believed that what he was accused of in Russia was part of a conspiracy. But the violence that characterises his work is not well received in France. ‘Violence, particularly after the terror attacks, is a big no-no,’ De Bourbon Parme explains. Given the question marks over his past, the desire to humiliate that characterises his latest public gesture – and its opportunism – is certainly disturbing.

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