Who's afraid of Petr Pavlensky?(YouTube)
No one's proved the axiom "desperate times call for desperate measures" more accurately than Russian performance artist and political activist Petr Pavlensky. Last week, a stark-naked Pavlensky hammered a huge nail through his own scrotum, affixing it to the stone pavement in front of Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. His radical act of self-mutilation coincided with Russia's annual Police Day, in a protest against the "police state" and public apathy. Needless to add, when the police did arrive, they arrested him and charged him with hooliganism.
No stranger to pain, Pavlensky was already notorious for sewing up his mouth with coarse thread in support of punk group Pussy Riot in 2012. A year later, he wrapped his naked body in a multi-layered cocoon of barbed wire at the main entrance of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg.
Ultimate PR stunt or global wake-up call? Any man or woman - artist or not - who is willing to sacrifice their own genitals obviously means business. Over Skype this week, Pavlensky and I discussed why he refused to be hospitalised for his self-injury, and the rather ominous reason why he isn't planning any more similar protest stunts in the near future.
What triggered you to nail your scrotum to Red Square? Has the Russian political climate worsened since you sewed up your mouth in support of Pussy Riot?
Petr Pavlensky: I think so. First, there was a series of laws aimed at suppressing certain freedoms and individual privacy rights. Then, a new state prison regime - or simply a police state. A naked man sitting on Red Square, looking at his "eggs" nailed to the Kremlin's pavement is a metaphor for fixed helplessness. Political indifference is a very dangerous condition to be in.
Why did you refuse to accept medical treatment?
PP: Because I did not see sufficient grounds for it. The doctor pulled out the nail out of my scrotum, performed an ultrasound, then gave me a tetanus shot for the wound. I was only worried about a small hematoma, and some pain, but if I agreed to the operation -opening the area around the wound, to clean it mechanically--I would've lingered in the hospital for a very long time. And that played absolutely no part of my plans.
You have a history of painful performance art. Do you have a naturally high tolerance for pain?
PP: No, I feel the exact same pain as everyone else. A person's attitude toward pain is most often simply far-fetched: it's just the fear of pain. My job was simply to overcome this fear. I tried to show the relationship between society and the authorities. That the dialogue with authority is not possible - because power is an apparatus of violence. I just expressed this violence in not such an obvious form to my audience.
How did your audience react in Russia?
PP: It was really varied. Some of course, understood me and supported me. Some didn't, and thought I was crazy. Others threatened me with "problems in the future."
Do you believe your radical act will incite any real political change?
PP: I do not know the extent to which this change can happen. I don't know if it will be possible to speak of any legal or social change, or if it will affect only individuals. However, I believe that such a precedent can help people to make a decision: to act or remain passive, fixed to their helplessness.
Do you plan to perform any more protest acts in the near future?
PP: I can not talk about it because I do not work commercially. All I can say is that I have no further immediate plans. Because I'm really not sure which way the political situation will turn in Russia, and as you know, the government treats us to too many nasty surprises.